Sunday, February 28, 2010

Fables and Reflections


We got the new Spoon record a few weeks ago, and after one listen I knew it was going to be difficult to write about coherently. The bulk of the criticism written about the band for the their last two or three releases has perpetuated the mythical idea that Spoon are a "consistent" band, one whose releases are all essentially similar. They're all good, which is impressive, but for basically the same reasons. I don't feel that way at all. Anna C., who had to pay for the new one, wasn't totally sure that we needed another Spoon album.

And that was foolish. Transference is fantastic, and it's not even remotely like any of the other Spoon albums. One of the things that makes it great is that after listening to it a few times I was soon running back to Kill the Moonlight and Series of Sneaks to compare and contrast. Britt Daniel has become so good at record-making this past decade that with each new album his old ones gain new legs. That's pretty impressive, and it's now completely impossible to think of any contemporary band that has maintained course in the same fashion. Spoon have never really altered their instrumentation nor their approach; through a careful consideration of the themes of each record and how the arrangements and mixes ought to be approached to carry over those ideas they've kept making the old sound new with every record since Girls Can Tell. The only other continuously active 00's rock and roll band you could describe as doing the same thing would be Modest Mouse, only their albums just as reliably run out of gas two-thirds of the way through.

Gimme Fiction was a mood record; Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga was song-based. Transference is about process -- not just the nature of writing songs and recording them, but also the indirect and uncontrollable series of steps through which a completed recording does or doesn't become lodged in the public's collective consciousness. For a band that owes much of its belated success to the appropriation of its songs to serve other people's artistic needs in films and on TV, Spoon must have nuanced feelings about all this. Daniel doesn't write lazy songs, ever -- in the instance of a lyrical fragment like "My Japanese Cigarette Case" you better believe there's precise reason why the narrator doesn't elaborate. With his icy, rock-nerd precision over every bar of Spoon's music, it must fascinate Daniel how even so he has no control over what listeners will remember from his songs.

Transference recurrently tries to use circular, repeated vocal hooks to plant us somewhere recognizable in the midst of music that in tone at least doesn't always sound a lot like Spoon. On "The Mystery Zone," "Who Makes Your Money," and "Is Love Forever?" certain lines attain the quality of mantras. Not heavy on melody, the record uses backing vocals extensively in a fashion that's entirely new for the band. Rather than overdubbing himself here and there to color or emphasize the main line, Daniel uses his band members a great deal, allowing their loose and imperfect harmonies to represent another way in which the songs are being retraced and half-forgotten. It's been popular to describe the trebly, minimally populated tracks of Transference as "basically demos" or words to that effect. The level of sophistication of the vocals is the first indication that's a poor description.

Not a lot of instruments are being employed to sketch in the songs here, true. But that's not a whole lot different from any of Spoon's albums (save Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, which now sounds like more of an outlier). The one it resembles most closely, Kill the Moonlight, also restricted itself to guitar-bass-drums-keys, often leaving out guitar. What separates Transference and Spoon in their ability to make it is that while the instruments used and the sort of patterns and rhythms they're employing are the same as ever, the emotions associated with the sound of this record are new. Using bass and keys for their physical presence more than the additional melodies they provide, Transference is the most down-in-the-groove Spoon record ever, all lean rhythms and intensely felt absences. The drums and piano have no room tone, just dry clacks and plinks. The guitars jab. The rhythm section pokes. "Everyone loves you for your black eye," Britt sings.

The lyrics, indeed, maintain the theme. Whether it's physical scars or half-remembered hearsay, Daniel's songs for Transference are more about the evidence of events than eyewitness accounts. The album is baited with enough great Spoon songs ("Written in Reverse," "Trouble Comes Running," "Got Nuffin") that it's not difficult finding an entry point. But it's the annoying songs that really drive the "concept" home! The slightly vulgar "I felt all creamed on in white" payoff to "I See the Light" makes us question its narrator (and its totally uncharacteristic four-wheel-drive arrangement), then the long instrumental fadeout raises more confusion. What does it all mean? "Goodnight Laura" sounds like it's being pounded out late at night, poignantly, by an amateur. What's more important, Daniel asks for the first time here, how it sounds now in the studio or how it sounds in the minds of the people who end up listening to it over and over again?

Granted, an album-length statement about how your own music is remembered (and its obvious parallel of mortality) is a little bit on the solipsistic side. For anyone else, it would be indulgent, but for Spoon, it represents genuine progress: at least Daniel is considering the existence of minds beyond his own. With music consumption trends as they are now, it takes someone deliberately out of step to make albums that differentiate from each other and have production concepts and organizing principles. Y'know, the way they used to. Daniel's insular insistence on things his way is Spoon's greatest weakness and their greatest asset. Long may he navel-gaze.

[There is absolutely no reason to subject yourself to Transference in its digital formats. The backing vocals, the percussive synthesizer and keyboard parts, the heavy and very particular use of echo on just about everything, the deliberate absence of the nice warm balance of Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, all of this stuff is lost on the scraping, overloud digital mix, which sounds like one guitar and drum machine a lot of the time. "Who Makes Your Money" sounds like a completely different song. Buy the record!]

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Will to Rock

Sometimes You've Gotta Fight to Get a Bit of Peace
The Cocker Spaniels

The best songs on Sometimes You've Gotta Fight... are imperatives. "Steal My Guitar," "Touch My Hair," "Gimme Back My Red Pen." I don't think that this is all an accident. Many are driven to make music, for internal or external reasons, but few are as lucid about the power of the art form to change minds and forge relationships as Sean Padilla, top dog in The Cocker Spaniels. The band's music is cute and fluffy on the surface, but it can sink its teeth into you and cling ferociously, like at least one other example of the breed I can recall.

Padilla's home-recorded aesthetic and his generosity of melody reflect his admitted Guided by Voices influence, but his crack musicianship and theatrical flourishes come from a different place entirely. The Cocker Spaniels remind me of Queen sometimes, and I'm not just saying that because of the witty "We Will Rock You" boot stomp-and-hand clap break that elevates the arrangement of "Cousin Ben." Piling on layers of expertly performed instruments and as many details as the limitations of the recording allow, at its most majestic Sometimes can sound like an orchestra of all rock instruments. As a one-man project (with guest stars), Padilla doesn't try to make each track sound like a band performing a song all the way through on stage. Musical surprises and quick turns abound.

The obvious but seldom flashy instrumental chops do a good job of keeping the listener from getting complacent. This goes hand in hand with the lyrics, which are thought-provoking yet straightforward; some sound like proverbs. A sensitive soul, Padilla is forever in internal conflict. He's a talented, indeed brilliant, songwriter who deserves to be heard and discussed, but at the same time he's a humble, retiring sort who can't stand selfish people ("Help and Hassle"). He's cursed by the intelligent man's struggle. He knows he's a better musician and a better writer than most (how can he not? he's awesome!) but he's loathe to go around bragging about it.

Let me brag for him. There aren't a lot of songwriters anywhere who can directly communicate their own experience so simply and so effectively. Cocker Spaniels take on uncomfortable topics like bad sex ("Practice Makes Perfect"), racism ("The Mercy of Mechanics"), an artist's angst over originality and authorship ("Red Pen"), and the bailout economy ("The Overeducated Underclass") in a straightforward, journalistic manner. Padilla doesn't editorialize too much, sticking largely to his emotions in the moment and allowing the listener to draw their own conclusions. If he has a weakness it's that his instincts as a musical perfectionist sometimes clash with his lyrics, leading to rhyme schemes here and there that are a touch too pat and precious.

Padilla is better at writing about his own unique experiences than finding new words to describe emotions shared by everyone. His song about the bond between he and his old roommates ("Bromance on 29th") hits home way more than any of the actual romantic numbers on Sometimes You've Gotta Fight. "Thicker Than Blood," with its corny acoustic-and-bongos intro, can't avoid the sappiness trap -- that's OK, Tommy Lee couldn't write a good song about a baby either. The record is so wide-ranging, though, that often it responds to possible criticisms before they can even be made. "Anchor City" has a backing that's way too cluttered and busy for the desolate setting, one of the few cases on the album of lyric and music not clicking together. But then the closer, "Postcard from Exile," returns to the same subject matter and absolutely nails it. Touches of rhumba and Latin horns in spots indicate that Cocker Spaniels have bravely brought in guest musicians to expand their sound out further rather than reinforcing what they can already do well. Padilla's very high singing voice might seem a little too cute here and there, but those who feel so need only listen more closely to the words.

Unquestionably, the best record this year that you can get free with cookies.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Remember the Maine

Taber Maine
The Coffee Pot (San Marcos), 2/20

Taber Maine can sing a joke as well as some people can tell one with their speaking voices. When he's selling a line that's funny -- and mordant wit is a major feature of his songs -- his voice and his eyes give it away. Gallows humor is one of the elements of the folk tradition that gets lost when modern-day interpreters retrace the structures of the music rather than examining its soul, its guts. There's more than enough earnest acoustic slingers in Central Texas to fill all the coffeehouses between here and San Antonio every night. Very few of them have a spark like Taber Maine.

Although in terms of content and general sound Maine isn't trying to reinvent the wheel, he's one of the few solo songwriters I've yet seen in Texas who quite clearly is operating from his own creative space, not channeling someone else's. You can hear his influences plainly but he's the rare folksinger who can mount a revival of a Dylan tune ("Mama, You Been on My Mind") and actually put his own stamp on it. Maine fingerpicks exquisitely on a not-entirely-reliable nylon-string guitar. Because he develops his own distinct picking pattern for each song he writes and each one he covers, it's his own style rather than any other's that dominates his performances.

This originality, which is pretty easy to pick out if you listen to much if any solo-folk music, allows Maine to inhabit a character that's not a new one at all for a disheveled troubadour -- part Tom Waits, part Rimbaud -- and pull off the usual laments over whiskey and women. When Maine sings of distant cities, you feel as if he's been to them, not merely marking off names on a map like a Promise Ring song. Even when he's inventing, the emotions seem his own, and in music that's the only real truth.

He may need to get a band behind him to work up anything resembling a buzz in overpopulated Austin. I hope my enthusiasm for his music may help in some small way for him to do so. I don't know why all the good country singers around here are refugees from the former industrial midwest. Maybe some of our native Texas songwriters need to go spend a year in Detroit so they can really sing the blues.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Appetite for Snacks

Newfangled [EP]
La Snacks

La Snacks play tonight at the Ghost Room, which is something you should look into. They're going on tour and they deserve to hit the open road with a full head of a steam (which might be a mixed metaphor). Joining them for the show and the tour are Transmography, who sound like the 1980's-vision-of-the-future side of Trans Am (at least on their recordings).

Since I'm mentioning the show it's a good time to discuss La Snacks' lovely EP, which doesn't quite capture the whole stylistic range or rock fury of the band's stage show. It's quite good, but it's significant that none of the songs on the CD are the ones that instantly stood out to me as great when first I saw the band. They're getting better still. What Newfangled does show is that they have a firm grasp of what drives original songwriting and a solid identity that gives them the freedom to move out and get weirder as they grow.

The big key to the band's ability to stand out is their ease with hooks. Rather than building their songs around strumming chords, they start with catchy choruses. There's not very much rhythm guitar in their music at all, just bass, single-line guitar, and vocals all delivering melodies that shadow and reinforce each other. Their sound is on its surface 90's college rock, but the democratic way that the band arranges itself around the singer and the rhythm equally is modern (or modern revivalist, I guess). Robert Segovia makes history-nerd lyrics about Neville Chamberlain and Jesse Jackson into sing-along choruses thanks to his own strong sense of melody, but the band helps to drive the lines home by playing as so much more than straight men. "Oil and Water" may beat its chorus part into the ground, but such a chorus!

The other great thing ringing out clearly on this bare-bones recording is their attitude. Segovia has a persona and outlook he's assuming as rock singer in a theatrical yet matter of fact way; he might not naturally be an extrovert, a performer, or a boozehound but he's such a student of the form (an East Indiana Bob Pollard, maybe) that he assumes these guises when he's singing because, well, rock is supposed to rock. "I was born to a lion and a goddess," he claims on "Jackson 88," coming down in silky steps from a high note he has absolutely no business singing. This congenially false bravado more than balances out his laments over ex-girlfriends and a couple weak choruses elsewhere.

Because they have a signature that goes beyond a single repeated combination of influences -- in their attitude, in their singer's part-invented "frontman of La Snacks" stage presence, in the manner Segovia correctly pronounces "Sudetenland" even though it messes up his rhyme scheme -- the band even in its youth can take creative gambles and still sound like themselves. That's awesome and it's rare and I hope they make the most of it.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Hold Your Tongue

Waterloo Records, 2/10

Most of the time when a young band is totally unoriginal, their copying has a naive, blundering quality to it, a clueless element that partially excuses the nature of their blatant thefts. Playing music is hard, and learning to take what you like and don't like about different artists and distill those ideas into your own blend takes a lot of listening and a lot of practice. I can be unduly harsh on musicians who steal, but usually the reason I'm doing so is because I think I need to be firm in order to get my point across. Most of these unwitting thieves have no idea what their music sounds like to someone who 1) isn't their friend or relative and 2) writes critically for a living. Being gentle wouldn't help matters any, and it's better to have a reason for why you can't get anywhere with your band than to end your musical career prematurely in bitterness and paranoia.

But what do you say to a band that's totally capable of being interesting and creative but deliberately chooses not to do so? Can you even critique that? Isn't it more a question for marketing majors than journalists interested primarily in fostering the development of new music? Speak are a band with musicianship that sets them apart in a positive way, but songwriting and arranging that aims them cravenly for the lowest common denominator. They have a template that they stick to rigidly. Their songs are not written from new ideas, but rather repeating pieces grafted on to a formula. They present broad, meaningless lyrics stuffed into bland melodies and repeated over and over and over again to maximize audience adhesion. The music is at least grounded in 70's pop (Stevie Wonder, mostly) so there's some room for grooving basslines and slick keyboard work, but the band performs mechanically and the possibility for surprise is nil.

They're more of an idea of a band than a real band -- guys in standard-issue emo haircuts and thrift-store getups draining out what little hardcore urgency was still left in pop-punk to make music that sounds already as if it's playing through the treble-heavy speakers at an indoor mall. (They make me miss Fall Out Boy, who evidently broke up recently. At least those jokers let their drummer rock out.) When they play along to loops, they're pretty much unbearable, workers performing the function of musicians without any of the attendant risk or serendipity. Absent the canned parts, they're a little better because they can all play well, but the stink of manipulation never quite leaves the air.

The trouble with deciding what your commercial concept is before you write any songs is that you've completely cut off the potential for growth and change. Maybe this made smart business sense 20 years ago, when the right "look" and one tolerable single could be the basis for a highly profitable three-album career. Now that the paradigm for the music industry is the digital download, the financial benefit possible from playing the same (crappy) song on a loop is much less. If you want to have a career in music -- and Speak are bending over backwards, contorting even, in the hopes of making that happen -- you have to be able to offer more than one gag. Very few people have the outside support needed to construct one gimmick, wait until it plays out its course, then emerge a few years later with a new one (like that dude who used to be Ima Robot but is now Edward Sharpe). You could easily imagine the guys in Speak developing something new and cool -- if the guitar player was doing anything besides providing texture, if the drummer wasn't trying to play like ProTools had already "fixed" his beats, if the singer was communicating his actual feelings rather than aphorisms that stupid people expect to hear in bad pop songs.

If what you want out of your music is the aural equivalent of a fast-food brand -- always the same, always generic, always slightly stale and totally devoid of nutritional value -- then more power to you. Speak's fatal flaws were perhaps revealed most by their could-have-been lovely cover of the Beatles "This Boy." Unrehearsed and spontaneous in a way nothing else they touched was, their guitarist and bassist impressively had the tricky three-part harmony down pat. But their leader refused to abandon his snotty, nasal vocal affectation and harmonize properly (to do so might damage the brand, I guess). Obsessed with the surfaces of things, Speak's music is as forgettable -- and as insubstantial -- as an airline meal. Personally I like to cook all of my own food.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Gonna Make You Sweat

The Sweatbox Sessions [EP]
Andrew Anderson

The brave Andrew Anderson is one of my favorite Austin musical nomads, a guy who writes, records, and tours his music obsessively. It's not so much that Anderson expects to get anything out of it (although he richly deserves wider hearing), it's just that he's compelled to do so. There are a lot of fakers who claim their lives are driven by music in these parts, but most often it's something external, the hopes of fame, money, or getting laid. Anderson sings and plays like there's something inside of him that will eat him up if he doesn't let it out. He needs music, and we need more like him.

Even the man's style speaks to his determination. Anderson plays country, not neo-folk, not "Americana," not No Depression, the sort of which hasn't been remotely commercially acceptable since the 70's. The Sweatbox Sessions, a cleanly-recorded but raggedly performed collection of solo recordings, may help to win over status-conscious hipsters. His full-length As Long As This Thing's Flyin' was and is terrific, but the full band sound was pitched awkwardly to market in a place as ruinously genre-conscious as Austin. Anderson doesn't just graft twangy songs on to a rock rhythm section. As a result the record might have been stuck in no-man's land, too authentic to make sense for people just discovering Uncle Tupelo but way too original, unpolished, and confrontational for the line-dancing crowd.

Stripped down to naught but his acoustic and his urgent, weather-beaten voice, Sweatbox Sessions finds Anderson moving in all directions at once -- "Hemingway" is the most romantic thing he's written, "Barrel of a Gun" a speedy, tough family history, and the new mandolin arrangement of "Necessary Casualties" is so in-your-face it's kind of punk rock. "Consequence" and "Indifference" don't sound as substantial, as if he hasn't quite had the chance to work them to a shine through numerous live performances yet. And the cover of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" might have been best left as a live surprise; here on record it sounds a tiny bit like pandering.

What's best about Sweatbox Sessions is the emphasis it puts on Anderson's vocals, which are far less rehearsed and smoothed-out here as they appeared on on the full-length. His twang is authentic, but so is his sense of humor, his anguish, and his conviction. Lock him away from his instruments, and he'd sing while pounding on the walls. No matter what your preference in style is, there's only a handful of musicians here or anywhere whose music comes entirely from inside, with little consideration paid to how it will be received and what rewards it will win them. Andrew Anderson plays at Emo's tomorrow night, Thursday the 11th, with Kalu James, another true believer, albeit one with an entirely different aesthetic. The cover is only two dollars!

Friday, February 5, 2010

Visit Pale Calcium

Follow That Bird!, Dikes of Holland, Kingdom of Suicide Lovers, The Distant Seconds, The Persimmons
Beerland, 2/4

What to make of Casual Victim Pile, the Matador compilation that probably won't be the Repo Man of Central Texas scuzz-rock? I'm pleased it exists at all. In the digital-rights-management era, the professionally curated, narrative various-artists release is an endangered species. You could certainly find fault with the editorial slant of the record. My own experience of the Austin local scene is limited by the few months I've been in residence here. As such I don't feel entirely qualified to pass judgement. I haven't seen all of the bands on the compilation yet, although I'm getting there. At the very least I'm not going to write a "review" where I somehow avoid naming a single one of the individual artists.

Strictly on a knee-jerk, first-impression basis, my reservations are these: Judging by the cross-section of bands from the comp that I've seen in person, there's a heavy no wave influence at work in every single one of them. No wave is so particularly wrapped up in a specific time and place that isn't "Austin 2010" that it seems peculiar to apply that subtitle. The other thing that gives me pause is that Austin indie rock is quite notable for the diversity in background of its players and the Casual Victim Pile bands (again, the ones I've seen) don't entirely reflect this. Unless you count left-handed white female guitarists, which are themselves pretty scarce. I'm certainly not suggesting that Matador should have tried to encompass every style of music in the city. That would be absurd. Better to have a defined style for one to fine fault with than no organizing principles whatsoever.

The existence of the compilation also led to an evening at Beerland where every one of the bands was well worth seeing. I didn't care one bit for the Dikes of Holland's style, but nonetheless each of these bands was rehearsed, coherent, and possessed of an idea of their concept and how to vary from song to song within it. It's not that common to go see a five-band all-local bill in these parts and not see any groups that don't seem confused, unprofessional, or unprepared. I wish that more shows gave crowds strong incentives to arrive early and stay late. In that sense Casual Victim Pile has done right by "the scene."

In chronological order, then: The Persimmons play ridiculously fast and extremely enjoyable gutter rock. They play faster than they're really technically capable of doing, but that's sort of their style, and within the rush there's melody and contextually sophisticated chord changes. They do that switching-instruments thing, but in their case it serves a purpose, because they seem to start with everybody playing the instrument on which they're most comfortable and then begin rotating out of their field of competence. This is entertaining, and if they get progressively sloppier, their energy rises to compensate, so by the end they're getting over on nothing but thudding kick drum and overdrive. One thing that would make them a lot better is getting the vocals in line. Dissonant guitar and bass is charming; askew singing not as much. The Distant Seconds are a great deal more polished, certainly the most arrangement-conscious of the bands on Thursday's bill. I could tell that a lot of thought had been put into the changing rhythms and active basslines of their somewhat Spoon-ish songs but something was missing. It might have been just an overload of sounds in the same general pitch range, vocals, bass, guitar, and keyboards all kind of coming from the same place. They also might have just been too loud.

Kingdom of Suicide Lovers were more captivating in terms of the less conventional shapes of their songs and a good, engaging physical performance by guitarist Paul Streckfus. They sculpt white noise with purpose, never seeming self-indulgent. But I think they need a steadying force somewhere in the mix. Like Sonic Youth before Steve Shelley came on board and nudged them unassumingly in the direction of not sucking, or Blonde Redhead before they figured out how to use samplers constructively, there's too much free playing and not enough of a skeletal center. Whether Kelsey Wickliffe was playing bass, second guitar, or keyboard, all three band members seemed at times to be playing along to a song none of the audience could hear. If their drummer would play much more sparingly, or they added a conventionally grounded bassist, I think they'd reap great musical rewards. As of right now they're more interesting than good. I do like their call-and-response vocals quite a bit. Dikes of Holland don't need any more members -- in fact, they probably have about three more than they really require already. Every single member of the band, drummer, bassist, guitar, both singers, jackhammers the same beat in tortuous unison for every one of their songs. To their credit it's not always the same beat, but the glaring lack of counterpoint in their style is harsh indeed on delicate ears. Their atonal vocals, again locked in file with the single rhythm, are obnoxious as well. (Why bother with a female second singer if she's going to sing exactly the same part?) Musically they were the only band of the evening to really call back to the classic garage style that has thrived in Austin for so many years, but after just a few servings of their malicious drilling repetition the only thing I could appreciate was my driving desire to get far enough away from the stage that I couldn't hear them anymore.

Fortunately I was able to work my way back near to the front for Follow That Bird!, the most powerful act of the bill by a wide margin despite the fact that unlike the other acts they didn't play at an abuse-approaching volume level. With a drummer who has feel and restraint and a guitar player who darts rather than walloping, they don't drown out their strong vocals in a queasy overload of midrange. Their early recordings have a sheepish, lo-fi sloppiness but on stage and in part thanks to their solid new bass player they're very tight, commanding even. Part jangle, part angular post-punk, they should be one of the breakout bands of Casual Victim Pile along with Harlem. I will need to see them again sometime without my ears ringing.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Demo Sweat #11

This week's Demo Sweat fueled by my already-legendary homemade southwestern eggrolls and about nine cups of chai.

The Sigma Six traffic in a sort of radiant, technicolor psychedelic that's likely to make you see colors when you close your eyes... or provide the soundtrack to a chemical-fueled excursion where you see them with your eyes open. There's nearly as many bands chasing third-eye vision in this manner in the area as there are "alt-country" acts, but this collective hovers (in their spaceship) above the norm. Just under the surface of the whirling noises that dominate their songs are well-performed drums and guitars. The vocals are effective at carrying the mood and subliminally melodic. "Ship Malfunction" serves as a theme song, explaining how their flying saucer improbably arrived in San Antonio, and "Spiders in the Sky" is infuriatingly catchy in its own out-of-left-field way. They're deeply versed in the late-60's style that is their biggest influence but they're not laboriously replicating it.

New Jerusalem can be extraordinarily beautiful at moments thanks to their modern folk style, where not a single instrument or vocal part is wasted -- they wrap you in melodies from all directions. Very intelligent design is at work in "San Francisco" and "Love Overruled," where darker backing vocals contrast the bright leads and bass pulses lurk beneath the gentle acoustic instruments. Their effectiveness is somewhat diminished by a lack of forward progress in both songs. They end as they begin and there's not a lot of harmonic movement along the way. A little tiny drop of dissonance or the odd sped-up tempo would be most welcome. Very, very few modern minimalists this side of Iron and Wine can hold your attention indefinitely.

It may seem vague still to some of my readers, but I think I know what I mean when I say I'm looking first and foremost for good songwriting. Every Demo Sweat brings with it a certain number of negative examples. Jace Smith often introduces his songs with slick guitar playing, but when the compositions proper begin, anonymous rigid strumming is the rule. Lyrically and vocally the fellow is like off-white wallpaper. Rhoades D'Ablo has (somehow) coaxed some big names to help him record his tunes -- he conspicuously misspells the name of Kyuss's Brant Bjork on his MySpace page. The brawny performances of these all-star guests in no way disguises the barely-there songs and endless succession of plagiarized lyrics. Just plugging standard blues changes into distortion pedals isn't original; nor are the thin, anonymous lead vocals. And how can you possibly expect that your audience isn't going to recognize references to "the crossroads" and "the only hell your mama raised?" Those were clich├ęs 50 years ago, Rhoades. The River Stone Band doesn't have any full originals on their page. I would skip them entirely, but I can't ignore this heinous quote: "There are many others that call themselves blues…. RSB is truly the only one that can say… we know the blues… we lived the blues… we are the blues." Really? The only one? How does slavishly imitating the style of another personally communicate one's own experience of the blues? It simply cannot, and I highly doubt any of these musicians were sharecroppers. Nothing turns off the critical listener more than meaningless pissing contests over authenticity. Nothing is authentic! Everything is permissible! Write a new song, for heaven's sake!

Justin Rayfield is a talented singer who is still working out his strengths and weaknesses. His low-pitched voice is remarkably able to reach and sustain higher notes -- giving his music a resemblance to Our Lady Peace, were they from Texas instead of Canada. Rayfield's powerful instrument gives his acoustic-driven songs unexpected intensity, as on the massive chorus to "Fall." He has a lot of room for improvement. The band on his recordings is rhythmically unreliable, and blocky strumming dominates. Another melodic instrument of some sort would really help to color the songs, lead guitar, harmonica, piano, whatever. On ballads, such as "Like Nothing," Rayfield can't go full-throttle with his vocals and the arrangements lack another element to lend some arc. His lyrics are also so-so, pairing some good ideas with some disappointing follow-through. "Be Ready for an Answer" is a very clever idea for a hook to a song (and don't you hate it when people ask you how you're doing and cut you off before have a chance to say anything besides "fine?") but the verse lyrics fail the promise of the main idea.

Band 1420, whose moniker makes them sound more like a Red Army unit than an Americana act, have likable, woolly lead vocals as a calling card. But the recordings online have such a staggering divide between two entirely different styles that it's hard to tell exactly what they want to be. The more produced tracks (over-produced, in fact) sound like 80's Grateful Dead, with cheesy backing vocals and limp nu-jazz guitar noodling. "I'd Say," a gentler but driving acoustic tune, and its similarly organic partner "City Lights" are very nice. "Never Near (Misery)" and "Way You Do," though, are middle-of-the-road nightmares. Everything except the vocals sounds manufactured rather than performed. Phoenix Down (love the "Final Fantasy" reference) are never going to be blogger superheroes, since their earnest modern-rock style has more in common with Nickelback than Animal Collective. But Phoenix Down aren't atrocious at all -- both guitar players play melodic and interesting figures, rather than locking into boring "lead-rhythm" roles, and their songs have nice arrangements and powerful vocals. The complete lack of anything resembling irony will keep them out of the cool bars, but they have more variety than many one-note indie acts. The very odd, most welcome "Time Is Never Wasted" shows a warped 80's dancefloor style that juxtaposes well against the wannabe arena rock of their other songs.

Moonticca & The Texas Clock have the original sound thing down pat, unless you remember Girls Against Boys fondly. But GvsB didn't have a female singer nor a propensity for venturing into thrash territory here and there. Milan Luna's vocals are the big selling point here, full of attitude and wit -- I admire the way she scats a lead part in the absence of a proper electric guitar on "Sometimes." The vocals, bass riffs, and drums often all operate on different rhythmic planes, which gives their music a depth fast and heavy music often lacks. The lyrics are somewhat weak, though, and just because there's no guitar doesn't mean the bass can't get into that four-on-the-floor strummy void on occasion ("Mind Game"). The songs that have defined riffs, "Matador" and "Sacred Place" particularly, are very solid.

Jackson is a very good lyricist but the affable, steady country-rock sound of most of his songs is way too much of an okay thing. He's not a powerful enough singer to overcome the lack of energy the band has, and although pleasant enough there's literally hundreds of people doing the exact same thing here in Austin. His sandpapery singing on "A Wiser Fool" is cool, but hardly memorable. On the straight-ahead, middle of the road "If It Were That Easy" he lacks the gusto to provide the attitude that the instrumental performances completely lack. "Hold On," though, is a breath of fresh air, and shows that Jackson might have a stronger future as a musical collagist. This brash riff-rocker sounds for all the world like a Billy Squier song, only with monster female-sung choruses a la "Gimme Shelter." The male vocals are gutsier and the hooks much brawnier than on his polite but dull adult-contemporary songs. The less subtle main body of the tune gives him more of a chance to show off his finely developed ear for little production details as well. As a bar bandleader, Jackson is a face in the crowd; as a sneaky-smart studio rocker he could be a lot more.

Addison Bennett is another guy who needs to watch whom he gets compared to -- his technically proficient but commercially slick tunes edge uncomfortably close to John Mayer territory. On the whole, it's best to avoid sounding like a smug tool if you're hoping to make waves in Austin. (Dallas might work, though.) I don't want to totally dismiss Bennett though, even if he does sound a little too Clear Channel-ready for his own good. He can do more than one thing, and the smart structure and chromatic changes of "Last Train" indicate a solid musical education. It might not be the best idea for him to sing in Spanish ("Mi Reina") but at least the backing track shows a real understanding of Latin rhythms. He's capable, but I wonder how self-aware he is -- flamboyant instructional-video guitar solos have no place in music of this type, and his wrongheaded emo effort "100 Years" is prefab and icky. He needs some bandmates to shoot down some of his dumber ideas, and more of an original aesthetic rather than just jumping from one currently marketable vibe to the next.

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Woode West

Part Van Morrison, part Mountain Goats, prolific songwriter and videographer Woode Wood was one of the first locals I uncovered when I began blogging in Austin and remains one of the most unique. Wood's calling card is the delightful low-key videos he produces to accompany most of his songs. Some of these short films deal literally with the songs' subjects. Others spin off in different directions, encouraging the listener to approach the music from another perspective. And some just communicate the modest joy of playing music with your friends outside when the weather's nice.

Without the benefit of video accompaniment, Wood's material can't always stand on its own. The progress between his 2005 LP Whole 'Nother Life and last year's Leap is tangible. In the time between, the songwriter figured out which elements of Life's production suited his material and which didn't. The totally inappropriate flashy guitar licks that mar tracks like "Words" on the first record have disappeared by Leap, replaced with a more ramshackle blend of sax and fiddle. Although Leap still has programmed drums, they've evolved from the leaden, monotonous strokes of the debut. Bass and other accompanying instruments sound much more musical, less imposed. Backing vocals are a sore spot on both records, as they trend towards the dissonant and random. Wood's own husky voice tends to wander around in pitch a bit, something that's not necessarily noticeable or bad... until the harmonies kick in.

Without visual accompaniment to provide forward progress, the weaknesses of Wood's approach are more glaring. His lyrics are always thoughtful, but the recurring similarity of so many of his songs makes focusing on them very hard, particularly after listening to more than a handful of tunes in a row. Rather a lot of the tracks on both albums oscillate predictably between two chords. Changes arrive too seldom and aren't rhythmically distinct. Other instruments are overdubbed to provide color, but the trick wears thin quickly as vocal melodies are often identical to each other from one song to the next. Attached as they are to mechanical drum performances, the acoustic guitars lose all melodic quality and become a wall of repetitive noise. Except for one saxophone solo, "Eye Two," that has no musical or thematic connection to the rest of the music, Leap is all variations on a single idea.

Wood should be praised for the fact that he has a consistency of message in his lyrics. He has a worldview, a generously spiritual positivity that might be the best thing about his work. Unfortunately combined with the limited range of the music the repeating motifs in the lyrics make many of the songs utterly indistinguishable from one another. Many of these compositions could be merged together into one long song. That might be more interesting than what does appear on Leap in a lot of cases.

Although I didn't care that much for either of his records, I still think Woode Wood is a cool and unique talent that Austin is lucky to have. His difficulty translating his magic to CD is not an uncommon problem. Primarily I think that in his curiosity to see what's possible during a recording project he's losing sight of the basic elements of his sound. Neither Leap nor Whole 'Nother Life has many minimal, acoustic moments. The multitracking process, built around those resentful canned drum parts, takes a lot of the immediacy and warmth out of Wood's simple guitar and vocal styles. There's far more personal magnetism and alchemy at work in some of his brief solo and duo videos than there is across the whole of these two records. For his next opus, I'd like to hear him move both backwards and forwards -- for a few songs he should use a full band and start pushing his boundaries into more complex structures, but for the bulk of them, he should stick to the bare essentials. And no drum machines!