Friday, May 14, 2010

Demo Sweat #14

Being overpopulated with musicians doesn't make Austin a bad place to launch a band. You just have to be all the more confident that you're better at what you do than most else doing it. That goes double if you're country-rock/"red dirt"/Texas music. Guns of Navarone are that good. Their EP has three songs on it, and after one listen I knew the chorus hook to each by heart. The lead vocals are original and friendly, the harmonies are terrific, and the lead guitar parts are vital and thoughtfully composed to flatter the singing. "Winnipeg, Manitoba" has their best chorus and not-obvious structure, helped along by a rhythm section that knows how to build the intensity within each change. About the only thing not to like about their recordings is the awful harmonica playing on "You Used to Be" -- why do so many otherwise good musicians think they can just pick up a harmonica and know how to play it?

Ryan Young has the technical ability to record a big band well and the organizational capacity to get all of these musicians into a studio and have them perform their proper function, but as an artist he just has nothing to say, and it makes his album White Citrus rather like photos of a party that the listener wasn't invited to attend. On many tracks Young forces overdubbed "Oh yeah!" vocal ad libs over mailed-in guitar solos as if to try and impose some energy and group spirit on the thing. It doesn't work. When the most memorable song on your solo opus is a witless pot anthem called "I Got Me a Pickle" (really), it may be time to seek musical collaborators with broader vision. Young wants to flip from soft-rock to funk within the space of a single song. His willingness to mix influences is good, but his personality is too fuzzy to get away with it. The backing musicians haven't had the opportunity to see how this all works by playing the material on stage, so the parts don't build up to the surprise changes. The should-be signature swings sound edited, constructed, and fake. More important than learning how to shift styles, though, is having a reason to do so. To connect with an audience music has to have a point past "I'm a musician!"

Real Book Fake Book's new demo is a good showcase for the virtuoso keyboard playing of Eric Reyes, but it sells them a bit short as a band because the drums aren't well-captured and the overall sound is a little tinny. Live this band has some real rock power, and this sounds more like the demo mode on a Radio Shack keyboard. The fuzz on Reyes' left-hand parts and the force of his bandmate's drumming need to come together on the ideal Real Book Fake Book home version. Shogun Shakedown, making their second column appearance, have gotten a heck of a lot better since the last time I covered them. A new bass player who lists Keith Richards and Ween's Dave Dreiwitz among his influences may have something to do with that. "The Visitor," by the looks of things the newest of their recordings, is a real triumph. It's metal-heavy with slow Southern riffing -- Corrosion of Conformity, maybe -- but that's just to start. "Visitor" seems to have as many ideas as the rest of their songs combined, with a guitar solo over a new bass part and several rhythmic changes. More like that one!

Valley of the Mariner and Ready the Messenger each only have one song up on their pages. That makes it hard to think of things to say about them, since the first thing I listen for is the ability to maintain your band's personality while exploring beyond one strict style. The former is pretty derivative blues-rock tailor-made for bars, with unrestrained drums and lots of stops and starts. I don't care for the singer one bit. The latter is metallic post-hardcore with unusually intelligible vocals. Good instrumental breakdown in "Slipstream Submission," which gets sparer instead of spazzing out. Jane Doe Eyes are a punk band, which means they're quite limited in available styles to begin with. Good for them that they try both a poppier mode ("Ethyl," kind of Screeching Weasel-esque) and a darker side. Their darker side, though, sounds an awful lot like Screeching Weasel still and less like A.F.I. or whatever they're trying for. They have enough going on rhythmically and melodically to rank as average-plus.

Red Legend are interesting but underdeveloped; for every section where their hazy dance-rock connects there's two or three where the keyboards, programmed drums, and guitar seem at total cross purposes. "The Hackles," for its verses, and pretty much all of "Gone Oblong" capture very cool grooves. Their best feature is their guitar playing so they should get some more members and rock out. Tom Gun are equally novice when it comes to recording; the guitars and vocals on their demos are all over the place timing-wise. They are not without a certain native charm, however. "Sweet Sophie" doesn't seem like a finished song but for its main part the quirky bass and upbeat-poking guitars work a nice warped spell. "A Bit Tougher to Budge" is similarly fragmented but I like the deep vocals. Keep practicing!

Fried Pies have some flashy lead instrumentation but no songwriting whatsoever to speak of; all of their songs use either two chords or four chords in the same pattern and rhythm. The most peculiar monologue that begins "Bitter & Sweet" is the only really interesting thing about any of their recordings. The rapping that fronts One Step Program is so ridiculously bad that I couldn't take them seriously enough to consider the rest of their music on its own merits, whatever they may be. I think you should watch this video, though. It speaks for itself.

The Shy Bunch are another band who are boldly going where many have gone before, writing mopey love songs to unaggressive electronic backing. Opera-influenced female vocals appear too infrequently on their EP, which mostly offers well-performed but shallowly conceived three-note melodies sung by leader Andrew Espinola. "Inside," which has a snappy acoustic rhythm, has the most pulse. They need to take more chances both with their vocal melodies and their subject matter, and to bring in some more players to help them with their originality issues and their songs' general lack of forward progress.

The Coast of Nebraska could play with the Shy Bunch, although they boast some older (and better) influences. Dig the Brighten the Corners-referencing band name. Best thing about this duo is their variety of material; they have rockers and disco ballads and seem generally unconfined by self-imposed genre restrictions. Worst thing is the vocals, which are gloomy and affected; they don't suit the material and they tend to draw all the songs together in the listener's mind. "Friar Fry Her," which welds half of a Gomez lick to the tail end of a Pavement one, demonstrates best their wiry guitar-driven persona. Simpler fare like "Marigold" sounds the best in the drum-machine, home-demo style of these recordings. What I'd really like to hear is a full band to give their more obscure ideas air, and perhaps more of an emphasis on harmonies. They seem an instrumental voice short, and could go in many interesting directions there given the open spaces their songs take care to leave and the wealth of players here in town.

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