Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Threadbare Essential

Nathan Payne
The Parlor North Loop, 5/3

"This is the first song from a record I made on my friend's four-track when I was living out of my car in California," Nathan Payne introduces. "I was really looking for the cheapest format possible." The sort of musicians who REQUIRE PRO GEAR in their classified ads wouldn't know what to make of Payne, who might be the single best lyricist sucking air in Central Texas right now. They'd take one look at his beater acoustic, rusted harmonica, and the tambourine he straps to his left foot in lieu of a backup band and run sobbing back to Guitar Center.

Pretty regularly now, I get these professional-looking media printouts and mass-produced CD's in the mail from "artists" whose only real asset is their abundance of equipment. The for-hire biographies always make a big deal about their home studios, but they never seem to address who paid for all that stuff. Payne, who runs a record label out of his taxicab and performs even to a tiny crowd with an infernal, inspired energy, is the underfunded, underexposed flipside to the strange magnetism Austin effects on musicians from everywhere else. He looks like a New Yorker, sings many of his songs about California, and traces his ultimate origins to Rockford, Illinois. His songs are so fixated on torched bridges and detonated relationships that I worry this nomad will be moving on again. Hold up! Austin needs more like him, although that statement downplays just how rare a talent he is.

Payne's songs are richly strewn with lyrics so great you'll shake your head for not having thought of them yourself: "molten Christmas lights," interstate highway tattooed on the eyes, couches crashed on one too many times, relationships dragged to the breaking point and beyond. Despite the darkness of his subjects, Payne performs with busker friendliness, pausing his verses to add commentary and acknowledging friends and strangers in the audience. His terrific, original singing voice does a lot to keep the material balanced. While his sneaky-good guitar playing is rambling-man folk, he has a perfectly imperfect weirdo baritone delivery that makes him seem like the lost frontman of a forgotten early-80's MTV band. He sort of sounds like John Linnell doing an impersonation of John Flansburgh, with the former's very, very deep pitch and the latter's yodel-like warble. New wave and "Americana" didn't cross paths a lot (there's Camper Van Beethoven and... that's all I got), so the juxtaposition of influences is daring.

A lot of music writing in this decentralized era is just the airing of competing tastes; I don't think there's anything I can really do to make you sit and listen to Squidbucket or The Invincible Czars if that's not your cup of tea. But if you like lyrics at all, if you've ever tried to write a song yourself, or especially if you're one of those exceptionally well-funded musicians who has never lived in a car and keeps sending me stupid songs about how much you like to smoke weed, take some time to listen to what Nathan Payne is doing.

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