Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Rocket Fuel

Shaman Shit [EP]
Watch Out for Rockets

I'm always afraid that I'm going to begin repeating myself here, if it hasn't happened already. What Tolstoy had to say about unhappy families does not apply to miserably poor rock bands. Most terrible bands are bad for the same reason. For variety's sake, I try to focus in on specific things that a group can improve upon when I write negative reviews. But nearly all of the time, the real problem is that the songs aren't good.

To the lay reader, and the dingbat press release-cut-and-pasting "music blogger," the idea that there's an objective way of listening to the quality of songwriting that has nothing to do with genre or instrumentation or performance might be alien. The decentralization of information in the Internet age has led to foolish persistence in the belief that any one person's opinion is as valuable as any other's. There's no such thing as a bad song, only different styles for different tastes. That's stupid! There is too such a thing as a terrible song, and I feel pretty confident in my ability to recognize one. Then again I do spend more time willingly listening to bad music than most.

Take the catalog of Watch Out for Rockets, an Austin quartet notable for their generosity (all 46 of their tracks can be heard for free online) if not for their consistency (maybe five of them are good). If I were a less thorough listener, I could quickly note their main influences (Spoon, classic mid-90's GbV), praise their economical song lengths, melodious vocals, and variety of production approaches, and leave it that. But that would be encouraging the band to continue operating as they are, which would be unfair both to the musicians and those who will have to listen to them going forward.

The trouble with this band is they are writing the same song over and over again. Watch Out for Rockets are trying awfully hard to dress it up in new clothes every time out. They move microphones around, EQ differently, sing in wildly different registers, switch out electric guitars for acoustic, overdub Casios and cellos and heaven knows what else, but to anyone with an even slightly trained musical ear, they're accomplishing nothing. With a handful of exceptions, which rather prove the rule -- "Art Show" from Let Me Levitate, "Over Mountains, Underneath the Plow" from Beasts with Hearts of Gold, the winning "Go Turbo" from the new Shaman Shit -- every single last one of their songs is written around an obnoxious, unabating eighth-note pattern. Up-and-down strumming on the electric guitar, usually, although they sometimes move it to acoustic or even a no less numbing keyboard. JAB JAB JAB JAB JAB JAB JAB JAB, for every measure of every song. It's like water torture.

I'm certain that I'm repeating myself now, but perhaps it bears repeating. Guitar players of Austin -- heed my words. Are you playing in a Ramones tribute band? No? OK, then perhaps you should explore some more of the variety offered by your most versatile instrument. Playing guitar like it's a tambourine isn't against the rules, but playing every string on the damn thing with full emphasis for every quaver of every measure of every song will rather narrow its creative potential. And if you are using a guitar as your primary vehicle for songwriting, as Watch Out for Rockets are doing, you're kneecapping the whole band by slashing at the thing so indiscriminately.

The vocals are repeatedly forced into too-similar spaces, sabotaging their initial woolly likability. Worse, there's no room for the bass and drums to contribute on Shaman Shit and the earlier WOfR offerings. The guitar doesn't leave them room to do so, blaring as it does over every last note. Rather than developing their songwriting (that is to say, employing a different guitar pattern), the band begins to try ever more desperate distraction techniques from release to release. The experimentation isn't worthless. The weird but compelling edit piece "Daughter's Beautiful Hair" is the best of the many non-songs on Shaman Shit. But on the second and third listens, waiting through 20 or 30 seconds of tape hum for the witless guitar chug to begin again only compounds listener frustration. Lo-fi is supposed to be about great songs overcoming the limitations of the recording, and not those limitations disguising songs that aren't finished.

The few examples of good, memorable songs I have given above are the handful of tunes where the incessant strumma-strumma-strumma lets up and the guitars play riffs. Without getting lost in the details of music theory, the drummer is supposed to be the one doing the counting. The guitar is there to provide emphasis, and if you're playing it as loud as you can all the time, you are in effect emphasizing nothing. If you've chosen your three chords and written a vocal melody, you're not done! What rhythm can the chords be fit into that will flatter the melody? How can you construct an instrumental hook that will make the sections that don't have singing sound distinctive on their own?

Watch Out for Rockets haven't figured out how to write songs yet. The few they have that work do so almost by accident; I can't in good conscience say that they are improving with time because Shaman Shit is substantially less interesting than Beasts with Hearts of Gold, which itself has fewer good moments than their debut Let Me Levitate (although they have improved when it comes to lyrics and song titles that don't as obviously crib from R. Pollard). The drab death march "Alex Chilton," which is so unworthy of its subject matter that I feel guilty even mentioning its title, might be their single least interesting composition to date and it's on the new one. The band wants you to be impressed by their supposed swings from psychedelic to punk to folk, but since it's always the same structure and the same rhythm, none of the costume changes make the least tiny bit of difference.

Thursday, June 24, 2010


Before we lived in the place we live now, someone named David Gray was in residence. (Not the singer-songwriter.) I know this because we get his mail. Constantly. If it wasn't for all of the lovely free CD's bands in Austin send, from our box you'd think he still lived here and not me. Nothing that comes in the mail for David Gray is very useful. He was the sort of person who enjoyed filling out "bill me later" subscription cards for magazines in great quantity so he could get free gifts. For a while, when we first moved in, we got some of his "gifts" -- useless crap like beer cozies and fanny packs. That has trailed off, but we still get his magazines. Loads of 'em, from OK! to Parenting. I used to toss all of these directly into the recycling, but then Anna C. and I realized we could make awesome collages with all of the random free magazines piling up. That's a long, roundabout way of explaining why there's a Maxim on top of my toilet without tarnishing my feminist-slash-intellectual credentials.

Anyhow, glancing at this Maxim while I was trying to locate my Economist (the only magazine I in fact read as opposed to using as raw material for folk art projects) it struck me how much modern publishers seem to think men crave lists. Is all information easier to absorb when it follows bullet points? I prefer more structure in my writing -- which perhaps is why I'm no longer making any money from it.

And there we pick up the other thread that inspired me to write today. Some years ago, my parents persuaded me to choose journalism over music as a career choice. That was stupid of them. Over the past few years, not through any particular effort on my part, I've become less of an arts journalist who plays in bands for fun and way more of a musician who writes about the arts as a hobby. Kids: Drop out of college and learn to play bass. I really learned to play while I was in college, but I probably could have found another place to learn that didn't cost twenty-five thousand dollars a year.

Anyway, I have a gig this week playing in the orchestra for a community-theater production of The Sound of Music out by the lake. I grabbed a stack of CD's to listen to in the car ride out there last night and I realized there was an easy column lying right there. Of all the local discs that have come my way by hook or by crook since September, the ones I keep close at hand so I can play them again for myself and for friends make for a pretty short list. One that might even call for bullet points. A few of these are overdue reviews, and for bands I've written about more recently, I've just quoted lyrics to which I particularly enjoy hollering along.

The Eastern Sea Both of the EP's released so far by this amorphous collective (the three central guys are singer/guitarist Matt Hines, bassist Tomas Olano, and drummer Zach Duran) are exemplary, performed, arranged, and sequenced with care. The band's hazy, impressionist post-folk benefits from production that links each song into the next and drops parts in and out like a DJ. The artwork, design, and similar production hallmarks suggest that the two releases are of a piece, but the shorter EP II shows a ton of progress from its none-too-shabby predecessor, which is a little too restrained for its own good. The quieter pieces on the second EP, like the trademark "The Mountain," swing in a way the overwhelmingly placid first one never does. Plus there's the delightful "The Name," a rager of a fuzz-rocker that doesn't sound at all like an overextension of their style. If you're a band who plays mostly heavy rock songs, you probably already know that you need to work a ballad in there. But it works both ways. The Eastern Sea are a ballad band, but a rocker was necessary, and they deliver. (Even if it kind of has the same melody as Tenacious D's "Friendship.") Like a lot of the bands on this list, I absolutely love their lyrics. Hines has a sense of setting that's almost preternatural. His use of tiny, specific details makes the moments captured in the Sea's songs easy to relate to. With his beautiful singing voice, once you figure out what he's talking about, you're totally on his side.

Squidbucket Jason Erwin, the guitarist and founder of Squidbucket, is one of my favorite Austin musical minds. A lot of folks like to say that music is their life, but Jason has shaped his whole existence around pursuing his creative vision. His guitar playing speaks for itself, but he's also mastered the nuts and bolts of recording technology and when he's not playing, the work he does is music-related -- he owns a screenprinting concern and is a talented designer. His ability to see the many parts in the whole pays off on Squidbucket's record Celery City. There are a lot of bands in Austin made up of guys with scary good chops -- Erwin's bandmates Eric Brown and Kurt Rightler are each in at least one other. But not many of them can make their dexterity pay off on in the studio the way Squidbucket do. The first time I heard them, I was stunned by how developed their stuff was. It's technical and heavy but not at all hard to follow. The changes are rapid and bizarre yet make total sense. They groove, even. And they're willing to go way far afield from their obvious central influences -- this is progressive metal that actually progresses. When I spoke to Jason at length about how Squidbucket's music is created, I was struck by how he strongly he perceived his role as producer to be separate and distinct from that of guitarist or songwriter. Having reflected upon it more, that might be just what makes the band good. The ability to step back from the music and judge what works best for the whole band, as opposed to just the guitar, bass, or drums might be the rarest talent of all. Surely a whole lot of lesser bands here are starving for it.

The Gary "Now it's here. Now it's gone."

La Snacks I love these guys. This might be in part because singer Robert Segovia and I share many of the same central fixations -- European history, English syntax, Chicago sports, 90's indie bands who didn't tune their guitars very carefully. But my love centers most on how the brief but unshakable songs on Newfangled each drive home a valuable moral lesson. Songwriting wins! Guitar tone, how the cymbals are equalized, the precise vintage of your analog synthesizer, endless chains of noisy pedals... these make no difference. There is no equipment you can buy nor studio magic you can employ to make a bad song good. A good song, on the other hand, can stand up to a whole lot of abuse. The guys from Harlem take this beyond logical extremes; La Snacks seem to affect sloppiness more so than really drink too much to play well. The latter is more fun to watch, and assures that the pristine melodies of "Jackson '88" and its ilk remain relatively close to the way you remember them from the record.

Zorch "Giant surprise! We are lizards disguised, and we're controlling your lives with trilateral spies."

Haunting Oboe Music There needs to be a reunion! (Hey, it's not out of the question. There was a recent cryptic message on their MySpace and everything.) The center couldn't hold for this six-piece (later five-piece), who came up with a ridiculous, crazy, ambitious plan to record 12 EP's in a year, did it... and then couldn't figure out what the hell to do for an encore. The best stuff from this fevered period of activity can be found on a single CD with a yellow cover that the band was giving away at their final shows; this is the disc I have been recommending to other musicians more than any other since my arrival in Austin. I wish they'd fit the song titles somewhere on the sleeve, but other than that it's a big, bold line in the sand for home recorders everywhere. The Oboes sneer at convention, rapping on one track and dragging out the banjo for a Will Oldham salute just a handful of songs later. With the clamor of two drum sets and usually competing electronic percussion as well, nothing ever quite settles into a familiar shape. Yet there's monster choruses, memorable lyrics, and lots of harmonies (Lean Hounds, the half-Oboe act for whom I am still waiting to be half as good, miss these particularly) to keep you returning. You can see why they despaired trying to get even a fraction of this stuff prepared for the stage. The most conspicuous instrument for Haunting Oboe Music on CD is the mixing board. And given that this is a "greatest hits," there's still a fair bit of dribbly, arrangement-less wanking... I haven't made too much of an effort to seek out the rest of the music from the EP year that didn't make the sampler. Still, these guys are the gold standard until further notice. If you want to be a groundbreaking modern rock band in Austin, you need to be at least as weird as Haunting Oboe Music -- and work as hard as they did.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010


Focus Group
Cheer Up Charlie's, 6/19

How do I choose which bands to go see? Sometimes it's totally random -- Anna and I get bored and we check the listings to see what looks cheap and interesting. There can be slightly more planning involved. If I hear something good online or off a CD I try to make a note to go check the band out live and make sure they're legit. This doesn't always work out exactly right. Bands make it harder than it should be sometimes. There are a few venues in town that I have no interest in ever going to again (Trophy's), and there are some other joints that insist on charging a cover for a collection of bands thrown together at random (Red-Eyed Fly). Whether you're new or old to the scene, don't get myopic and fixate on downtown. Play north, east, south, and San Marcos and play free shows. For heaven's sake.

If I haven't seen your band yet, it might not be because I don't think there's any hope you are good. It might just be because you're not using enough of your imagination and your networking skills when it comes to setting up gigs. This is Austin -- even on the weekends, more often than not, there are free concerts with multiple good acts featured going on. If you can't find a venue that doesn't charge a cover and two or three other bands that you yourself would be happy to stand and watch for a whole set with whom to play, you flat-out aren't looking hard enough.

And another good way to get me to come to your show is to invite me. Focus Group used the direct approach, and I'm glad of it. I think the band is really original and exciting, and that's all coming from the live show. If I'd written about them first having only heard their recordings, I probably would have undersold them pretty dramatically. Their new EP Unicornography is interesting but flawed -- the pieces once introduced just kind of sit there and buzz. The music is composed, but there's a lot going on in the same rhythmic space. As recorded, the band has a lot of energy but no center. Absent any fixed point around which all the competing figures can build, a lot of it sounds likes noodling.

From the top down the many layers of imprecisely joined guitar, keyboard, bass, trombone, and MPC noises seem chaotic and random. Focus Group have a cheerful indifference to rounding off the edges of any one player's particular style. Rather than dictated changes by the whole group, each instrument continues chipping away in its own space. The sampler player follows the beat like an electronic musician, the bassist/guitarists are off somewhere slightly different listening to instrumental/"post-rock" in their heads, and the keyboards have a third, jazzier feel. To see them live, it's clear how closely written the pieces are -- the individual guitar and keyboard figures are recognizable right away. What really doesn't translate on to CD is how well all of these building blocks are stacked together.

This music which appears to have no center on CD achieves an entirely different character live. Possibly because they're smart, maybe because they're superior listeners, certainly because they're good musicians it's clear where the main groove is when the Group starts playing. Even though many busy parts layer over it as the songs develop that central big thrust doesn't get obscured the way it does on Unicornography. The same guitar parts that seem like noodling on the record sound just right between the middle and the back of the live mix.

There's a force and drive to Focus Group that's hard to appreciate until you see people really getting down and moving to their live show. The band is hard to pigeonhole, but they're funky in their own way, so it stands to reason they're attracting fans who know what they like and don't care what others think. For a diffuse art-rock act the Group fill a floor with sweaty, happy dancing people as effectively as a good DJ. Can they make better records? I think I'll save that for a proper review of their CD. What you need to know for now is that they put on a great show. They're also doing work to break down barriers between genres in Austin, inviting remixers to contribute to their record and filling the bill at Cheer Up Charlie's with enjoyable, skilled DJ sets. Khary Kadaver, who played a set right before the band, rivaled a rock band with his varied grooves and performance-conscious stage presence.

The week in free shows: Tonight (Tuesday) at Trailer Space The Cocker Spaniels are playing. My colleague and friend Sean Padilla is one of the best songwriters in Austin, period. I wish he would get himself a proper rock band one of these days, but by his lonesome he has more intensity and passion than any number of four-piece groups you could mention. It's the five-year anniversary for Southside record store End of an Ear and they've got shows running Wednesday through Sunday. Windsor for the Derby on Saturday afternoon, pretty cool. On the subject of weird instrumental local rock, Bee vs. Moth are at Hole in the Wall on Wednesday. On the subject of bands that have "bee" in their names, Bee Sting Sessions play Saturday at Austin Peace Pipez, on North Lamar right in my neck of the woods. A few of their songs are still sneaking around in my memory after I reviewed their record... they're definitely apart from the norm and you should check them out. I think that show is five bucks... all others mentioned are free.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Demo Sweat #15

I saw the very tail end of a Baby Robots show and was impressed enough to snare a CD; they do a better job than most of one-chord jamming "monorail rock" due to good command of sounds. Probably Portions & Fortunes is interesting, definitely worth a few listens, for its fun depth even in a low-budget context. The running water on the sound piece "Eva Mendez Rehab Stint" might be a cliché but it does remind of a certain kind of Austin rainfall, which gives it local character. Sadly Bobby Baker's ear for production and instrument tone choices doesn't extend to songwriting; the only two good proper songs on Portions are covers and they're not well-rendered ones at that. The "Some Kinda Love" here sounds like a random tribute to several Velvet Underground songs at once, and not coincidentally all ones that don't overemphasize instrumental acuity. Band support the whole way through is patchy, with the bass particularly suspect.

King of the Air, the nascent rock project of one Harrison Palmer, has the outward trappings of the sort of clueless no-fi projects I hate on frequently: dreadfully timed fake bass and drums, songs that force their few ideas several minutes past their natural stopping points, and vocals that to put it mildly are erratic in their relationship to pitch. But close examination (perhaps using headphones as his MySpace mildly suggests) reveals some genuine talent at work here: guitar parts though simple are intelligently employed and the vocal melodies, such as they are, have attractive rhythms and original lyrics. "Blindside" very deftly uses a hip-hop beat with guitar changes that give the verses, chorus, and bridge clear definition from one another even though the drums are a basic loop all the way through. Harrison needs more songwriting reps, and to save extended experimental arrangements until he has a band to contribute to them. "Outerplace" is a halfway decent three-minute modern rock song but it bleeds on for another minute and a half of nonsense. And the vocals need a ton of work. Marble-mouthed, they don't have much melodic variation -- and the melodies as written aren't what he's singing most of the time, either. He has a certain raspy resemblance to Will Johnson but not his skill in writing just so to suit his voice. Anna C. says most people just won't be able to listen past his bad singing.

I like the lead singer from The Sabotage Manual quite a bit. So does Anna: "Like James Hetfield, only more melodic," if James Hetfield were singing older-school pop-punk. The good voice, and a few flashy guitar links, are about all they've got going. The songs are way too four-on-the-floor to allow the bassist and the drummer anything but the most basic patterns and it's evident from his leads the guitarist is capable of much more nuanced writing. "Civil Disobedience" is a straight jack of Zep's "Heartbreaker." Daniel Whittington is a white guy with a beard who sings songs about gypsies. His music sounds exactly like you think it does. Whittington's generic, opaque lyrics and stiff delivery reminded my roommate Kalyn of William Shatner. Rudimentary "here's G, here's C, here's D" songwriting and pedestrian rhythms ("Simple" is indeed so, exactly as simple as "Knockin' on Heaven's Door") are not sufficient source material; the backing musicians carry no blame for these recordings' general crappiness.

The most interesting thing about Jacob Shelton that I know so far is that his screen name (so to speak) on bandcamp is Rad Wolf. Now, that would be an excellent name for a band. I think I would be excited to hear the music of a group called Rad Wolf. However, Shelton's album Stay Home bears his own name on the cover. Perhaps he should consider removing it. It's a deathly ponderous collection of drib-drabbing piano notes and circular guitar half-parts that doesn't have a single interesting melody. The average song on the collection makes its point some one-fourth or so through its running length. And a couple tracks are five or six minutes! I try to listen to every scrap that people send me, within reason, but this qualifies as wasting my time. Already I have spent more time thinking about this music than Shelton did making it. Anna agrees: "This isn't really music." Kalyn postulated that perhaps he listened to Explosions in the Sky for a couple of weeks straight, got really excited, and thought he could quickly do the same thing alone on his four-track with no preparation whatsoever. There could be some fodder for remixes here (or maybe tones to be played during yoga) but the recording isn't particularly good and the sound of fingers scratching on guitar strings is loud and distracting.

The Daily Brothers' "Cocaine Blues" begins as just noise, tons and tons of senseless, un-arranged overdubs blaring over bad acoustic guitar playing. Then the deluge pulls back and a ridiculously primitive folk-parody pastiche emerges, about 60% of the words of which are "cocaine." It's awful beyond belief, but it also is so simple and obnoxious and annoying and kind of awesome that I am certain I will remember it more clearly and for longer than any of the other new music I listened to this week. Also, it's not a blues.

The monumentally terrible Rico's Gruv are. In fact this is music so dumb that only the musicians' steadfast belief that they are real blues makes it all interesting. The lyrics to "Come On Down" have a brutal lack of sense and style to them; so much so that you sort of feel sympathy. Hilarious, all unintentionally so, but still. I am trying not to share the ill will that many Austin musicians who don't play traditional styles bear towards those who do. There are great original musicians playing blues and country in Austin, and there are great experimental/electronic/performance art/mime bands (I'm sure) as well. There's a bit more of a built-in market for people playing familiar popular styles, even if they don't do it all that well. I find this curious, but I don't resent it. As far as Rico's Gruv are concerned... wow, this is just some terrible music. Imagine playing exactly the same song every time out, only at slightly different tempos. And seriously, check out those lyrics. I can't do them justice in a pullquote.

Rapper C.H.A.R.M. has many unlikable qualities -- his defensive, slur-heavy ad libs are a big turn-off, his bold insistence that he's seen it all at 25 is pretty ridiculous, and his repeated pleas to record labels to sign him are both craven and clueless (dude, it's 2010 -- what's a record label?). I respect that from his perspective he's representing a particular culture, that of the Rio Grande Valley, that doesn't exactly boast a lot of superstar voices. And that it's his personal stories he's telling in his typically violent ("My Beer Bottle Is a Weapon," "1, 2, 3 Better Run") and boastful ("Lyrical Miracle," "Letter to the Majors") rhymes. But despite varied flows and strong freestyle skills, he's not doing anything distinctive -- his beats are strictly early 90's Dre, downtempo, stripped-down melodies and tight snare hits, other than a Ruff Ryders nod on "1, 2, 3." C.H.A.R.M. could get away with the throwback style if he had any new perspective to bring to the game. Not so much. He'd better rep Texas if he didn't waste his original flows over beats that could be from anywhere. And like most musicians he would surely benefit from a broader array of listening (and reading) material.

Plebeian are the third band I have to call out today for too obvious a lift. "Chicago" is Radiohead's "2 + 2 = 5," and it's not particularly well-hidden. Their affection for Muse is also obvious (as it always is). But (and I'm little surprised to be saying this) they're a Muse-influenced band that doesn't totally suck. They know how to lay back at points, and Hunter Mischnick plays a lot with offbeats on the guitar, pleasant breaks from all the sincere rock urgency. As a writer Mischnick has commendable range but needs still to work on blending more than one flavor at once; the band's songs have a tendency to sound like someone's iTunes skipping. Bass and drums are consistently cool thanks largely to the songwriting, which gives them space to be so. The use of keyboards and electronics is also varied from a light touch (tiny bits of anachronistic sounds, a la Soul Coughing) to full-on dance tracks ("Tonight Our True Story" uses sequenced instruments and speech samples intelligently and effectively). "Relumination" goes full-out pop and would almost pull it off, were it not for lyrics not quite up to the increased focus the big melody throws on them. A lot of good ideas, none fully realized; I'm pleased the band is back as an active concern after some time off.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Weeks in Shows

Shows were a blur last week. But I still found time to find at least one good idea from each band I saw that your band could steal.

Rich Restaino & The Obits (Tuesday, Jovita's) have eight members on stage, and over the course of an hour I saw six of them sing lead. That's very cool, and might also explain why everyone in the group seemed so overjoyed to be there. The happiness and chemistry onstage made it impossible to feel self-conscious in the crowd; Anna C. and I jitterbugged ourselves silly. The Obits' vocal trio are quite lovely in their slinky black dresses, and the way they shared simple percussion parts among themselves, banging cowbells and shaking tambourines, added another layer of movement. For all the amazing technical drum and guitar playing we see, a shaker or sleigh bell part can often be more memorable. Especially in a visual sense. I really dug the way guitarist Hunt Wellborn sang his original "Too Slow" in the first set and then came back for a second star turn with the Stones' "Happy," which suits his soulfully inaccurate vocal style to a T. And as I'm sure I've written before I adore Alex Sefchick's stay-at-home, Motown-flavored bass grooving.

Bottle Service (Thursday, Trailer Space) weren't as much into the arranged three-part jazz harmonies, in an understatement. Musical subtlety is not the selling point of this energetic quartet, which manages through instinct and democratic distribution of vocals to find variety within the bounds of a single song template. Giddy and not-simple tom-toms provide a slight suggestion of structure for roaring guitar power chords, shouting, and demented, stuttering surf organ melodies. In the midst of all this is a tambourine player who strikes his weapon against his arm with such focused violence that he has to wear wrist protection to avoid injury. They're propulsive, maybe even catchy, and also they're pretty adorable. They have a shared energy, one that makes them seem more coherent as a band than a lot of groupings of more experienced musicians. They all knew the lyrics to the songs. They were excited to be playing them.

By this comparison We the Granada (Friday, U.S. Art Authority) were a disappointment. They have more in the way of songs, or at least arrangements, than some of their heavy-experimental brethren in these parts. They can all stop together, but when everyone starts again no one is remotely on the same page. Their lead singer's affected style is obnoxious, but at least it gets the band to exercise restraint for half-minute intervals here and there. Otherwise it's a whole lot of the "please finish your drum solo so I may begin my extended finger-tapping interlude" style, and about as interesting as watching water run. With blinding lights flashing and an extraneous saxophone player blurting sporadically there was no center to the music. One passage where the singer began beating on an extra floor tom stood out; for a brief segment the mess of jumbled-up rhythms and overplaying cohered to a point where the lights actually had a single pulse to match up to. It was tribal, minimalist, the work of all the musicians creating together. In contrast to the rest of their set, which was like a confused community playfield trying to hold a sack race and a three-legged race at the same time.

Friday we also checked in with Squidbucket and Megafauna, both sounding sharp, and were bored by the Bridge Farmers. Two chords, no changes, a loud drummer, and a good singer will get you exactly this far and no further.

Now, in an experimental new feature, some free shows that may be of interest this week: I'm probably going to see Isle of White on Wednesday at the Parlor. They're a Weezer-esque band with some very enticing hooks; I hope they've gotten better live since the last time I saw them. Wozzeck are playing Friday evening at Trailer Space. A hard-rocking jam band of music majors, those guys are some technical players who really know how to listen to one another. Later Friday The Economy are playing at Headhunter's. Those fellows have taken their sweet time getting from the demo stage to live band but now that they've finally made it you should support them; they take those fabled "Slint dynamics" and mix in some really rousing, passionate vocals. Saturday night, post-rockers Focus Group play Cheer Up Charlie's.

Not free but of interest, the inimitable Daniel Johnston is playing the Mohawk on Saturday with The Sour Notes in support. There's a ticket/autographed CD giveaway through this link. Brackett & Co, an Okkervil River subdivision, is on this show as well.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Heathen Chemistry

Band of Heathens
Congress Street Bridge, 6/6

Seeing as they just returned from a European tour and were sharing stage space last weekend with the current mayor of Austin, his predecessor, and Batman, Band of Heathens certainly don't fit my usual rubric of developing local bands. They're developed. They are what they are, and aren't likely to change. Younger area music fans, having been gifted a convenient term that allows them to totally dismiss an entire thriving branch of American music without spending a second approaching it critically, would quickly label them "Dad rock" and ignore their substance.

That's really too bad, because they put on a good show. For a relatively short-lived original Austin band, they can play a headliner-length set and not have the energy flag from repetition and lack of range. Their breadth of material and the way they distribute the instrumental solos and the lead vocals equitably assures this. They have a lot of different guitars and other instruments on stage, but they know how to use them so that tone and volume are balanced evenly and warmly. They're not whipping out resonators and archtops and lap steel guitars just to prove that they own them; each instrumental part serves to bring well-chosen color to the song at hand. And their three-part harmonies... oh, man. I can't understate how lovely it is to see great vocalists concentrating on harmonizing instead of over-singing their solo parts. If you go see live music a ton you know that full bands that use harmony well are exceedingly rare.

Band of Heathens have a founding myth that's irresistible, one that had them on my short list of Austin bands to investigate before I even moved here. Beginning as three solo troubadours sharing a residency, Ed Jurdi, Gordy Quist, and Colin Brooks started sitting in with one another, and before long were just playing whole shows as a trio. With that much talent assembled as a frontline, pulling in a sympathetic rhythm section must have been elementary. Each writer has a different style, which is easy to gather from the generous curve of their live set. Brooks is steeped in roots music, with his assortment of instruments in slide tuning. Quist is the most modern-minded Heathen, playing gnarlier guitar parts on a Les Paul and writing the most incisive lyrics of the trio. The multiply talented Jurdi has a blues style on the guitar and a lively keyboard tone that draws from soul music. Sharing around verses and joining together for choruses, the band arranges with the song (and not its originator's ego) paramount.

The broad lesson to be drawn here is that if two heads are better than one, three must be almost foolproof, assuming all the heads involved are as committed to dedicating equal passion to realizing the ideas of their partners as they are to hearing their own compositions bloom. Even if you're a songwriter who can move seamlessly from style to style, you can't do everything alone. No two individuals think about music in exactly the same way, nor do any two writers employ precisely the same process. People write better stuff when they're in bands with other composers who challenge and stimulate them. It's a fact. None of the three guys fronting Band of Heathens would be particularly exciting on their own. In fact, they'd be better if their reference points were further apart. As it is now they're more comfortable than innovative, but they're delivering everything their core audience could expect.

For no extra charge, a second moral lesson today: These guys were playing for free outdoors on a beautiful day, and before they did so Adam West drove up to the stage in the freaking Batmobile. I'm getting a little annoyed by all the local musicians to whom I speak who say they just don't have any time or money to go see other Austin bands. In a lot of other cities, yeah, I feel your pain, but in these parts, great bands play for free every week and sometimes, if you're lucky, you get to see Batman at no added cost. If you must spend your concert money buying overpriced tix to the Pixies' latest annual "nostalgia exploitation" revue (I think you can buy T-shirts that say "No one in this band has had a relevant musical idea since 1993, please enter your credit card number now"), you should at least try and clean your soul off afterwards by going to a free local show or four.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Very Small Rocks

Honey Thief, Long Tangles
The Parlor North Loop, 6/4

In my youth in the summers of Chicago I used to enjoy flipping over a rock, counting the number of bugs underneath, and then upending another rock to see if it had fewer insect tenants. I was a pretty lonely kid. As a grown man I feel more connected to the other humans around me, but still I have a penchant for seeking obscure finds in dark, damp locales. Think of Austin as my parents' backyard, and the rocks as dive bars with live music. Except everybody who works at the rocks, and everyone else overturning them, and also all the leaves on the trees and the raccoons in the garbage, they're all also in bands. (I guess the metaphor kind of breaks down there.)

For all the proliferation of acts with an "Austin" postmark on their MySpace, Facebook, Soundcloud, what have you, there must be untold legions of potentially great musical combos in the area that haven't made even that small of a dent in the public consciousness. Talent and hard work don't necessarily draw attention on their own. Bands must put effort commensurate to their writing and rehearsal time into self-promotion, not an activity that typically comes naturally to the musically inclined. If a group wants to get together to play simply for their own mutual satisfaction, more power to them. But no complaining about how the music scene here sucks and your genius is unappreciated when people are practically waving money in your face to buy CD's you haven't yet bothered to record!

Honey Thief already have won the allegiance of the estimable Sean Padilla, who spent much of their set Friday heckling them good-naturedly about their failure to record. This dawdling seems particularly egregious given that their drummer works in a recording studio. It's a shame and a lost opportunity that Honey Thief have nothing more than threadbare demos on their homepage, because their take on the massive guitar/submerged melody dynamic puts the more popular, way less talented Woven Bones to shame. Two good singers, complex but unobtrusive drumming, and consistently solid guitar hooks mark them as a band who can really listen through the thick processed guitars. I think they could trim the use of effects down a good deal and streamline their attack -- it would also be more visually interesting to watch the guitarists, I dunno, bend the strings instead of passively nudging a pedal that simulates the same sound. One of their guitarist/singers has more of a knack for coming up with memorable leads than the other, so I wish he would figure out how to play lead guitar on the songs he himself sings. But other than that they're way past ready to make a record, tight and with a setlist that well balances the droning with the catchy and fast tempos with slow.

Long Tangles by contrast are only on their second show and are some distance away from being prepared for the studio. They don't even have a Web presence yet it seems -- here's a link to one of their songs on Side One: Track One. They're a cutie-pie boy-girl duo of keyboards and drums, which means Sean and John Laird were right on comparing them to Mates of State. They would draw that comparison even if their music didn't sound so obviously like a woefully inaccurate Mates tribute. For twee-pop the Mates are in fact highly musically proficient, and Long Tangles are -- in a word -- not. All of the details that make Mates of State a complete band, like vocal harmonies, rhythm changes, and keyboard parts that incorporate more than one finger and both hands, are here absent. Good chemistry, pleasant enough singing, and sex appeal make Long Tangles tolerable, at least until they try playing a real song instead of one of their own unformed rambles. They finished off Friday with a Top 40 cover that was so random and sloppy that it kind of sucked out what little positives I could draw from their "originals."

There's a lesson here for everyone: Don't ever, ever play a cover that you can't play well. Up to that point in the set, the best thing I could think of to say about Long Tangles is that for a female-led, chops-free indie band they managed to stave off the vibe of a Fort Worth sorority girl at a Tuesday open mic leadenly playing the exact same picking patterns on the acoustic guitar for both her covers of "Umbrella" and "Blackbird." But then Long Tangles mangled Ke$ha and all of my sympathy for them dried up.

Thursday, June 3, 2010


Heroin Thunder [EP]
White Rhino

"Wipe the powder from the nose, you know how that story goes." That's one of the more subtle moments on White Rhino's three-song opus, a cheerfully humid affair that doesn't wander too far off the beaten path for song subjects (drugs) or guitar tunings (drop D). The vibe may not be new, but the trio's surprisingly ecumenical take on hard rock leads to three winning songs, each of which draws upon multiple rhythms and influences and all of which are memorably distinct.

"Burn the Candle" tackles the Bo Diddley beat and forces it to submit with steady application of Josh Homme-derived guitar fuzz. "Heroin Thunder" begins as an amphetamine boogie and backs off the gas for a sludgy jam crossbreeding Soundgarden with a glam-rock ascending vocal. "Certain Death" qualifies as the EP's progressive epic. Here there's squalling slide guitars, then a driving Maiden drumbeat, a pure 70's chorus, a compound meter break that sounds like less technical Mastodon, then an acoustic interlude that wittily alludes to Jethro Tull. I'm not usually one to spend a lot of time spotting influences when I'm reviewing something, but for White Rhino, the ability to grasp and interpret what makes rock rock, regardless of its decade or country of origin, is the chief point in the band's favor. Purists they ain't; they mix some new ideas in with the obvious dusty starting points. And they have a level of humorous detachment too: When they riff on Motörhead, they sound more like one of Ween's numerous Lemmy salutes than the genuine article. They reference so much stuff, and they shuffle through styles so quickly. It's all linked together with a theme of life-lived-in-the-red that might not be monstrously imaginative, but they never seem like less than a vital original band.

Even though the recording fidelity leaves a lot to be desired, the songwriting on Heroin Thunder makes the band sound above-average. The guitars don't crunch as much as they could, and the drums are pretty clipped, but the musicians know their business. Sometimes you have to listen closely to pick out good ideas from a lo-fi recording, but not in this case: the strength and the variety of the riffing powers right through the murk, as do the well-composed bass and drums. The garbled sound of the vocals actually flatters the vocalists, although I think the band could stand to work a little harder on their lyrics. That small quibble aside, this is the most ass-kicking local hard rock band I've heard this year and I'm making plans to see White Rhino as soon as possible.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Forth and Back

The Fever Dreams, Lean Hounds
The Parish, 5/29

One of the first shows Anna and I went to after arriving in Austin featured Haunting Oboe Music and the Fever Dreams. The headliner that night was Red Leaves. Saturday at the Parish, the Fever Dreams and Red Leaves played with Lean Hounds, which is the new project for half of Haunting Oboe Music. I'm glad to see these local acts demonstrating loyalty, but I won't be rushing to a show featuring these same three bands again. There are plenty of other experimental/psychedelic acts available in the region, and many of them are better than the Red Leaves.

The Fever Dreams are still one of my favorites when it comes to the inventiveness of their songwriting, which doesn't force-feed parts into strange time signatures or unnatural changes. They can play some odd styles indeed, but musicianship and strong arranging prevail. This wasn't the best I'd seen them. It was a big stage for the band, who have sounded best to me in tight spaces with low ceilings. With a lot of PA power to play with, I felt as if the drummer was overstating his case the whole show. It's impressive that he can accent every pattern being played by every other instrument in the band... but it's also totally unnecessary. Normally the Fever Dreams make me want to dance with abandon but the drum overkill of their show on Saturday gave me a headache. It was a letdown. I'll see them again, and hopefully the drummer will leave some space for the rest of the instruments.

Lean Hounds are all about space -- their songs begin with rhythm loops, center around live drums, and vocals, guitars, and keyboards seem added for more appearance's sake than anything else. I like their basic sound but they have been a band long enough that they should have some more finished-sounding songs by this time. They don't. There's a lot of grim circling between a root and a fifth from the guitars and basses, and a striking absence of catchy parts from any instruments besides the drums. Haunting Oboe Music became unmanageable because they had more ideas than they could conceivably realize on stage, but Lean Hounds are in danger of not having enough. They should start writing backwards, beginning with vocals and trying to make drum loops fit to melodic parts. The old project was substantial enough for the idea of an "unplugged" show to not sound crazy. Without their bells and whistles, Lean Hounds wouldn't have anything at all. I think they're better musicians than that and I expect to hear livelier material from them in future.