Thursday, September 23, 2010

Demo Sweat #17

I've been thinking a lot about process lately. Introducing a recording news column has led to many conversations with local artists about the vast array of different options musicians today have for documenting and distributing their music. I got to go to an actual studio for the first time in a while to see J. Wesley Haynes Trio do their thing. Our dear friend Sean Padilla came over to borrow my beloved, weatherbeaten Takamine acoustic for use on his Gratitude Sessions project. The Coast of Nebraska, after twice I painstakingly pointed out their flaws, seriously asked me to produce their next record. (This is something I always hoped would happen. Only in Austin could such a demented rock critic wet dream come true.) I just read that my friends in The Sour Notes had to hock some gear to get their forthcoming Last Looks finished. Also, one band I myself am in is almost done with a record and another one is beginning work on one this weekend. You see where my mind is at.

So let's use this overdue new installment of Demo Sweat to discuss the review process a little more in-depth. This blog began because as a newcomer to Austin I immediately felt the absence of local music writing that took a journalistic approach as opposed to a literary one. I don't write poetry or short stories. I've never even daydreamed about trying to write a screenplay. I write what I see and hear. People experience music in very different ways. My bandmate Mike hears in colors. Anna C. is more about moods. As for me, I always feel like I can break everything I hear on a record down to statistics, like a newspaper box score. All is objective fact. Your band is a crime scene and I'm "CSI: Miami." The fashion in music blogging nowadays is for people to just write what they feel; like an art therapy project. That's not how I operate. I have a rubric that I run through internally with every band I ever come across.

The first (and last) step most bloggers take is to figure out what comparisons to make. I don't even think of this as a step. It should be obvious, if your musical knowledge is up to snuff. The first question I ask isn't, "What famous bands do these guys sound like?" Instead, it's "Given their influences, do they do enough to step out on their own?" Consider Indofin. These guys have been together since 2002, and yet they're still gigging at places like the hateful Beauty Bar. To say they're a tight band with an instantly recognizable sound would be accurate, but it wouldn't be the whole story. Every decade has a few rock bands that just strike a chord with a certain subset of male musicians to the extent that sincere, flattering imitation is all that most acolytes can manage. Like Metallica. As an ongoing artistic concern they haven't been cool since 1988, but somehow there continue to be bands -- nowadays, bands featuring kids who were born well into the nineties -- whose sole influence is the first four Metallica records. I don't know why. Check out Houston's Metavenge sometime.

While Indofin tunes like "2X Broken" have nice melodies and particularly arresting, slippery bass playing from Albert Huang, they are following Sublime's formula exactly. On every song. The chicka-chicka reggae guitars, lightly funky walking basslines, and pocket drumming will be instantly recognizable to anyone who surived the 1990's. Indofin don't add anything at all. In fact, they lose rather a lot -- TJ Huerta's singing has good rhythmic spacing but not a lot of personality, and the touches of dub, hip-hop, classical guitar, and skatepunk that made Sublime a deceptively versatile band are all right out. Just a lot of "Santeria" remakes remain. So if you're a hardcore fan of Sublime and you live in Austin... well, you probably already know about these guys. It's a band's own job to find their core audience. A good critic should be able to give his opinion about whether the world at large (that is, people who aren't colossal fans of that obvious central inspiration) would be interested in the band. In this case, sorry, no. For a Texas band who obviously worship Bradley Nowell but manage to assert more original ideas (and less obvious secondary influences like the Police and Pearl Jam), I direct you to Potbelly.

The second thing I listen for is the ability to vary approaches from song to song. Bands where every song is essentially the same style and tempo seldom have long shelf lives. A lot of Austin bands are releasing two versions of the same tune as a single every few months in an effort to get written about by those capricious NYC blog elites. I don't get it -- trying to break nationally is like spending all of your discretionary income on lottery tickets. Why not concentrate on the far more realistic goal of putting on a diverse, fun, and rewatchable live show for all the awesome but jaded music fans right here in ATX? Again, this is my own way of looking at things. You may disagree with me completely and prefer bands who stick to their bread and butter. That's cool. My goal isn't to make everyone happy, it's to make a clear enough argument about what I think to get you thinking in a new way. The way I see it, bands who get up and play the same song eight times in a row suck. OK, that really sounds like more of an objective truth than an opinion.

Let's apply rule #2 to Marathon, by singer/songwriter Darden Smith. At first glance there's not a lot that separates this LP from untold thousands of other Austin country-rockers. The production is quite good, detailed and with a lot of extra touches that elevate Smith's whisper-quiet vocals while never obscuring them. But the song subjects are tiresome. You ever been to an open mic night in these parts? You may have noticed that three-quarters of the songs performed or more address one of the same three subjects: love of nature, romantic love, and generic nostalgia. (While these themes are universal in college towns, Austin has a unique fourth-most-popular song topic: Smoking pot with Willie Nelson.) Smith's lack of lyrical insight violates rule #4 ("Why would anybody who isn't friends with this guy be interested in what he has to say?') but the tenets go in order of importance and he comes across favorably when it comes to #1 and #2.

The album's structure is thoughtful and original, with atmospheric instrumental pieces that divide the proper songs like stretches of state highway between towns. The use of accordion ("Bull by the Horns") and flamenco-fueled trumpet (multiple tracks) is very reminiscent of Calexico, as is Smith's standard dry vocal delivery. But "Make It Back to You" is unabashedly middle of the road, almost edging over into CS&N territory. You know what? In the context of the album's more conflicted moments, the song comes across as really pretty, with a nifty workmanlike melody. It reminds me of the quieter moments on Wilco's great Being There. Another track, "That Water," has a more sinister mood and a totally different singing approach, a Leonard Cohen-like basso. Smith's simple songs pop out a lot more thanks to the instrumentals and the changes of pace. In this genre dramatic mid-song shifts (see #3) are sort of ruled out on principle, but there are more than a few choruses here that sidestep the obvious progression from the verses and move into more intriguing harmonic space. I do wonder how much of the album's mood, quite dependent on room tone, gentle balance, and colors from instruments like piano and upright bass that are tricky to transport, translate to Darden Smith's live shows. After hearing Marathon I am curious to find out.

The rules don't work backwards. Anxious Mind, by guitarist and songwriter Denzil Warner, really hits the mark when it comes to variety. There's hard rock, trad blues, dance music (complete with AutoTune!), falsetto funk, and Stones-style irreverent folk. Good for Denz for spreading it around, but... well, there's a problem when "Jesse Gonna Be Here Tonight" rips off Chuck Berry front to back, vocal melody, guitar lead, and all; "Anxious Mind" repeats (for its entire length) an unmistakable Black Sabbath riff; and "Making Love" resurrects a disco hook so played out P. Diddy would be ashamed to sample it. There are good underlying qualities to Anxious Mind, like the lyrics (much more specific and humorous than average, particularly "Hybrid Car Blues"), the blending of a lot of different guitar sounds, and cool tricks that make nonsinger Warner's vocals sound funky and smoky, at least until about two-thirds through when the ideas just start to run out. This record would have been a lot stronger if edited down to an EP, with a few of the completely unoriginal tracks excised. Even better, Denz could combine elements from three or four of the unfinished boogies lurking on the back end and put more dramatic changes into the songs like "Anxious Mind" and "Going Down" that do have some hooks working for them.

That brings us to #3. This is where it gets a little more controversial. I think most people who listen to music critically, although they might not do it as consciously as I do, would agree with rules 1 and 2. But #3 is more a matter of personal taste. I want to be surprised when one song ends and the next begins and is totally different. But what really excites me is when a band manages to execute a dramatic shift within a song, still keeping things coherent. Sudden jump stops of this sort are very hard to execute well, but when they are the effect can be unforgettable. The Black Keys' "Tighten Up," for example... or if you'd prefer an evergreen, what the hell, the guitar solo to "Stairway to Heaven." It would be silly to expect a band to do this every time out (unless they're Mr. Bungle), but when I hear a out-of-the-blue change that really knocks me flat by a local band, it tends to make me hear the rest of their stuff in a whole new light. #3 and #4 are what separate bands to whom I'll give a good review from bands of whom I'll become a diehard, proselytizing, lifelong fan.

I have a lot more new local music to discuss but I seem to have reached a natural stopping point. There may be a Demo Sweat 17.5 fairly soon, or possibly a bunch of shorter reviews. Perhaps if I link this next group you will go listen to them with what I have written today in mind and try and predict my responses. That would be interesting! So go check out Fulton Read, Shmu, Sleep Good, Mostly Dead, and Disciples of Sound and we'll meet again soon.

Now in list form:
  1. Given the band's influences, do they mix it up enough to appeal even to people who might not be fans of the exact same list of artists?
  2. Does the band change styles, moods, and approaches from one song to the next?
  3. Can the band make dramatic changes within a single song that catch the listener off-guard while keeping the overall composition coherent?
  4. Does the band have anything to say in their lyrics (or their emotions/moods/colors if it's instrumental or electronic music) that would interest anyone besides their family and friends?
  5. OK, never mind all that. DOES IT ROCK? More on this later.

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