Friday, December 3, 2010

Demo Sweat #19

Every Austin band that writes me and asks gets fair consideration. I listen to every song, even if I hate it, three times all the way though at least. This takes a big chunk out of my time, but I really like doing it. I have trouble seeing things from others' perspective a lot of the time, but it isn't so hard for me to put myself in the shoes of a young musician desperate for attention. Hopefully I'm established enough now that people submitting realize I'm not in this to provide validation -- I'm trying to give advice that will help bands get better.

Before I get to the music today, a bit of general guidance. Assuming you are able to get a positive writeup from me or another blogger, how can you make the most of it? I'm reminded all the time that most listeners in town don't have quite my long memory and precise recall for local music. Even if I wrote something really nice about your band six months ago, that probably isn't going to help you if you're just getting around to playing a show this weekend. If you think you're ready for press coverage, you should have something you're promoting -- a record, a show, hopefully both -- and you should have a website or social media page all set up where people can find out more about you and, importantly, see that you are a going concern as a band.

It makes me deeply skeptical when I see on a band's MySpace page that they haven't updated since September and they haven't played a show in six months. (At this point, even that you're still using MySpace is a bad sign. Bandcamp and Soundcloud are better, and if your fans are on Facebook and/or Twitter, you should be too. Just tweeting something random every few days and making sure it's linked to your other pages will show that someone in the band still cares.) Whatever I might think of your execution or your choice of styles, I'm much more willing to give the benefit of the doubt to a band that is working hard at cultivating and maintaining connections with fans and other local bands, playing lots of shows, and posting or at least giving updates on the status of new recordings. I get asked for booking recommendations pretty regularly and I love giving obscure bands a boost when I can. But I can't help your band if it doesn't exist any more! Cue Al Green.

The organ/guitar/bass trio Bali Yaaah perches precariously on the dividing line between fuzz rock and dance, with well-integrated electronic beats standing in for a proper drummer. Different expectations for song structure between the two styles lead to an interesting effect where their songs with no changes (the unsettling, slowly creeping "Greytest") work better than the more garage-rock moments that do have them ("Stranger," which has a really great, weird, hockey rink-organ middle break but spends too much time wanking around to either side of it). When they're not wearing at your patience they strike a flattering balance between the "Run Run Run" Velvets and Wire-Joy Division-Suicide postpunk at its most architectural. The big central organ sounds of "Shoot It" wash out all else on first listen, but revisiting what seems like a simple loop reveals new details in the guitar playing, which is pleasantly not overburdened by effects and adds a subtle warmth the music needs. As an ensemble they do a good job building across long, seemingly repetitive sections. The way the vocals sit back slightly in the mix really helps with the feeling Bali Yaaah is trying to create... the fact that you can't quite make them out makes them more mysterious and seductive. They're hardly alone in this, but what they most lack is self-editing skill. All of their tracks push past five or six minutes, and while some of them merit it, I wonder if three-minute "single edit" versions of a few tunes mixed in might make visitors more likely to stick around and hear all they have to offer. Bali Yaaah are playing this Saturday at Club Deville and Saturday, January 8th at Beauty Bar.

Band of brothers The Magnificent Snails send along two preview tracks from their EP to be released this month, Baby Acid Trips. One I like substantially more than the other. The jazz-student drumming, clean-channel guitar chipping, watery bass, and subject matter of "Mean Girls" are so Vampire Weekend that they should just put on a polo shirt and sue a photographer. But "Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah!" is a winner, blending 60's pop with Spoon-y syncopations. The rhythmic main vocal hook is a real keeper, the best of many good moments by soulful lead whiner Russell Galis. I like the Snails' bass player's chops, but on both songs he has a tendency to lock in and follow the guitar player when he should be listening to the kick drum. This makes the songs sound less tight than they should given better-than-the-norm parts and arrangements, and could be a real problem live. There's a lot of weird emptiness where the guitar and bass are resting together when they should be playing off one another. They're kind of leaving the drummer hung out to dry. I'm sure they can work it out, they're family. Given their style, I think two-and-a-half-minute songs would offer a more advantageous ratio of buildup to payoff than five-minute ones.

I've discussed and harshly dissed Love at 20 a few times before... you have to give them some credit for being good enough sports to keep sending me their music. I think they have every right to feel like they've improved substantially on their debut Time to Begin with the new EP To Have and Have Not. The biggest problem with the debut was that it didn't sound even remotely like the work of a band at any point, with legion effects-heavy guitar overdubs standing in for anything resembling instrumental interaction. To Have and Have Not sounds substantially more like a rock band, albeit one that has been extremely processed and snapped to grids. They've learned how to take stuff out from time to time instead of always adding more, more, more. But their efforts at rock songs are still slow-developing, rhythmically bland, and emotionally flat. I suppose they are merely keeping in step with current trends, notably the antiseptic production style of their biggest influence, post-reunion Weezer. The cavernous-sounding, isolated big rock drum fills of "Gone to Hide" are more lifelike than anything on the debut, but I still haven't heard the very least bit of evidence that this band can set up their equipment in a room all at the same time together and rock out. "Gone to Hide" features a few edgy, driving breaks that I honestly didn't think Love at 20 was capable of executing. Lots more of that, at the beginnings of songs in particular as all of these tracks start the same way, and fewer dribbling ballads like the interminable "Our House," please. If the band could figure out a way to make its rock songs not just sit there limply, they might have something, because the other side of their split personality is working. Like the first record's "So Bad," EP closer "Never" is a better-than-decent dance track. Moreover, it's not a copy of Love at 20's previous high-water mark, it's a pretty good song on its own merits. The replacement of the wooden-sounding bass and drums from the previous songs with a really good club beat places more emphasis on Mike Groener's chief strength, vocal melodies. The fact that the most produced song on this EP is its highlight, just like the album that preceded it, doesn't do anything to dispel the sneaking suspicion I've always had that Love at 20 isn't that much of a band.

The Simple Machines list six members on their Facebook, and I don't know whether to believe it or not... their recordings sound more like the work of one or two people. If they genuinely used their full lineup while recording their self-titled EP, everybody deserves a lot of props for exercising heroic restraint. Really smooth, distinctive singing is the big calling card of "Cloud Cover," "Where I When I," and "Fun," which are all placed at various points on the continuum between Death Cab and the Postal Service... not exactly the broadest range of influences. Insultingly simplistic, programmed-sounding drums keep the vocal tracks from being terribly memorable, although the spare use of guitar and organ pokes at strategic points suggests a decent sense for arrangements. The electronic instrumental "Under Your Eyelid" is my favorite of the four songs, although it hardly sounds like the same band. A much busier and exotic rhythm loop backs a peaceful wave of synth. Why couldn't we hear some more original beats like that on the pop songs? I think their singer is strong enough to stand up to some more adventurous choices in the music.

Second opinions from Anna: She couldn't get over the Magnificent Snails' Vampire Weekend rip job either, although we both liked "Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah!" She said Simple Machines sounded like "an unfunny Flight of the Conchords," and didn't share my enthusiasm for their ambient instrumental. She still holds a grudge against Love at 20 for boring her silly when we saw them live, and she hated their new stuff, although when I played her "Never" without telling her who it was she said she wouldn't mind dancing to it in a club. We really like that beat. Bali Yaaah! were the only band she expressed an interest in seeing live, so it's good they have shows coming up. There's no denying that they're repetitive, but for that particular style a certain amount of repetition is part of the effect.

Final note: After reading my first review Shmu asked me to perhaps revisit his LP going from back to front instead front to back. I followed those instructions, but I must report that I still didn't find it that interesting. I like the sounds on "Pool Party" but they don't go anywhere fast enough to suit these restless tastes. I vote for a Discipline/Communication megamix!

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