Record Reviews: Texas Platters


BETH WOOD

Wood Work (Autonomous)

It's always a little disturbing to hear newly recorded material from a local artist of whom you've never heard. Especially when it's this good. On her CD debut, Beth Wood sings of resilience and longing in as beautiful a tone as has anyone since k.d. lang sang "Constant Craving." Granted, her style is much less varied than the genre-hopping lang, but songs like "Geometry" and "Two Years or Three" establish a solid tack for Wood's intelligent and searching lyrics. And her voice is wonderful. The strained restraint with which she sings "but it's been almost a year and he's still waiting there for the mean time" (the last line from "Mean Time") makes too obvious the painful necessity of abandonment with which she struggles in the rest of the song. Brad Robinson's understated guitar work meshes well with Wood's vocal style, complementing the rise and fall of her pitch with quiet consistency. Wood Work doesn't really break any new ground, but it should establish Wood as one of the rising number of very talented singer-songwriters in Austin.
(3.5 stars) -- Christopher Hess


DARDEN SMITH

Deep Fantastic Blue (Plump)

Maybe it's Darden Smith's one-liners that make this record so, uh, plump: "What you're missing is me..." or, "Heaven must've felt like this the first day of the sun..." or, "Somebody's pride and joy turned out to be a broken branch of the family tree..." or, "I've cut myself and I just want to heal again..." Okay, okay, you get the picture. Maybe it's his skill at buoying intense-to-the-point-of-mushy lyrics with lifesaving Tom Petty-ish vocals and pacing. Maybe it's his almost-all-acoustic sound, which inspires concentration on each note and each word. Maybe it's that he had the guts to write a song called "Skin" that evokes morbid images while spelling out a universal truth. Whatever it is, by the time you get to the end of this album, you're repeating Smith's final one-liner like a call-out to a lover who's leaving: "Don't let it slip away."
(3.5 stars) -- Melissa Rawlins



BROADCASTS VOL. 4

(107.1 KGSR/Radio Austin)

Disc One: Peter Case, James McMurtry, Joe Ely, Poi Dog Pondering, Son Volt, Sonny Landreth, Los Lobos, John Hiatt, Patty Larkin, Loudon Wainwright III, Teisco Del Rey & the Nutrockers, Don Walser, Tish Hinojosa, Chris Smither, Ian Moore, Lou Reed, Randy Newman, Alejandro Escovedo, Kris McKay. Disc Two: Dog's Eye View, Ron Sexsmith, Hamell on Trial, Joan Osborne, Dave Mason, Taj Mahal, Terry Allen, the Band, Bill Morrissey, Teye, Joan Armatrading, Cowboy Junkies, Semisonic, Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, the Wallflowers, 81/2 Souvenirs, Patty Griffin, Kelly Willis, Loyle Lovett. That's the story. That, and the fact that this yearly stocking stuffer was "performed live and broadcast exclusively on 107.1 KGSR," in Austin, where a pressing of 8,000 -- up a grand from last year -- will surely sell out. They do every year. This year, proceeds go to the Grammy's local music programs. What else? That Jody Denberg's pet project gets better every year?
That the song selection is superb? Alright. But I'm pretty sure that's everything. I don't think I've left anything out. Oh yes, the Don Walser track, "Devil's Great Grandson," isn't on any of his CDs.
(4.0 stars) -- Raoul Hernandez


ASYLUM STREET SPANKERS

Spanks for the Memories (Watermelon)

This album documents the Asylum Street Spankers in one of two ways they sound best: in a simple, wood-floored living room with one microphone -- natural and bare, no overdubs and no extras to interfere with the performance. (In front of a crowd is the other setting in which they should be recorded.) Part of the credit goes to producer Mark Rubin (assisted by Danny Barnes), who does an amazing job of recording this unique group of talented musicians. For anyone who's had the pleasure of attending a Spankers' performance, their great playing and solid group cohesion have all been caught on tape in this combination of standards and originals. Some may say that other performers do a better job of interpreting (or re-interpreting depending on how you look at it) the "old-timey" acoustic folk genre, but I challenge anyone to find a group of 10 musicians with such divergent interests, who can create pretentiousless and honest-to-God music as well as the Spankers. My only recommendations are to let Christina Marr's beautifully visceral voice show through a tad more and to start thinking about that live CD.
(4.0 stars) -- David Lynch


THE RECLINERS

Cosa Caliente (Raving Cleric)

This whole retro-lounge thing started with bands getting sick of playing the same three chords and finding that by throwing enough jokey, self-conscious rock covers in the mix, they could get away with playing some jazzy noodlings instead. Then, once the lounge thing actually caught on, most of those bands (and the new ones jumping on the wagon) dumped the schticky cover tunes and headed for the heart of the smoky hotel bar. Not so the Recliners. A good half of this CD consists of familiar titles like "Fight For Your Right (To Party)" and the disco anthem "Hot Stuff," but now that we all know lounge is "cool" anyway, the Recliners' versions don't seem all that forced. "Roxanne" lends itself especially well to The Recliners' laid-back arrangements (y'know, there's really no reason for Frank not to do this number), and the melody of Radiohead's "Creep" similarly translates well to the genre (ditto here for Tony Bennett). The problem this band has is that they don't seem able to learn the lyrics of the songs they cover! I mean, "Twenty-twenty-twenty-four hours ago, I wanna be sedated"? How difficult can it be to learn Ramones lyrics? Still, the band's delivery and sound is solid, as is the all-important crooning, and even their originals aren't half-bad. Check out "Deeper and Deeper," which sounds like a cross between the themes to Arthur and the Love Boat with a hint of some forgotten New Wave song. Anybody got a light for this cigar?
(3.0 stars) -- Ken Lieck



THE PHANTOM CREEPS

Rebel Without Applause (Monkey Boy)

The instrumental rock invasion surfed in from the ocean on the board of Dick Dale and was met in Tornado Alley by those UFO pilots that always seem to be crashing into trailer parks. When the wreckage cleared, the big-eyed greenbloods from Man... or Astroman? met up with the inspired cracker soul mayhem of Jerry Lee Lewis and did right well together. They landed right in Phantom Creep country, where you can go from an "Orgy of the Blood Parasites" to the "Barn of the Naked Dead," searching for "The Thing That Wouldn't Die" lurking atop "Whitman's Tower." It's a place where the most depraved psychobilly runs smack into the buoyant guitar majesty of surf music, walking dizzily away from the collision like a pill-popping Texas freak bent on revenge. Best to check it out live when it happens -- Rebel Without Applause is like a car accident replayed 12 times, in different tempos and keys -- but if you must, flood the engine, crack another Lone Star, and chalk those lights in the sky up to your imagination. That's all they are, right?
(3.0 stars) -- Christopher Gray


BRAVE COMBO WITH LAUREN AGNELLI

Kiss of Fire (Watermelon)

You can go ahead and scratch one more notch in the rhythm stick of Texas' most irreverent musical archeologists. This time out, the Combo is accompanied by former Washington Squares vocalist Lauren Agnelli, and the result is another well-informed mix of sophistication and schmaltz. Having Brave Combo take on lounge music is a no-brainer in this day and age, but that doesn't stop Kiss of Fire from enthralling the listener beyond the point of novelty. The album seamlessly swings the atmosphere from a Paris Metro station ("J'ai Faim, Toujours") to a bachelor pad equipped with the Sergio Mendes catalog ("A Way to Say Goodbye") to a New Wave ballroom dancing class ("Serendipity"). Surprisingly, the best of the lot may be the sultry and horrific Carl Finch/Agnelli original, "Burn Slow." The song allows Agnelli to step completely out of the Squares' faux beatnik stance and embody the stereotypical ballroom diva with a troubled mind. Kiss of Fire is a trans-generational romp full of drama, romance and a certain hard-to-pin spark of mania that makes the whole package perfect for weddings and Bar Mitzvahs.
(3.0 stars) -- Greg Beets


TWO MINUTE SINATRA

Very strange album, inside and out. The cover art is cryptic and spare, and the music on the CD is all over the place. "Crush" sounds like Wire Train, and "Torture Me" could have been recorded by a tired Curiosity Killed the Cat. Thank goodness for "Holding You (Walking Away)," the best song and final track on the album. It's the only song here uninspired by anyone but the four men who joined forces just eight months ago. If you're attracted to their formula (simple drum tracks under repetitive keyboard melodies under electric guitar doodlings plus bittersweet lyrics), then you gotta check out their webpage, where they finally let you in on their secret: They're just "guys who wanted to put a little glamour and flash into the substance." Translation: They're just a bar band that decided to put their songs on CD.
(1.5 stars) -- Melissa Rawlins



MILKER

We Use the De Laval Milker

The guitar work is competent, even driving in spots and there's a tight rhythm section sporting some solid sax; lots of heart put into each part. But when you put the CD in, it plays it all at the same time, and that's not really a good thing. The mix struggles. When the sax breaks into song after song, you start with "Wow, that's different," moving quickly to "What the hell did they do that for?," and ultimately settling for "Hey, put something else on." We Use the De Laval Milker offers a few moments of promise, like the swinging intro to "Stay Clear" and the background harmonies of "Government," which indicate an original and cohesive direction for this local band, but their maiden release seems to have landed this CD in a whole bunch of the wrong places.
(2.0 stars) -- Christopher Hess



BROTHER RUSSELL'S RADIO JIHAD

(Vinyl Communications)

Can there really be too many prank phone call tapes out there? Probably, but until Christianity gives up one of their many radio frequencies to the art, I'm inclined to tell folks like Brother Russell to keep fighting the good fight. Radio Jihad specializes in pissing on the parade of pompous talk radio windbags up and down the local AM dial. Much like the underground army of Howard Stern cranksters, the callers slowly lull call screeners and hosts into a false sense of complacency before transgressing from the sublime to the stupid. For example, one call begins as an earnest discussion of the Bible before degenerating into psychobabble about how the Antichrist will be a crystal that imbues monkeys with demonology. Another caller convincingly assumes the persona of a little old lady who goes from professing her love for Christ to angrily rebuking her husband for watching a porn video. The callers get under the skin of host Mike East enough to make him wish a pox on the Jihad. "They're one taco short of a combination plate!" says East. Radio Jihad may not be the funniest or cleverest of pranksters, but honestly, what's not to love about a little home-grown media terrorism?
(3.0 stars) -- Greg Beets




LAURIE FREELOVE

Songs From The Nineline (Chocolate)

Live recordings are sometimes tricky to digest, but this one from ex-Two Nice Girl Laurie Freelove is worth the risk. If you think there are better Freelove albums already playing in your living room, then bully for you! But for the neophyte, Songs From the Nineline demands listening like s'mores demand eating. Brave record-bin browsers, attracted by the ambiguous sexuality of the CD cover, will put this album on the stereo and feel their own soul grow bigger, filled by the beautifully wise love songs and dangerously compelling rhythms. Each moment spent with Freelove's folky acoustics -- punctuated by her unpredictably soaring-then-raspy-then-gentle voice piercing your every receptor -- is an intimate indulgence. This seems due to the fact that the songs were recorded not in front of a live audience, but during live radio broadcasts instead -- making you her live audience. In the end, you'll find yourself giving thanks to each deejay and production engineer who helped document Freelove's clarity. Then you'll smack your lips and press play again.
(4.0 stars) -- Melissa Rawlins


BRAVE COMBO

Mood Swing Music (Rounder)
This grab-bag collection of outtakes and rarities from Brave Combo's Rounder releases has the same appeal as a Kellogg's Variety Pack. Because the band assumes completely new identities from album to album, it's impossible to gauge the breadth of their output without the aid of a sampler. Mood Swing Music explores everything from conjunto to ondo, a genre combining Western pop with traditional Japanese music. The album also contains plenty of instrumentals, any of which could make elevators infinitely more interesting. The band's zany take on Music Explosion's "Little Bit O'Soul" is enough to convince me that they should ponder going mano a mano with Muzak in the musical manipulation industry. Another highlight is "Skin," an Ernest Noyes Brookings (Duplex Planet) poem set to
music that presents Brave Combo as the logical heir to Joe Raposo's post at Sesame Street. You
even get Tiny Tim's quasi-pornographic reading of the Beatles' "Girl"! Brave Combo's educated pillaging of music is as rewarding as a day of used bookshop hopping, and an odds-and-sods compilation which really drives that intimate joy of discovery to heart.
(3.5 stars) -- Greg Beets


CHRIS WALL

Every Saturday Night in Texas (Cold Spring)

Chris Wall is a true Texan. Check out his hat, his laugh, and hell, his whole damn frame. Looks like he could wrestle a blue norther one-handed. He sings like a Texan, too, in a smoky tenor-baritone that appreciates a stiff glass of Beam almost as much as vintage George Jones. (The two are far from mutually exclusive). He's even true to the state motto, "Friendship," lassoing friends Dale Watson ("Ship Me Back to Texas"), Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis ("Miles of Rodeo"), and Mary Cutrufello ("Damn Good Time") to help out. And of course, he plays with the true honky-tonk verve that this state demands. But the most Texan thing about Wall may be his seasoned barroom wit. If he's not subtly nudging his Greek following with references to Jerry Jeff, Robert Earl, and Ray Wylie, he's tossing off a couplet along the lines of "I don't normally play the fool, but I'd love to fool around with you." Real timeless stuff. Timeless as each and every Saturday night in Texas.
(3.0 stars) -- Christopher Gray


MARY CUTRUFELLO

Who to Love and When to Leave

Last year, Philadelphia's "alt-country" pride and joy, Go to Blazes, put out a live-to-ADAT fan club CD that was not only better than any of their label efforts, it was also better than 90 percent of what passes for major-label country crap. Their secret? A case of beer, an afternoon of studio time, and no overdubs. And because Mary Cutrufello's Who to Love and When to Leave was also recorded live-to-ADAT with "no lead vocal or solo guitar overdubs," one gets the idea she was going for that same shit-kicking live energy and vibe. Certainly, with her hoarse vocal style and bucking Fender raunch, that had to be the plan. Unfortunately, Cutrufello's no whiskey-soaked Bocephus like GTB's Ed Warren, she doesn't have a good batch of songs or any covers (doing a Lee Hazelwood, Kinky Friedman or even Lou Reed song did wonders for you-know-who), and she doesn't have the benefit of a producer like Eric "Roscoe" Ambel to tell her when the mix sounds horrible. Fans of this ramblin' Texas filly, who recently worked wonders on Jimmie Dale Gilmore's tour, might find this sloppy, half-baked batch of goods very much to their liking, but Who to Love and When to Leave sounds more like an "alt-country" album, than one of those real country albums they make up in Philly.
(2.0 stars) -- Raoul Hernandez


BREEDLOVE

Reach Out (Velvet)

Sometimes a voice can carry a band, but rarely can a lone voice carry an album. Undeniably, Dan Dyer can sing his way around a song, yet his golden throat has clearly matured faster than Breedlove's aluminum songwriting. In fact, the whole package -- from the Vaughan pedigree to the forced blooze -- is all too reminiscent of Storyville's Bluest Eyes, the pre-Atlantic indie that squandered a great voice and backing talent with poor material. And while Reach Out shows enough potential that this local band could eventually rebound like Storyville, what's disconcerting is Breedlove's indecision as to whether they're about Grand Funk (Railroad) or pseudo-alternative textures. Without any real "jamming" capabilities, the glut of songs over four minutes seems equally puzzling. Most alarming, however, is this CD's poor production, in which Dyer's croons are all too often buried deep below a simplistic organ or
guitar part -- quickly sucking the edge out of contenders like "3am Drag" and "Peregrine." Although diehards will argue they've found another subtly hidden gem or two, the fact remains that a band with this kind of hype and promise demands a better first impression.
(2.5 stars) -- Andy Langer



FRANK ROBINSON & GUITAR CURTIS

Deep East Texas Blues (Black Magic/Munich)

East Texas is special. The sententious, silently majestic pine trees and the way the stars seem to fill up the whole sky give the place a supernatural air, like time has slowed and is permitting you a window to get everything figured out. East Texas, a haven when reality leaves tire treads across your back, is also as real as it gets. They know the blues in the Piney Woods. They live the blues. Drive up highway 87, 59, or 63, and you're following the trail of Leadbelly, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Lightnin' Hopkins. It's down that highway Frank Robinson and Guitar Curtis are speeding on Deep East Texas Blues, past all the roadhouses and barbecue pits that keep Hopkins' flame alive (Robinson is the great Lightnin' Sam's nephew), and juke joints where Curtis honed his chops to rival Buddy Guy and Albert King. Sadly, one of those East Texas highways robbed Curtis of his life last December, though he and Robinson had already done what no one has done for years and years: captured the rich, tradition-soaked black music of East Texas on album just as evocatively as Les Blank once did on film.
(4.0 stars) -- Christopher Gray

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