Record Reviews

The following are albums by artists playing the 1997 South by Southwest music conference. Each review is tagged with the day, venue, and time the artist is playing, but all information
is subject to change, so please check your SXSW schedule. Lots more reviews next week in the Chronicle's special pull-out section.
THE DROPOUTS

Come On (Unclean)

The advance tape of Come On has been in my semi-regular rotation since about November, and would have made it -- easily -- onto my 10 best local releases of 1996 but for the small detail that it wasn't actually released yet. All punked-up garage blues, signifyin' harmonica, and sneering guitar licks, the Dropouts are a sort of Girls Against Boys to their San Antonio cousins the Sons of Hercules' Humpers, and Come On is every bit a call to get funky, low-down, and nasty as last year's House of GVSB . All 14 songs drip with more testosterone than Jon Spencer's underwear and ooze more sex than a lingerie modeling studio. Put this album on when you feel like sweating -- a lot. (Saturday, Hole in the Wall, Midnight)
3.5 Stars -- Christopher Gray


BETTIE SERVEERT

Dust Bunnies (Matador)

The first two Bettie Serveert albums were good for at least one thing: a surprise. The first, Palomine, pulled off one of the most inventive takes on After the Goldrush-era Neil Young. The second album, Lamprey, with its slow-paced drabness, was striking for its lack of resemblance to the first. This time around, there's nothing remotely shocking. Having exhausted most of its originality regarding the sonic possibilities, the band decided to earmark Dust Bunnies with intelligible lyrics and melodies that stick while finding some neutral ground between the crash and the strum. Singer Carol Van Dijk's drama is not gone, just toned down, and the band's cut-and-paste, incongruous verse-to-chorus segues have been smoothed out, making Dust Bunnies the band's least rigorous record. Which is fine. Who wants music to be challenging all the time? So, the lack of anything unexpected simply means that, at least for the time being, Bettie Serveert has settled -- not really compromised anything, just found a bit of a stride. (Friday, Liberty Lunch, 11pm)
3.0 Stars -- Michael Bertin


THE EGG

Albumen (China/Discovery)

I'm pretty sure this is just Roger Waters masquerading as an ambient pop group, but the liner notes tell otherwise. This Oxford-based quartet take the rudiments of the latest clickbeep knob twiddlers (i.e. the Orb) and flesh things about a bit, adding sustainable melodies throughout and limiting their penchant for oddities to an ongoing sense of the Floyd. With headphones stapled to my noggin, sitting quietly in a darkened room lit only by the 300-plus gonesh sticks I'd smuggled out of Kurdistan on my quick hike out, I could've sworn I'd seen a giant pig idly circling my ceiling, but then I hadn't slept in four days either, so maybe the whole thing was a wash. Producer Joe Gibb (Massive Attack, Leftfield, Stereo MCs) leaves his imprint all over this CD, though. It's organic in a pure, vibrant fashion, filled with not just the aformentioned clickbeeps, but also velvetine eddies of softsounds, and the occasional crossover dance track. No, seriously. The War of the Floyds may be well and truly over by now, but their mutant progeny live on. Music for a blunted moment. (Thursday, Bob Popular, Midnight)
3.0 Stars -- Marc Savlov


JAZZ PASSENGERS

Individually Twisted (32)

If you'd have told me 10 years ago that Deborah Harry and Elvis Costello would sing and swing on a jazz album (and on a duet for that matter), I'd have told you that your bi-level was cut a little too close. But in listening to Individually Twisted it's clear to me that I'd have been the one with the taut bi-level: both Harry (as the primary vocalist) and Costello (as guest artist) not only hold their own on this release, they meld well with the fine playing of New York's renowned avant-garde Jazz Passengers, the real reason to check out this album. Not that I didn't like the coloration that Harry and Costello add to Individually Twisted (Harry shows a Jimmy Scott side of her singing at the beginning of "Angel Eyes"), but when the music approaches a smooth Sun Ra-like orchestrated chaos and later takes on a tamed down version of the Groove Collective, I take heed. (Saturday, Liberty Lunch, Midnight)
3.0 Stars -- David Lynch


PARLOR JAMES

Dreadful Sorry EP (Discovery)

Amy Allison's voice is shocking. She's so nasal and whiny that it'll vibrate your epiglottis and make the hairs on the back of your neck strain at the roots. Yet I'll be damned if by the third listen of Dreadful Sorry I wasn't downright digging it. The music is soulful and true, the simple guitar and mandolin work that underlies the harmonic-if-odd vocal interplay between Allison and Ryan Hedgecock is elegant in its simplicity. Though you often question whether the music is simple or pedestrian, the vocals unique or just bad, the fact is that their choruses will stay with you whether you want them to or not. "Devil's Door" is easily the strongest track, though the duo seems most at home in the storytelling-ballad mode of their "Snow Dove" arrangement. The filled-out sound of "Down on Dreaming," the tickling of the bluesy piano and the climbing bass line, give it a haunting, out-of-time quality, but, after the song is seemingly over, they break into a vocal duet accompanied by a dubbed windy sound that makes for an unfortunately contrived ending. Time to see what they come up with on a full-length. (Saturday, Driskill Hotel Crystal Ballroom, Midnight)
2.5 Stars -- Christopher Hess


THE BACKSLIDERS

Throwin' Rocks at the Moon (Mammoth/Atlantic)

On first listen, you might think this is a new Bottle Rockets album, but nay, the Backsliders come from the original school of cowpunk, Southern California, by way of North Carolina. They have some of the guest names you'd expect from a hard-twangin' SoCal product, including Greg Liesz offering steel guitar help and Joy Lynn White on harmony vocals, and the name of all names -- Pete Anderson, producer. And the tutelage of Anderson pays off -- these guys blast out the country to do Yoakam, Ely, and Jason proud, their loud guitars racing neck-and-neck with intelligent songs from Chip Robinson and Steve Howell, over which they obviously labored long and hard. This album is proof that the alt-country thing is still on the upswing. (Wednesday, Liberty Lunch, 9pm)
4.0 Stars -- Lee Nichols


THE GRASSY KNOLL

Positive (Antilles)

The guitar album is back. In this dawning age of electronic music, where studioscapes mirror the technological vistas opening before us all, everything old is new again; dance music, prog-rock, shredding. Not to say that ex-local axe-man Bob Green is Steve Vai. He probably could be, but he'd rather be Bill Frisell, fusing studio wizardry with avant-garde jazz. Unfortunately, this lab experiment isn't a Frisellian modern-day Prometheus. It's rather clumsy, a little awkward. Individually, each song works on a sonic level, many of them creating foreboding, post-apocalyptic wastelands; some mournful strings here, skronking there, angular blowing, dark and brooding piano. Collectively, however, it all starts to sound the same after awhile. Though all-instrumental, Positive could use a lot more of the vocal sampling Green only flirts with -- more sound snippets to make the brew stranger, looser, more wild. Green needs to let go, and get way out there like Frisell -- or better yet, Bill Laswell. This being only the second Grassy Knoll album, one looks forward to less refined madness in the future from Green. (Friday, Maggie Mae's West, 1am)
2.0 Stars -- Raoul Hernandez


SLUSH

North Hollywood (Discovery)

Not since Van Halen penned "I'll Wait" in 1984 has a song captured the Los Angeles pastime of stalking models as well as Slush's "Milla": "I sat in front of your house for hours, I wrote you letters and sent you flowers," bemoans frontman Johnne Peters in perfect blues phrasing over a stuttering punk beat. But just as a centerpiece song on a debut should, "Milla" plays out as witty, not pathetic, unveiling Peters not as a mere pop huckster, but as a truly charismatic frontman. So, while "Milla" theoretically anchors a life-in-North Hollywood concept album, Slush's real theme seems to be more about establishing likable vehicles for yet another notorious Roth-like frontman, which, when combined with the out-front guitars on the rest of the album, ought to make North Hollywood more useful as a killer live show primer than as a cohesive debut. None of this is to say there isn't a slew of clever songs ("Cocoon") and even smarter hooks ("Throw Me a Line") on North Hollywood or that the world doesn't need one more real rock star, because Peters certainly seems to have all the makings of just that. (Wednesday, Copper Tank, 1am)
3.0 Stars -- Andy Langer


FREE FOR ALL VOL. 2

(Nickel & Dime)

Between Free for All Vol 1., Cooking by Strobe Light, Do Me Baby!, and now this, Austin's got compilations on the brain. While this probably means more of those dorky Statesman report-card album reviews, each one is proof that Austin's much-maligned club circuit is active and creative as ever. Deftly balancing unsung stalwarts, familiar faces, and relative newcomers, Free for All Vol. 2 is a fine cross section of a scene that nothing -- not major-label interlopers, fickle crowds, or clueless critics -- can destroy. Musically, the best stuff is Spoon's "Operation in Progress," as wiry and manic as anything on Telephono, Big Foot Chester's blustery "Booze Party," Fastball's aquiline Iggy Pop cover "Knockin' Em Down in the City," the Orange Mothers' Pavement-meets-Bad Livers "Soul," the Damnations' high lonesome "Ain't Gonna Work Tomorrow," and the too-close-to-home duo of Earthpig's "Song About Nothin'" and Superego's "Nowhere Worse to Go." Elsewhere, Starfish, the Gourds, the Adults, and Wookie have all done better work, while an amusing Skanky Yankee song about crapping on someone's lawn, the inimitable (and inexplicable) Drums & Tuba's "Loteria," and the Dismukes' groggy "Magnolia Song" fall somewhere in the middle. Paraphrasing Mark Twain, this compilation proves (as do the others) reports of the Austin Underground's death have been greatly exaggerated. (Sunday, Hole in the Wall, 11pm)
3.5 Stars -- Christopher Gray


ROSIE FLORES & RAY CAMPI

A Little Bit of Heartache (Watermelon)

I've always thought that local rockabilly mainstay Ray Campi was rather hit-or-miss, and that's certainly the case on A Little Bit of Heartache. At times, Campi sounds as though he's being dragged along by Rosie Flores, yet at other times, such as on Flores' "Bandera Highway" or Merle Travis' "There Ain't a Cow in Texas," they march ahead sharply and give a glimpse as to what Campi must have been like in his prime. Throughout the album, recorded in 1990, the loving admiration of Flores is obvious, adding to the big-name feathers in her duet cap, following last year's work with Janis Martin and Wanda Jackson. There's some worthwhile material here; the decision is just whether you also want to pay for the lackluster tracks as well. (Friday, Antone's, 9pm)
2.5 Stars -- Lee Nichols


THAMUSEMEANT

Breakfast Epiphanies

It's nice to see so much attention paid to the lyrics and the delivery of them -- not so much judging their delivery for aesthetic value, but rather focusing on the conveyance of words for artistic value. For Austin's ThaMuseMent, the story being told and the cadence of the singing work off each other for an immediately appealing mix of folk and swing. It's stripped down, but it does swing. The guitars are understated even when distorted, and the rhythm moves along amiably. Still, it's the unique vocal styles of Nathan Moore and Aimeé Curl that are the focus here, as the latter wisps "I just said it. I didn't mean it. I just wanted to see your face," while he growls "I was born to be just the songs I've written." These two songs, "I Won't Say It" and "Money," are stand-outs, the music in each rolling along half-oblivious to the lyrical progressions, and the words doing the same with the chords. Perhaps if the band utilized the mandolin a little more, the breach between the music and lyrics would be closed: The instrument's pitch is the connecting tone between the two singers and it fills out their music in fine fashion. (Thursday, Steamboat, 8pm)
2.5 Stars -- Christopher Hess


OMAR & THE HOWLERS

Southern Style (Watermelon)

Southern Style is as solid a blues album as you're gonna get anywhere, anytime. Not that this is surprising when you've got a bluesworthy trio like Omar & the Howlers, nicely augmented here by Stephen Bruton's guitar punctuations, and Mark Hallman's percussive attachments. Kudos also to Richard Mullen, who's done and excellent job of mixing Southern Style. None of this is to say that Omar & Co. can't hold a tune on their own, because any blues fan who hears "Burn It to the Ground" will tell you emphatically that they're hearing the real deal. The blues is at its best in a live environment, and for the most part, the only thing missing from this disc is applause. The longer pieces, with more interplay between the players and more musical and lyrical exploration are best, with cuts such as "Angel Blues" and "Full Moon on Main Street" being the stand-outs. Then there's Omar's voice, which can only be called Dr. John meets Howlin' Wolfman Jack. Lordee, who says the blue is dead? (Wednesday, Antone's, Midnight)
3.0 Stars -- David Lynch


GARY PRIMICH

Company Man (Black Top)

Thanks to Guy Forsyth, Austin seems to think it's fulfilled its quota of white blues singers musically aware of a time before the Allman Brothers and Cream. Nevertheless, he's not the only white guy out there who ever heard a Little Walter record. Gary Primich, perpetual dark horse on Austin's blues track, is proof enough. Company Man's "Jailbird" and "Hook, Line, and Sinker" make more than adequate cases for Primich's pinch-hitting with the Asylum Street Spankers, should something ever happen to Forsyth. Instrumentally gifted -- as non-vocal numbers like "The Briar Patch," featuring a scorching Booker T. organ solo from James Polk, and "Varmint" demonstrate -- Primich has picked up a thing or two from Kim Wilson, shown on the Butt Rockin' T-Bird grooves of "My Home" and "Ain't You Trouble." But he's no knockoff artist. In a town full of white blues pretenders, Primich is, like Forsyth, one of the realest cats on the prowl. (Wednesday, Antone's, 11pm)
3.0 Stars -- Christopher Gray


RUN ON

No Way (Matador)

Using that infamous post office "Wanted" sketch of the Unabomber for one of Run On's singles from a couple years back ("Miscalculation" b/w "A to Z"), couldn't have been more perfect. After all, few groups -- especially one like this NY quartet with indie, no-wave credibility to burn -- have no identity whatsoever. Even the press kit, with raves from all the best publications, doesn't know what to make of 'em; Patti Smith and late-Seventies CBGBs seem to be the only consensus. Most writers can't even come up with a single musical comparison. This could only be a good thing, really -- except when it comes to a record review. How do you describe a band that has done such a masterful job of assimilating every style of modern music that you can't pick one lousy name out of the melting pot? Here's what we do know about the band's second full-length: Lo-fi production, mudfuzz guitar with tom-tom driven Delta rhythms, graveyard violin, and Sue Gardner's dusty-road clarion call (hubby Rick Brown and guitarist Alan Licht also sing), all wrapped around hooky pop songs and a good sense of who to cover (Nick Drake, Nina Simone). And it's brilliant. How else could they blow shit up like this without anyone having a clue as to who they are? (Friday, Liberty Lunch, 9pm)
3.5 Stars -- Raoul Hernandez


GNOMES OF ZURICH

33rd Degree Burns (Amphetamine Reptile)

Sure it's an interesting name (Gnomes of Zurich is a sect of Austrian Mason bankers) but what's behind it? Anvil-weighted, pitch-dark, chaotic grooves, and apropos lyrics, that's what. And the gravitational pull of the Gnomes' bad-ass subterranean swagger comes mainly from the unholy bass of Scott Hull. It's the heaviest bass you've come across since the darkest days of acid rock, and it's a welcome change from the usual piss-weak low-end on most albums. Unfortunately, 33rd Degree Burns isn't mixed well enough to handle all this low-end. Some of the higher frequencies sound under water ("Bath in Me" for example). Even still, the 13 tunes on 33rd Degree Burns are so good that after a while you don't much care. Listening to the interplay between Hull's bass, Matt Entsminger's drums, and Joachim Breuer's guitar (both formerly of Janitor Joe), keeps drawing you in further and further. Both Breuer and Hull sing, adding a nice dimension to the basic trio format, and while both vocalists have their own unique style, somehow they work well together -- particularly on the album's best tune, "Are Snakes the Devil?" They are for the Gnomes of Zurich. (Friday, Emo's, 10pm)
3.0 Stars -- David Lynch


DADDY LONGHEAD

Supermasonic (Honest Abe's)

What was once a mere side project has evolved into a bona fide contender for ex-Butthole Surfer bassist Jeff Pinkus. Too bad they broke up. Supermasonic finds Daddy Longhead exploring big dumb rock with a unique lemony twist. Song one, "Churn," pays homage to the infamous Seventies groupie known as "The Butter Queen," and that ribald sentiment kinda sets the tone. Aural cock rock iconics from the likes of KISS, Robin Trower, and Deep Purple circa Burn are peppered throughout the album. Although there are more than enough ample twists and perversions -- such as Jimbo Yongue's stunning heavy metal fiddle solo on "My Feet Are Smoking" -- keeping Supermasonic from being hard rock vaudeville, the distinction is delightfully subtle. Daddy Longhead's subversion of the genre would probably go unnoticed by the folks who'd eagerly fork over $18 to see Foghat with one original member who's not Lonesome Dave. When the album finally winds to a close and the lights go back up, the only thing missing is a big cloud of pot smoke. (Saturday, Back Room, 10pm)
3.0 Stars -- Greg Beets


SQUIRTGUN

Another Sunny Afternoon (Lookout!)

Squirtgun's bassist Mass Giogini's already made a name for himself as a melodi-punk record producer, spinning knobs and tapes for luminaries like the Riverdales, the Queers, and hundreds more. Hence, the lazy journalist's temptation would be to brand Giorgini's own candypunk outfit "Garbage for baggy-shirted skate teens," but things are rarely that simple, are they? Another Sunny Afternoon is practically over before it starts, clocking in as it does at a little over 24 minutes, and bulleting through 12 sticks of pogo-party Dubble Bubble with thick, downstroked guitars, Ramonic/Descended rhythms, and lyrics that seem Brill Building-romantic on the surface yet are filled with poison. Innocent only if you probe skin-deep, and singer Matt Hart's a different shade of red from Shirley Manson's own head. (Saturday, Emo's Jr., Midnight)
3.0 Stars -- Tim Stegall


FLUF

Waikiki (Way Cool/MCA)

While fluf's roots are firmly entrenched in the mid-Eighties SoCal punk scene, their fourth outing (first for a major label) owes a lot to the bands that managed to evolve beyond the filth and fury. Guitarist/vocalist O (Olivelawn) obviously did his homework before writing tunes like "Skip Beat" and "Pushing Back Days." Both add a warbled swagger to the loud, meaty pop dynamic of acts like the Foo Fighters and Sugar, while Drive Like Jehu drummer Mark Trombino's production soups up the sound even further with slick bombast. "The Chooser" signals a slight departure with its omnipotent guitar riff, but the dominating theme of Waikiki sounds a bit rubbed in the ground these days. Ultimately, pure adrenal thunder is fluf's biggest attribute, but whether that's truly enough is questionable. (Alamo Drafthouse Theatre, Midnight)
2.5 Stars -- Greg Beets


SICK OF IT ALL

Built to Last (Elektra)

The name of the band and the album pretty much says it all. One of the faster and more ragged bands to emerge from the New York city hardcore underground, Sick of It All spew out 45 minutes of supersonic fuzz `n' drums seemingly without breathing. "Busted" begins as a miracle of speed, but like many of the songs here, works in a fair amount of dynamic texture. Lou Koller's anger eclipses even that of Rage Against the Machine's Zach de la Rocha, although he remains articulate throughout his yelping. Swipes at the status quo, "Laughingstock" and "Too Late," mirror exhortational cries to smash the system such as "Don't Follow," "End the Era," and the surprisingly poppy "Burn 'Em Down." Unexpectedly though, Sick of It All sometimes trade their nihilism for an edgy communitarianism. "Good Lookin' Out" trusts that "true friends will always be there," while "Built to Last," "Chip Away," and "Us vs. Them" celebrate the bond of the resistant. Few songs in this vein can claim to believe that "when it's us versus them, it's a global unity." Then again, that could just be the battle cry of the impending cultural war. This band may be on the defensive, but they're definitely going to lash out for change. (Wednesday, Emo's Jr., 10pm)
3.0 Stars -- Ken Hunt


THRUSH HERMIT

Sweet Homewrecker (Elektra)

In 1995, Nova Scotia's Thrush Hermit earned indie credibility points for recording with Steve Albini. In late 1996, they dropped the noise schtick and recorded Sweet Homewrecker, which ought to yield major label payoff points -- the kind that buys cars and builds homes. Because even with all this debut's paint-by-numbers pop concessions, most notably the nonsense lyrical drive and too-sweet melodies, the real genius of Sweet Homewrecker is the gamble that guitar rock's going to return -- that today's music buyers know and care as much about Bob Mould as they do AC/DC. This means, that from its jangly opening ("Skip the Life") to the whine `n' drone of its epic finish "Came and Went," this album's only consistency is its guitar approach: crunchy, loud, and way out front. In between chords, Thrush Hermit come off as everything from Weezer with balls to a slacker Deep Purple, even managing a truly original turn as themselves on the radio hit-in-waiting, "At My Expense." Sweet Homewrecker is proof that hooks, not Steve Albini's reputation, are the actual keys to a huge-sounding album. (Wednesday Maggie Mae's, 9pm)
3.0 Stars -- Andy Langer


SERVOTRON

No Room for Humans (Amphetamine Reptile)

The future, as they say, isn't everything it's cracked up to be. If bands as febrile and monotonous as Servotron are what the rock & roll audience of the 21st Century has to look forward to, it's downright depressing. The Servotron Robot Authority, supposedly humankind's evolutionary successors, is nothing more than warmed-over Devo riffs and computer-nerd jargon that's as simplistic as programming a Commodore 64. And it is robotic: annoyingly sing-song, bouncy, and droning, totally devoid of any pulse or feeling. At least Man... Or Astroman? and Supernova, the two bands Servotron sprouted from, are if not innovative then at least adventurous. Servotron isn't much more of a trip than one to the local record store where all the Thomas Dolby and Gary Numan knockoffs reside in the castaway bin for $2.99 a CD. How do you take seriously a band that seems to get most of its robotic behavior cues from the nose-holdingly bad Eighties TV series Small Wonder? Don't. Instead, treat them like a computer, and find the off switch ASAP. (Friday, Emo's, 8pm)
1.5 Stars -- Christopher Gray

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