DEEP LISTENING BAND
& THE LONG STRING INSTRUMENT
Suspended Music (Periplum)
This is a fascinating and spiritually invigorating slice of musical experimentation that transcends the boundaries between artistic disciplines. Formed in 1988, Austin's Deep Listening Band holds the environment in which music is heard on roughly equal footing with the performance itself. It's a somewhat unorthodox approach that makes perfect sense if you think about it for five seconds. Their abstract, evocative compositions invite the listener to create his or her own soundscape. The band uses instruments ranging from accordion to didjeridoo to garden hose, not to mention the Long String Instrument. The latter is a 175-string apparatus that's played by walking between numbered lines on the floor that signify notes. Despite the music's esoteric pedigree, there are a lot of subtle intricacies going on here. Pauline Oliveros' "Epigraphs in the Time of AIDS" allows the musicians to weave their own unique aural memorial. The result is the same disparate flood of emotion one feels when viewing the AIDS Memorial Quilt. Ellen Fullman's "TexasTravelTexture" uses a similar musical approach to evoke images of endless West Texas roads. Although the listener must work to find meaning within this sonic collage, the payoff for the conscious explorer is heartening.
(3.5 stars) -- Greg Beets
Songs From the Pocket (Norsk Plateproduksjon)
Don't come running to this album by former
A-Ha bassist turned Austinite looking for falsetto happy-pop. Bøgeberg has fashioned a low-throated, sincere set that merits both the words "adult" and "contemporary" without putting the two together to spell crap. Not quite a song cycle, this might be called a life cycle, with songs dedicated to his late great-aunt (the quiet, heartfelt "Never Hear That Laugh"), children (the appropriately playful "Sweet Little Angel"), and an assortment of other day-to-day relationships torn from daily life. Musically, this is a strong, varied collection, with sweet female duetists, haunting slide guitar, and on "We Have Grown," strong, soulful backup vocals that sound as though Malford Milligan took a jaunt to Norway without telling us. And just as I was thinking that this sounded like where Dire Straits should've pointed their sails after the first album, the phrase "water of life" comes up in the lyrics. Hmmm... In any case, Bøgeberg's album compares favorably with any of our home-groan songwriters, and Michael Hall fans especially should eat this up.
(3.0 stars) -- Ken Lieck
Road Novel (Bohemia Beat)
Opening scene: AM. Pre-first cup of coffee. First rays of sunlight hit the dash. Clear skies ahead. Stations bleed into each other. Ramblin' Jack Elliot on one, the Allman Brothers on the other. A flat stretch of Interstate Highway. Fuel for the restless soul. Set the cruise control. Nothing but smooth sailing for the next couple of hours. Cut to 10am. The deceptive, late-morning lull sets in. The euphoria of daylight wears off. Stop and stretch. Pop in some Dylan. Stoke the fire for the next stretch. Check the odometer -- half way there. Cut to early afternoon. Walk back to the car, picking your teeth with the corner of a matchbook cover. Just a couple hundred more miles. It seems close, but not close enough. Hours of looking at nothing out the windshield gives way to scenery. Rolling hills. Pick up an Americana station left of the dial. The air starts to smell heavy. Feels like rain. Cut to the last stretch of road. A little worn down, but antsy enough to lean on the accelerator. Most everything is behind you. Cut to inside a sterile room. A nap. A show. Then do it all over again. A Road Novel? Its story is a series of shifting settings.
(2.5 stars) -- Michael Bertin
Crooked Mile (Raven)
In the discovery process, you'll find the pretty goods, awfully bads, acquired tastes, and guilty pleasures. Trish Murphy, however, you can file under the rare heading of "immediately likable." At first, half the appeal is the southern accents that punctuate her voice -- itself singularly capable of soothing while still being sturdy and confident. And it's the natural sway `n' twang of that voice that could've put Murphy in that uncomfortably clunky gray area between pop and country. Rather than get stuck in English murk though, Murphy deflects the issue with compromise: quirky country narratives and smart pop choruses. As such, "Boiling Water" and "Scorpio Tequila, " the album's diverse centerpieces, somehow use that equation and Murphy's voice to defy traditional labeling -- whereby the worst you could call them would be "AAA radio naturals." Better yet, the bulk of the material here qualifies as good singer-songwriter material, the type that laymen can hum and the kind you'd imagine older and wiser colleagues like Emmylou Harris or Lucinda Williams lining up to sing. And while producer Dave McNair no doubt deserves the credit for Crooked Mile's overall fluidity, it's clear that the subtle phrasing, witty word-turns, and sharp characters are all Murphy; components it takes to deliver the scarce debut that's both substantive, and yes, immediately likable.
(4.0 stars) -- Andy Langer
Songs for All Seasons (MKM)
It's no secret the martini & cigar crowd has ruined Scott Joplin's legacy for everyone, turning jazz into lounge -- the elegant and sophisticated into the pretentious and empty. Well, then, Mady Kaye's blood is on their evening wear, because sophistication and elegance are swooning under the spell of Kaye's cool, seductive jazz stylings. And that's not just because Kaye sings "Autumn Leaves" in French. Mais, non, mes amis. Neither is it the singer's own Dixieland rent party, "Take It Home Someplace," nor her four-song ode to the seasons, which ends the album like mother nature sweeping leaves from the Autumn trees. It's not even the strong support of local jazz vets like Rich Harney, Spencer Starnes, A.D. Mannion, Mitch Watkins, Tony Campise, John Mills, and Bob Meyer, that makes Kaye sound like she's walking on clouds of her own design. Okay, it's a lot of that -- all that, actually. That, and the fact that Kaye sounds like she was born to duet with Mel Torme. Mainly, though, it's that Kaye doesn't sing "lounge" music, she sings jazz -- lives each note, breathes every line, inhabits every song. And when someone sings like that, it isn't cigar & martini music, it's a champagne & caviar rendezvous for two.
(3.0 stars) -- Raoul Hernandez
Live in Texas and Japan (Watermelon)
Red Hot Daddy (Goofin)
Buy these albums for three reasons: To play in the car on your way to see the band live; to listen to at home when they're not playing live; and to send a gift to your sad New York friend who mostly thinks Texas is some band from Scotland. In other words, to really appreciate why you should listen to the purest rockabilly boogie sound in Austin, you have to go see it in person. In honor of that, High Noon have provided Live in Texas and Japan, a compilation of cuts from a 1989 KUT "Live Set," a live gig at the Continental Club, and a recent tour in Japan. (Another reason to enjoy the live album: a shrieking Japanese fan's passionate welcome, and Shaun Young's hearty "Origato!" in return.) The majority of highlights are lead guitarist Sean Mencher and Young originals -- notably "Rattlesnake Man," "Rockin' Wildcat," and a tremulous lounge-style "Devil Woman" with bassist Kevin Smith snapping his best backbone rhythms. The more recent recordings from the Continental and the tour show off Mencher and Young at their most harmonious -- a lot can happen in eight years, not all of it bad. Shaun Young obviously wanted to turn a trick by himself on the solo album, and although he takes Smith along for comfort, he goes for a fuller sound than his normal three-piece, kicking it up with premiere drummer Lisa Pankrantz and Chris Miller on steel guitar, while adding sax and piano to the mix. The sound is more sophisticated, particularly on, "If I Can't Be Your Lover, I Don't Want to Be Your Friend." After all these years, Young has perfected his character retro voice, with classic vibrato hiccups and growling dips as on "She Still Loves Me," and "High Voltage." The one technical flaw on the CD is on the title track, which kicks off the album too abruptly, but as one piano teacher told me a long time ago, "It's not the scratches you're listening for, honey. It's the music." Too true.
(Live) (3.0 stars)
(Red Hot Daddy) (3.5 stars) -- Louisa C. Brinsmade
Blah... Blah... Blah (Step One)
The Geezinslaws are either a joke band or they aren't. If they are, then they're a joke band that can occasionally sing a decent -- if derivative -- country song. If they're not, they need to seriously rethink their choice of material. Kicking off the unfortunately, but appropriately, titled Blah... Blah... Blah, "Five Dollar Fine for Whining" drinks most everything on Sammy Allred's day job -- KVET -- under the table, as do "Red Letter Day for the Blues" and "Wedding Bells." But "Old Blevins" promptly cancels all three out with an inane chorus that, if the band hadn't forsaken any sense of shame a few years ago with the godawful, Austin-Music-Award-winning "Help! I'm White and I Can't Get Down," should by all rights only be performed wearing ski masks or paper bags. Then, when the band covers the Eagles' "Take It to the Limit" and "Over the Rainbow," you really start hoping it's a joke. A bad one, yeah, but at least it's better than having to take it seriously.
(1.5 stars) -- Christopher Gray
(Sympathy For The Record Industry)
Speed Queens are a now-veteran trio who've been tearing up the usual Austin punk fleapits for at least a few years now, flying the rapidly-tattering flag of pissed-off grrrl rawk. And compared to an early demo tape as well as a handful of their early gigs, they have come a long way. The presence of ex-Red Scare bassist Aynjul Benigno-Hernandez has especially put some low-end whumpf! into their shrieky sound. The Speed Queens' M.O. is problematic, however. Few pissed-off grrl rawkers can surpass the standards set by the pre-rasta-damage Slits, or even contemporaries Bikini Kill. Speed Queens do not offer much beyond rehashed archetypes, and at a time when even the modern day Queens of pissed-off grrl rawk L7 are sharpening up their compositional skills, Speed Queens have pathetically little to offer in the way of real songs. If they'd work on their songwriting and searching out a voice uniquely their own, Speed Queens could truly rule. As is, they'd only present a cool, noisy, angry night out.
(2.5 stars) -- Tim Stegall
Heroes of Modern Perversion
Throughout their decade or so of existence, the most daunting challenge for the Pocket FishRmen (aside from the inevitable personnel changes) has been to somehow transpose the adrenal rush of their live shows onto an album without the benefit of Eddie Kramer or Jimmy Iovine at the board. Although you'll still miss the sight of Brant Bingamon in disco ball bikini briefs, Heroes of Modern Perversion comes very close to approximating the band's many live charms. The raw, echoing production goes a long way toward giving the FishRmen that bigger-than-life sound they deserve. And who can argue with the song selection? Purists may give the band grief for resurrecting older material like "Amy Carter" and "The Leader Is Burning," but it's not like those songs got their just due the first time around. Besides, the classics segue quite nicely into powerful new material like the "Closer to Home"-style epic, "Gay Jew Conquistador Trilogy," and the painfully real acoustic interlude, "Cry Me a River That Leads to Your Pussy." Heroes of Modern Perversion may be an album-long dick joke, but with Bingamon at the lyrical helm, you're getting a twisted Eastern intellectual cum revolutionary brand of dick joke that Noam Chomsky might tell if he did stand-up. This is a barrel of lurid punk rock fun that is sure to ring sweetly in the ears of enlightened minds congregated in the gutter.
(3.5 stars) -- Greg Beets
THE EDGE OF COUNTRY
A blurb inside the CD packaging mumbles something about this anthologizing "alternative country from Austin, Texas." Phraseology like that brings up all manner of scary images of guys in dreadlocks, flannel shirts, and bigass Stetsons screaming "Whiskey River" above a pedal steel force-fed through a Big Muff. What you get instead, are more traditional noises, all varying strains of honky-tonkitis ranging from Ted Roddy's Elvis-hip-shaking-in-Bakersfield schtick (accompanied by his latest outfit, the Tearjoint Troubadors) to pure Ray Price (Roy Heinrich). Every track's a winner, including those by Jeff Hughes and Chaparral, Chris Miller, and Susanna Van Tassel, but wouldn't "real country" have been more accurate a label than "alternative country?" Then again, the real thing is the alternative to LeAnn Rimesitis....
(3.5 stars) -- Tim Stegall
Lovin' the Blues Too Long (Rocket Cat)
Hmmm ... Let's see. Definitely a blues album, yup. Jazz singers don't have that much drawl, and most rockers aren't this in tune. Definite debt to Billie Holiday, Etta James, and Angela Strehli, but that's no surprise. Nothing on this album is much of a surprise, except maybe that a group of Austin musicians could refrain from trying to out-solo each other long enough to record 14 easygoing, sit-down-and-strum tracks. It's not the most exciting thing in the world, but neither is taking a shower, and you do that, don't you? It's a little strange that a woman who says she's been "Lovin' the Blues Too Long" doesn't sound more angst-ridden and heartbroken, but hey, the blues hasn't been about heartbreak since Muddy finally got paid. More finger-wagging than fist-shaking, Lovin' the Blues Too Long ultimately falls victim to its own lackadaisical attitude, but it's not ... bad. Just unremarkable.
(2.5 stars) -- Christopher Gray
User Friendly (Girl Loves Guitar)
This is dreadful. It's that late-Eighties drab college rock that never graduated -- like a boring version of the Connells (as if that band weren't boring enough), only here with a girl, Sheridan Roalson, out front. And if that weren't enough, content-wise, User Friendly is filled with annoying Lisa Loeb-like vacillating reactions to boy-girl relationships: I hate you. I need you. You ruined me. I love you. Love me. I'm going to have my way with you. I hate you again. Furthermore, Roalson continually über-enunciates the vowel sounds in this really tiresome manner where "too much" is sung as "tyu mahch." As bad as all that stuff is, it still ain't the worst of it. Bastardizing a slogan from the War Room: It's the delivery, stupid. Loeb may have written a batch of atrocious songs, but at least she sings them in a manner where it's plausible to believe that those were the actual emotions she was dealing with. After "The River," the album's opening and only decent track, Roalson's couldn't fool an L.A. jury with her delivery.
(1.5 stars) -- Michael Bertin
& THE IMPERIAL MONKEYS
Bursting With Flavor (Justice)
Some people can sing and some people can write, and Houston's Carolyn Wonderland just isn't one of those people that can do both. That's the nasty truth behind Bursting With Flavor, an album that implodes, not bursts, from underwritten songs. And while penning 10 tracks on any blues-intensive record is itself commendable, there's far too many disposable rockers and hollow ballads for the total package to come off as strikingly husky as Wonderland's strong voice. And while she's built a career thus far on her near-perfect blues inflections and phrasings, it's actually the rock stuff that works best here, including the Little Feat-ish boogie of "Harmonicar," wherein her interplay with guest pianist Ian McLagan makes for the only track you want to hear twice. Mostly though, tracks like "Momma Don't Like Your Friends" and "It Ain't Me Dammit" still make better titles than tunes, although the closing "Stay" does offer some hope, in that it's the rare torch song with both soul and voice. It remains to be seen whether Bursting With Flavor is just a misstep or an indication that Wonderland's needs to spend more time with pen and paper.
(2.5 stars) -- Andy Langer
No Angel Knows (Philo)
This album is stranded between a rock and the long face of folk impotence. This would be unfortunate if Cleaves' songs were better, but, sadly, they aren't. And although some might parse Cleaves' muse as being "rootsy," if there's one tune in these 11 not wholly bereft of the irreducible fervor, sorrow, and wit of pre-World War II traditional American music, I missed it. Certain vastly superior forebears suggest themselves here: Dylan, Young, Hunter/Garcia, Springsteen, Mellencamp. Unlike these men, however, Cleaves exhibits precious little individuality, and his music resonates with neither life nor vividly imagined fictions. Some blame for this banality must go to Cleaves' band as well. The jive dolor of the piano, dobro, and fiddle break in "Don't Tell Me" is just one example of how the music complements Cleaves'. Lexicographical note: "Last of the V8s" refers not to the zippy vegetable drink but rather another lousy people-are-cars simile. Too bad.
(2.0 stars) -- Brian Berger
Austin's long been known for the contribution of its queer community to live music capitalism. Some will even argue that one song from one local band (Two Nice Girl's "I Spent My Last $10 on Birth Control and Beer") put gay and lesbian slots in record store racks across the country. So it makes sense that a compilation of gay and lesbian artists from Austin would eventually surface. Family Values is a CD compilation project to raise funds for local organizations, Cornerstone and Out Youth. But considering the abundance in this town of gay and lesbian artists -- identified as such or not -- Family Values cannot (and to its credit does not) claim any sort of title as a representative cross-section of Nineties Austin gay music. What it does do is gather the efforts and love of a batch of warm-hearted individuals into one celebration of the many meanings of that undeservedly oft-maligned word "gay." The selections are stock dinner-cabaret servings from the Therapy Sisters, Mary Reynolds, Lara Linette, Ruth Huber, Diana Jones, Kate McLellan, and Kirt Kempter -- nothing offensive nor distasteful, yet nothing particularly edifying, either. Ana Egge contributes the two most memorable offerings from her self-released cassette, including the only appearance on CD of her "I Am Illegal," a compelling reason (other than sincere altruism) to purchase this collection.
(2.0 stars) -- Kate X Messer
This collection of covers says it's "celebrating a baker's decade of rock 'n roll radio," but I don't hear a whole lot of whooping going on. These cuts, divided among Austin, New Orleans, and New England acts, pretty much run the gamut from dreamy to dreary. Fortunately, the cuts by Austin acts (including Clovis, Mandy Mercier, Patsy Thompson, and Kim Longacre) are on the more engaging end of the list, but on the whole, these cuts mostly sound like music from a movie soundtrack where they couldn't afford the original recordings. (And when was Roky Erickson's "Starry Eyes," here taken on by Longacre, anything resembling a radio hit?) If you'd like to hear a batch of low-key takes on tunes originally recorded by the likes of Bob Seger, Bob Dylan, Bachman Turner Overdrive, and the Dave Clark Five, ignore my comments and buy this, but for god's sake turn it off before you get to the last track, "She Loves You," performed by one of those groups who only exist to try and win the soundalike award at a Beatles convention.
(2.0 stars) -- Ken Lieck
L'AUSTIN, TX SPACE:
TRIGGERFISH MUSIC CITY COMPILATION NO. 1
L'Austin Space isn't a singles collection, as you might think by the fact that most of the bands offer two tracks each, but rather a strong set of songs compiled by the Triggerfish label. A little over half of this is comprised of dependable, more or less standard-issue Texas punk (Jesus Christ Superfly, Soulbenders, Tallboy, The Calbakes), peppered with bits of Gene Autry-style clip-clop (Loblolly's "Love Is a Horse), Munsters wave-riders (the Sir Finks' "Teenage Monster"), the tingle and grind of Tadpole Cannibalism's "Soak," and the Fuckemos' Tubeway Army-ish "Tommy the Neuter." Amazingly, the only cuts that sound even remotely out of place are the two by Ike Eichenberg, as he inserts his three pennies' worth of Weill-ness into the mix. A bang-up collection, and as Tallboy's closing cut says, a "Wild Ride."
(3.0 stars) -- Ken Lieck
K.R. WOOD'S FATHERS OF TEXAS
To Texans, the heroes of March and April 1836 rank right up there with Jesus, Mama, and Daddy, but this attempt to honor them (with a softball team's worth of South Austin All-Stars: Rusty Weir, Steven Fromholz, Delbert McClinton, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Red Stegall, plus many more) comes off as more of a tribute to Waylon Jennings and Hank Williams, Jr., than anything, or anyone, else. The Lone Star patriotism is certainly thick as mosquitoes on Buffalo Bayou, and including the stories of Texas' somewhat lesser-known patron saints -- Ben Milam, James Bonham, and "Mother of the Alamo" Susannah Dickinson -- is cool. (Where's the Deaf Smith song, though?) Not surprisingly for an album whose typical lyric is "We fired our guns and they took off a-runnin' and we loaded up and shot `em again," the actual history lesson here isn't any more incisive or provocative than Texas' 7th-grade history curriculum; if nothing else, Townes Van Zandt's readings of "Will You Come to the Bower" and "Brazos River Song" outshine -- and will outlast -- all but the album's most brazen pockets of jingoism and boring Cosmic Outlaw Cowboy clichés.
(2.5 stars) -- Christopher Gray
TOWNES VAN ZANDT
Rear View Mirror (Sugar Hill)
The Highway Kind (Sugar Hill)
"Thanks, y'all." That's what Townes Van Zandt says after every song on Rear View Mirror, and he means it. Van Zandt sung, like he said, "For the Sake of the Song," and little else seemed to matter to him -- tragically, up to and including his own health and well-being. He was a man happiest on stage with just a six-string, and save for occasional fiddle, mandolin, or second guitar accompaniment, that's all that's on these two reissues: Townes, his guitar, and his songs. Songs of such lyrical purity and crystalline precision that calling them perfect would be doing them a great disservice; this and little else is why people become songwriters. What is most disturbing is the realization that Van Zandt had this amazing gift and it still wasn't enough; he must have been blind to how much more his songs meant to the rest of us. They taught us how to love, to live, and to leave. His covers on The Highway Kind, the classics "Lost Highway," "Wreck on the Highway," and Guy Clark's "Dublin Blues," are proof enough he knew the kind of message great songs could communicate. So why couldn't he realize his own greatness? From "Pancho and Lefty" on down, both albums glimmer with the sad realization that we shall never see his like again. At least he left these songs behind for us to remember him by. Thanks, Townes.
(4.0 stars) -- Christopher Gray