Farewells & Fantasies (Elektra Traditions/Rhino)
Though he was born in El Paso in 1940, there's little about Phil Ochs' music that says "Texas," other than an affinity in his later recordings for a bit of country twang. That doesn't matter; we'll take him -- with pride. Ochs, to most, is a name shrouded in mystery: a folk/protest singer that they think they heard a song or two by years ago, and if memory serves, was pretty damn good. Odds are one of the following rings a far-off bell: "I Ain't Marching Anymore," "Outside of a Small Circle of Friends," and "Love Me, I'm a Liberal" -- all familiar, but distantly so. That's pretty much the story of Ochs' life as a recording artist, too; success constantly eluded him. Still, every album, every song he wrote was from the heart, a gut-wrenching stab at changing the world from an idealist who couldn't get a break. Ochs' talent for writing songs was intense, and his music was often beautiful and usually haunting, but it was inspiration, rather than craft, that drove him. In the end, after that inspiration had left him and he faced the fact that the end of the Sixties had proved that protest songs weren't going to change the world, Ochs joined the ranks of the apathetic the only way he knew how; by taking his own life in 1976. It would be nice, if ironic, to say that his recorded legacy is a treasure trove of masterpieces waiting to be savored from beginning to end, but the sad truth is that his albums run the gamut from rushed-sounding to stickily over-produced. It's not surprising that radio programmers of the time didn't know what to make of him, as it takes a few listenings to get past the marred recordings and into the scarred heart of his songs. It's worth the effort, though, and this compilation may be your best bet at doing so, as it offers a varied look at his work, holding most of his essential songs in its three packed CDs. Whether your distant, nagging memory recalls him as Dylan with a one-track mind, or Leonard Cohen with a high, whiny voice, Ochs at his best was the equal of either. His death, and the reasoning behind it, were tragedies; the loss of his music to history would be a greater one. Hopefully, this solid, extensive compilation will at least forestall that sad event.
4 Stars -- Ken Lieck
Armed with sharp popcorn riffs and sneering wit, Ursa Major turns in a simple yet luminous design for their fleeting 25-minute debut. Using the groundwork of Anglo art-damage like Wire and Elastica as a jumping-off point, the local trio combines urgent, repetitive melodies with snap-shut, no-nonsense rhythm. The bass isn't the most pronounced element here, but Andy Maguire's undertow approach to the task is key. Susie Martinez's subtle, snowball-against-a-windshield snare treatment and Pam Peltz's politely demeaning vocal reading on "Yellow Pages" are two other conditions that keep you wide awake and itching. "Seventh Heaven" contrasts a foreboding bridge of drone with a glorious big sky chorus, while "From the Nursery" closes up shop with playfully demented squeaking on top of an end-of-the-night hook that gets pounded straight into the ground. Ursa Major starts out with bare white walls, but the dots and sprinkles of collective personality are what make this a well-toned, distinguished endeavor.
3 Stars -- Greg Beets
Melatonin Bullet EP (Sandwich)
This spacerock thing seems like such a friendly movement. It's low-key, not at all pretentious, and generally stays out of the way of the more brash and attention-hungry genres like electronica and ska. The image of the quiet, humble bystander may be why it's so easy to like bands who make this kind of music. From the opening bar of "Trucker Talk Ch. 1" it's obvious that Transona Five are gonna be gentle with you -- and they are, holding your hand all the way through to "Trucker Talk Ch. 4" at the end. Every sound is so fluid that embryonic is the only word to describe the music and where it takes you. Showing their Velvet roots, the tunes are not overly orchestrated; they're forged from simple melodies that are repeated over and over -- deviated from however slightly -- and allowed to build upon themselves, always coming up just short of the peak. The results are quiet, beautiful, trance-inducing songs, seven of them, that leave you wanting an eighth.
4 Stars -- Christopher Hess
FLOUNDERS WITHOUT EYES
The same qualities that help distinguish Movin' On are ultimately its undoing. The open-air, mountain jam sound of the band's tight, well-polished groove -- taking up where the Allman Brothers' "Blue Sky" left off (or any Grateful Dead performance) -- floats deliciously on the guitar/keyboard/C-3 organ interplay this Austin seven-piece have been plying on Sixth Street for the past five years. Jenny Mier's Big Mama vocals, echoed just enough to blend with the wandering psychedelic wah-wahs of Don Baker and Mitch Merrick, are strong enough to make the vocal contributions from any of the three guitarists (including bassist Joe Mier) unnecessary, if not downright annoying. More problematic is the album's 71-minute length, which doesn't support the group's material, leaving that airy groove to float harmlessly into the ozone. Certainly, there are worse ways to go (the production, mix, and tones of Movin' On being impeccable), but when the stand-outs stand up to be counted (the opener "Red Light," the title track, the beautiful "Buy a Little Time"), the also-rans ("Wind Blows Cold," "Cold Titty," "South of the Border") shout 'em down. Flounderhounds will no doubt do the same to this review.
2 Stars -- Raoul Hernandez
That's What Daddy Wants (Ark 21)
Wayne the Train could make one hell of a video for "That's What Daddy Wants": Tales of a playa, "juke joint jumpin" around steel guitar, and "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" trumpets. Get Hype Williams to direct a chorus of nubile fillies cooing over Hawaiian-shirted Hancock, who's driving around Bee Caves in a deluxe El Dorado with Bevo XII-size horns on the front, and it's platinum. A hillbilly "Hypnotize." But oh, can he back it up. Besides some of the best country horn work since "Think I'll Just Sit Here and Drink," plus a couple of the best highway/train songs since Bakersfield, That's What Daddy Wants is easily suaver and swankier than anything from the film Swingers. It's got more grease under its fingernails, but that's because Hancock, Chris Miller, Dave Biller, Bill Bratcher, Paul Skelton, producer Lloyd Maines, and a host of others worked their fingers to the bone milking every last bit of twang and fury from their instruments. Given the way his barn-burning "Brand New Cadillac" pushes into the red, not to mention the size of the cash jacuzzi his Ark 21 label lounges in, the Train could be on the cover of Details in no time. But stars blow up, then burn out. Any song on this album makes clear Hancock is one hell of a honky-tonker so long as he draws a breath.
4 Stars -- Christopher Gray
In the jazz world, New Orleans may be known for its long line of trumpet masters, and Detroit acknowledged for its impeccable pianists, but Texas is the land of the tenorman. Make no mistake. Down through the years, the Lone Star State has produced an incredibly rich tradition of Texas tenor players whose big, swaggering, bluesy sound conjures up images of spacious skies and wide open spaces. In fact, one of the gems on Texas Tenors, a hardy cross-section of Lone Star sax stylists culled from the vast archives of Prestige/Riverside Records, is the title track from the classic album The Sound of the Wide Open Spaces, with Dallasites James Clay and David "Fathead" Newman locking horns in the grand tradition of dueling tenors. The compilation does a commendable job of covering all the obvious bases; indeed, the first four tracks feature, in order, the royalty -- Illinois Jacquet, Arnett Cobb, Buddy Tate, and Budd Johnson. The really exquisite pleasures, however, come from hearing lesser-known but still vital saxmen, who provide the gusto and territorial differentials that link the major players. Fort Worth's King Curtis and Jessie Powell, San Antonio's Clifford Scott, and Houston's Wild Bill Moore, although better known in R&B circles, were still consummate jazzmen. Unabashed modernists Booker Ervin from Denton, and Houstonite Wilton Felder of Jazz Crusader fame never loose sight of their earthy roots. With this rollicking, blues-drenched collection being such a joy to listen to, let's hope volume two is on the way.
4 Stars -- Jay Trachtenberg
Two things are apparent from the very first track of Millennium Swing's eponymous debut: These guys sound a helluva lot like Steely Dan, and they've got the chops to pull it off. Which is good, because Steely Dan were never afraid to challenge their listeners, first with a glassy, blue-eyed R&B ballad, then with a trance-inducing syncopated tune like "Do It Again." Thus, with songs like "Shaking the Blues" and "Mexican Sunset," Millennium Swing mixes things up quite a bit in Becker/Fagan fashion. The downside to this is that, at times, this local group's disc tastes a little too much like Diet Coke; it hit the spot, tasted okay, and gave you a decent buzz, but somehow you wanted more punch and less sweet. The playing is tight and the songs well-crafted, but some tunes had too much arrangement. Instead of adding depth and warmth to the song, the additional strings on "Satellites and Her" make an otherwise fine tune sound like the theme song from one of Aaron Spelling's Seventies shows. Thankfully, Andrew Boutot's singing, soulful without being sappy, compensates for these freshman shortcomings. Even the backup singers, Sheree Smith and Laquetta Phillips, are excellent, if a bit low in the mix. Millennium Swing is an above-average debut, but it'll be interesting to see if the group can develop their own voice in the future.
2.5 Stars -- David Lynch
THE PILOT SHIPS
There Should Be An Entry Here (Ata-Glance)
Like an old psychology text written in a foreign language, the Pilot Ships operate on the thin, grainy line demarcating cognition and mystery. This collaboration between members of Monroe Mustang, Stars of the Lid, and the Angels uses subtlety and restraint to create a Badlands for the ears where desolate, wide open spaces are as important to meaning as verses and notes. The slowly rotating loops of melody on tunes like "July 6th" and "Fun" give the quartet plenty of room for organic, four-track embellishments. Cheree Jetton's delicate, faraway vocals on "A Song by Your Campfire" evokes shades of both Syd Barrett and Mo Tucker. And then there's "Looked Over... No Fun Reprise," the 25-minute, more-for-your-money closing slice of bucolic atmosphere. Not a bad way to end the evening. By focusing on mood and place rather than narrative, the Pilot Ships belie their surface passivity by surrounding you with their music. Before you know what's happening, you're a lot further from shore than you meant to be.
3 Stars -- Greg Beets
ORNETTE COLEMAN + JOACHIM KUHN
Eyes in the Back of Your Head (Blue Note)
When one thinks of Ornette Coleman's music it's usually within the context of either the electrified onslaught of Prime Time or the revolutionary stylings of his acoustic quartet. In either instance, until recently, the role of piano didn't fit the equation. That all changed last year with the release of the two Sound Museum sets in which Geri Allen's piano resulted in a more standard quartet lineup and added a seemingly new dimension to Coleman's Harmolodic vision. Now come two new ventures that find the Fort Worth-born saxophone legend teamed in intimate duets with a pair of pianists. Joachim Kuhn is Coleman's conversationalist on Colors, a live album recorded last summer in Leipzig, Germany. As anyone familiar with Coleman's work might surmise, the interplay can often sound more argumentative than cooperative, but there are some truly beautiful and inspired moments here where saxophone and piano are superbly complementary. For his part, Coleman's sufficiently feisty on the one hand, immediately recognizable by his plaintive cry and pet phrasing, but also quite gentle and melodic on the other. "Passion Cultures" and "Night Plans" feature some of his most splendid playing to date. Kuhn has never been my favorite pianist, but he proves a compassionate foil to Coleman's often testy exuberance. His sometimes stirring solos tend to elicit emotionally charged responses from his saxophone partner. If for no other reason, the unusual nature of a duet with piano makes this a worthy addition to the Coleman oeuvre. Seemingly more focused and intent, perhaps because they are set within the framework of a more varied musical program, the two piano-saxophone pieces on Geri Allen's Eyes in the Back of Your Head are startling in the way they stand out in an already outstanding set of piano-trumpet-percussion combinations. Coleman's voice on these sides is so passionate, authoritative, and pure as to be almost revelatory. Coleman and Allen have a definite musical rapport, no doubt stemming from the former's Sound Museum projects. I find it interesting that the recording was engineered so that the piano and saxophone come out of separate channels with very little overlap. This tends to accentuate the individual voices, bringing them into clearer focus while letting the listener's mind help to create the musical interaction. It's a technique that works extremely well here in helping assure a level playing field, especially in light of Coleman's commanding presence even in the company of so formidable a player as Allen. Their two performances are alone well worth price of admission.
(Colors) 4 Stars
(Eyes) 4.5 Stars -- Jay Trachtenberg
STEVIE RAY VAUGHAN
AND DOUBLE TROUBLE
Live at Carnegie Hall (Epic)
Rumor has it that Stevie Ray Vaughan didn't want this album released during his lifetime, but if there's one thing groups from the Rolling Stones to Rush have proven, it's that artists shouldn't produce their own live albums. Objectivity is why producers are hired; when most artists listen to their live performances after the fact, all they tend to hear is imperfection, meaning that all the listener will then hear are overdubs -- spelling sterility for all. Nowhere is there a better example of this than the SRV-produced 1986 disaster Live Alive. Epic's posthumous 1992 release of In the Beginning, a raw, live broadcast of SRV burning up Steamboat in 1980, has since helped polish the guitarist's tarnished live album legacy, and so will the new Live at Carnegie Hall. Recorded in 1984, it features Vaughan running through the material of his heroes, some of which isn't on any other Double Trouble release ("Letter to My Girlfriend," "C.O.D." and "Iced Over"). Also unique to SRV's catalogue is the big band sound provided by guests like Dr. John and the Roomful of Blues Horn Section, as well as a steamy vocal by Angela Strehli on "C.O.D." Live at Carnegie Hall isn't the posthumous revelation that Rykodisc's Radio One was for Jimi Hendrix, and it would be nice to see the SRV estate release something from Vaughan's '89-'90 tour, but neither is it Live Alive Revived.
3.5 Stars -- Raoul Hernandez
This the Trip (Arista Austin)
This record isn't awful, which is noteworthy, because it comes from one of the most miserable of genres: white-guy wannabe funk/rock. Nonetheless, on Sister 7's long, long awaited major label debut (remember the SBK deal?), the Austin quartet comes off polished and lively. The performances are tight, the arrangements are loose enough to befit the style, and the production is clean. Patrice Pike's voice, maybe the best thing about this band, is up-front strong without being in-yo-face annoying. Unfortunately, the album still dead-ends with the inherent problem of going the funk/rock route. When bands combine these two styles, the best aspects of both get watered down. On the rock side, there's none of that driving, primal element that just grabs a listener; "Bottle Rocket" may have some loud bitchin' guitar, but it lacks that savage component common to everything from "Wild Thing" to "Smells Like Teen Spirit." On the funk side, there's nothing on This the Trip that is anything like Bootsy Collins coming in on the one and pushing the butt-shaking bass. So, no, this album isn't awful, it's just not enough of any one thing to be really good.
2 Stars -- Michael Bertin
LITTLE JACK MELODY
& HIS YOUNG TURKS
My Charmed Life (Carpe Diem)
Little Jack Melody's third release is full of gorgeous musical textures and hidden aural surprises, but that's what happens when you mix Bertold Brecht cabaret commentary with Tom Waits-style instrumentation. The title track, with its smoky lounge feel, brags about (pines for?) a life where the "skies are always sunny, jokes always funny/100% is my share/ My Charmed Life/essentially nonpareil." Another tune, "At Night You Hear the Trains," with its hawker-meets-space waltz beat, sounds like Chris Isaak writing the incidental music for a circus episode of Twin Peaks (after exceeding the recommended dose of codeine cough syrup). Then there's "Samba Ordinaire" with its delightfully bouncy Brazilian rhythm and punchy horns, and "Thirty Pieces of Silver," a haunting song with Judas-meets-Faust-meets-your local grifter lyrics and an appropriately edgy sax solo. But not every tune is a twisted tale: "Maggie, With Green Eyes," with its sparse, moving piano and violin line, is a short, emotional song about losing a loved one to life's fate. Ah yes, what a deliciously crazy world it is. Thank Zeus for circus freaks like Little Jack Melody & His Young Turks for unfolding it for us.
3 Stars -- David Lynch
Ventriloquist Conartist (Framed)jo
You can run along if you were expecting juvenile ruminations on poop in the pants or hardcore jacking off. Though prurience is still a staple of the Hamicks' overall offensive, Ventriloquist Conartist focuses solely on the dark, cinematic side of frontman Bob Taylor's songwriting. This takes longer to sink in than the band's earlier material, but the not-so-obvious moods conjured by tunes like "Don't Fall in Love With the Underground" are vaguely appealing like the lightheaded resignation you feel after going 48 hours without sleep. The two versions of "Statistic Man" find Taylor groaning and shouting his way through the words as though he was an inebriated preacher singing at the walls. As Taylor's lyrical persona has metamorphosed from zit-ridden punk kid to reclusive weird uncle, the rest of the band has followed his lead by eschewing New Wave minimalism for horror matinee bombast. The instruments coagulate to form a menacing, brooding sound that occasionally lashes out at you like a shard of glass. It's a perfect complement to late nights of USA Network blood and cheesecake with the volume down.
3 Stars -- Greg Beets
POLK, BARTON & TOWHEAD
The Way Things Are (IUKA)
Polk, Barton, and Towhead came together thanks to adjoining Kerrville campsites, and on the duo's debut they've lost none of the intimacy those kinds of situations inspire. Tastefully embellished by a cast of professionals including Amy Tiven, Scrappy Jud Newcomb, Rich Brotherton (who also produced the disc), Kristin Dewitt, and Jon Dee Graham, The Way Things Are flows like a quiet Colorado and unspools like a dusty memory, with just a hint of irony. Because this album is about the way things are, of course, like regret (Polk's "I Do Not Ask," Barton's "I Know You") and realization ("The Way Things Are," "Home of the Brave"), it's also about the way things were, and the way we wish they were. It's a musically seamless, consistently touching series of songs that could have come straight from a Kerrville campfire, and certainly did come straight from Kerry Polk and John Barton's hearts.
3.5 Stars -- Christopher Gray
I think I've seen them live -- in fact, I'm sure of it. I just can't remember when. Or where. Or what they sounded like. And after a few swings through 1300, I still don't know. It depends on what song you're listening to. If it's "Shy," then they are Seaweed. If not, that reference is ridiculous. The Onlys wear their influences on their sleeves, alright, only they've sweated so much during the playing that the ink has run and it's just a blur. "Touch Without Feeling" comes about the closest to pinning them down, a rant that falls directly between Suicidal Tendencies' "Institutionalized" and Pavement's "Conduit for Sale." That's it... except the preceding song ("Pavement") renders that comparison useless. Regardless, the coolest song is buried a few minutes beyond the end of the 11th track. That was the one I heard live. Where the hell was that?
2.5 Stars -- Christopher Hess
After five years (and several name changes) of putting their time into the local scene, Bluecanoe have just now gotten around to releasing their first CD. And judging from the results, they've been chomping at the bit for a while. Clocking in at 75 minutes with a whopping 17 cuts, and not one but two "secret" bonus tracks, Unnumbered could have easily been more overwhelming than entertaining for a band without the songs -- and more importantly, the variety -- to pull it off. Fortunately, Bluecanoe isn't hurting for either. Unnumbered is all over the board when it comes to musical styles without ever straying far from the comfort of the modern rock couch. Starting off with the vaguely U2-ish wail of "The Fourteenth Day," they quickly track through the mud of grunge, the fields of Europop à la XTC, and the streets of New York Talking Heads-style rock without batting an eye. Amazingly, they manage to keep from getting lost in the sea of their influences; you never get tipped out of Bluecanoe into the drink of some odd compilation album -- even though you've certainly got plenty of time in which to do so.
3.5 Stars -- Ken Lieck
Hobnobbin' With the Hoi Polloi
It's like West Side Story. Prokofiev's "Montagues and Capulets" pounds on the jukebox as the town cars and pickup trucks file into opposite ends of the parking lot. The rival crews enter the club apart: fedoras in the front, Stetsons through the side. Mutters of "city slickers" and "redneck hicks" rustle as tense fingers grip martini glasses and Lone Star longnecks. One rancher spies the banker who repossessed half his herd and nudges his buddy. A church deacon's hands go to his pockets when he spies that kid from the feed store who ruined his marriage. Suddenly, from the very back, right down the middle of the hardwood dance floor, strides Johnny Edson. Clad in sharkskin suit and Acme boots, Edson unbuckles his bulky black case, pulls out a six-string, and calls out a cadence. First he calls Floyd Domino, Cindy Cashdollar, Gene Elders, and David Sanger to the bandstand, then Maryann Price, the Studebakers, Bob Meyer, and Mike Mordecai. By night's end, the deacon is jitterbugging with Charlene from the beauty parlor, the rancher's got his cows back, and the society doyennes have left their Neiman purses at the bar to two-step with Wrangler-wearin' ropers. Swingin' sheriff Edson says not a word, packs up his six-string, and heads back out the door, his work for the evening done.
3.5 Stars -- Christopher Gray