Transaction de Novo (Trance Syndicate)
The latest offering from Bedhead isn't likely to win over those of the opinion that this Dallas band's fleshed-out, slow-time approach is musically comatose. If you really listen closely, though, you can clearly discern that the band is evolving at a tortoise-like pace with every new release. In fact, Transaction de Novo may be Bedhead's most stimulating work to date. Sure, it starts out slow with the extended instrumental introduction of "Exhume," but lend an ear to the aptly titled "Extramundane," and you find a Jesus and Mary Chain track minus a fuzzbox and a little digital delay. Stripped of such accoutrements, this three-minute workout is perfect for dancing with yourself on the graves of skeletons. "Forgetting" follows up this brief moment of dark bliss with a woozy, febrile vibe that conjures up images of Lou Reed after not sleeping for four or five days. The urgent, repetitive geometry of "Psychosomatica" is another instance where Bedhead becomes uncharacteristically edgy. In spite of such aberrations, the band closes by returning to their somnambulant netherworld with "The Present." Bedhead may still reside in an epicurean neighborhood where music is savored instead of wolfed down, but their steady growth as a band is both intriguing and laudable.
3.5 stars - Greg Beets
The Trance (Prestige)
The In Between (Blue Note)
Not only did Lone Star saxman Booker Ervin possess the robust, swaggering, blues-drenched style associated with the Texas tenor tradition, he distinguished himself with a searing intensity that pushed this tradition to the edge. Best known for his work with Charles Mingus and Eric Dolphy, Ervin cut numerous albums under his own name, two of which have recently been reissued. The Trance, a set comprised of a blues, a standard, and an intriguing original, features the blowing side of Ervin's musical personality, and is typical of many Prestige sessions in the mid-Sixties. The nearly 20-minute title track has a haunting minor motif, which is an ideal vehicle for Ervin's plaintive wailing. For more of Ervin in this "blowin'" format, check out the reissue from several years back, Setting the Pace, which consists of the two extended tracks from this date plus two more with Ervin locking horns with Dexter Gordon. The In Between, from Blue Note's Connoisseur series, is a less free-wheeling but more adventurous and focused affair that stands out by potently spotlighting Ervin's compositional skills. This quintet date from 1968, with trumpeter Richard Williams and pianist Bobby Few, features a half-dozen in-the-pocket tunes from Ervin's pen that dig a deep groove yet reflect an appreciation of the outside aesthetic that was prevalent during this period. The hard-charging title track shows off Ervin's urgent, aggressive attack as he pushes the intensity level through the roof. On "The Muse," Ervin again shows a penchant for Eastern-flavored minor modes. The set ends with "Tyra," a relaxed, uptown, late-night blues, which Ervin tucks nicely to bed with the soothing, swinging, soulful tones of his Texas tenor. And nobody does it quite like the way Booker Ervin does.
(Trance) 3 stars
(In Between) 3.5 stars - Jay Trachtenberg
COURSE OF EMPIRE
Telepathic Last Words (TVT)
Despite the fact that this follow-up to Course of Empire's second album and commercial breakthrough - '94's Initiation - is two years late, it's not only a worthy follow-up, it takes up where the last one left off, and improves upon the band's strengths. Whereas Initiation, which broke "Infested" on now-defunct "alternative radio," pounded hard and punchy, Telepathic Last Words drones with darker edge - part Soundgarden ("Ride the Static"), but more Machines of Loving Grace or even Austin's Soak. Better still, this particular drone has a Middle Eastern accent informed by the opening radio transmission, "Radio Teheran," and executed on the mid-album suite that starts with the violent "Persian Song," continues through the creeping "59 Minutes," and morphs seamlessly into the eight-minute syncopated snake-charmer, "Freaks." Mainstream rock fans will identify this Arabic incense and peppermint from Zeppelin's "Kashmir," and its beguiling insinuation blends well with Course of Empire's natural industrial/modern rock bent. "Houdini's Blind" is also intriguingly twisted, and while "Coming of the Century" is not nearly as anthemic as the Dallas band probably hoped for, their closer, an ambient, surf-echoing drum machine dance take on the classic "Blue Moon" outdoes even the band's classic Benny Goodman mix of "Infested." Well done.
3 stars - Raoul Hernandez
Made to Feel (Sudden Shame)
Save for the cutesier-than-thou name, Tad Cautious is the complete package. There is little-to-no ground that Cautious, the Karl Wallinger of Stupid Club and a recent relocator to Capitol City from Burlington, Vermont, cannot cover and cover well. Made to Feel, the debut, runs a surplus of styles that range from the sappy SoCal sounds of the Mamas & the Papas to the stupid hopelessness of Paul Westerberg, from the Gear Daddies' drunken country drip to Sloan's three-chord volatility, from the occasional quirk of Ed's Redeeming Qualities to the indie brilliance of Sparklehorse (okay, they're on Capitol, but you get the idea). Despite the resulting abrupt discontinuities, Stupid Club achieves the perfect balance between irony-laden plainness and subtle wit. Cautious lays it all out with a nonchalant delivery on top of catchy pop constructs. The too-obvious and relatively weak "Kiss & Run," is a bit of a put-off as an opener, but if you hang in until "Candy Music," with its nod to Elvis Costello, you get the first taste of Cautious' acute versatility - much cuter than the name.
3.5 stars - Michael Bertin
Joanie Loves Schatzi (Humongous Fungus)
From the first fuzzed slide down the frets, the music on Joanie Loves Schatzi is a snowboarding exhibition soundtrack waiting to happen. Without question, this is MTV-ready alternative rock, high-energy pop-metal that's appealing in its simplicity and annoying in its simplicity. "Nadine" has an obvious and catchy chorus, but lacks any additional hook. "Selfish Phase" adds a rougher edge, but it's just more swipes on the same blade. They add flashes of space-rock pedaling and post-punk thrashing to the mix without committing too much of their sound or energy to either, making "Acetaminophen" more fun, but leaving the intensity of "All" severely lacking. Schatzi asks that you turn up the volume when listening to this CD so that any absence of uniqueness goes unnoticed, and the feeling comes rather from the type of music it is and the rush you get from hearing power chords played loudly. It's a gut reaction more than an appreciation, so in going straight for the gut Schatzi pretty much succeed in making their point.
2.5 stars - Christopher Hess
Pop music has always best served those who make it look easy, and pop music should be very, very good to Ginger Mackenzie. In spite of being a self-released debut, Earthbound is a genuine breeze, which isn't to say it lacks emotion or depth. On the contrary; it has so much flow that you'll forget it's yet another album fully rooted in folk/pop. What you will remember is Mackenzie's voice, one of them phonebook singin' voices, and the songs themselves - each of them shrewdly short and straightforward. Over and over, this local singer proves she's also the rare songwriter who can casually deliver a mouthful, balancing a dense verse like "It's always been my ego and me/ We'll do anything to avoid love's company/ We just want to swim in our misery/ and complain about being lonely" with equally dense melodies that owe as much to Lyle Lovett as Sara McLachlan. And although standouts like "Conditional," "I'm Not Leaving You," and "Apathy" are themselves sturdy enough to have withstood simple acoustic treatment, guitar god Billy White's lush, super-crisp production turns each of 'em into fully orchestrated anthems with his guitar/bass/drum duties providing Earthbound a singular musical foundation. David Garza, JJ Johnson, Chris Maresh, and Brain Standefer also make valuable cameos, but it is Mackenzie's performance that lends this encouraging debut its true grace, and yes, deceptive ease.
3.5 stars - Andy Langer
1st and Repair (Heart Music)
If you've ever seen Austin's Monte Montgomery perform live, perhaps at one of his regular Saxon Pub gigs, you're probably going to be disappointed with 1st and Repair, his debut effort for the local indie, Heart Music. Though a testimony to Montgomery's songwriting talent, the album simply doesn't convey the intimacy and power you feel from one of his performances. That said, however, this 13-song collection of stripped-down arrangements does offer an impressive look at a gifted lyricist and guitarist, quick with the turn of a phrase and memorable riff. From the opening cut, "Movin On," Montgomery makes clear he's in no hurry to jump on any modern-rock bandwagon. And that's good, considering earnest singer-songwriters tend to age better than your typical flavor of the month. His tales of toil and struggle revel in life's sordid details, even if that means exposing his own frailties and failings - a theme that's crystallized on the title track when he sings, "Well, you could've been the one / Now you're riding shot gun / Through the valley of the shadow of doubt." But rather than wallow in self-pity, Montgomery's songs glow with the wonder of a man who savors life's hardships, knowing each slight and every pain will provide deeply buried treasure for future soul-mining expeditions.
3 stars - Sean Doles
Are We There Yet?
As one of Austin's cosmic cowboys, Rusty Wier is more likely to spin stories about a swamp relationship torn by a prison term ("Pirogue Joe") than to sing about typical cowboy topics, such as the virtues of a finely pressed pair of Wranglers. Like Jimmy Buffet, Wier's strength is providing the soundtrack for a group party, in helping folks forget their troubles by having a good time. Not surprisingly then, on the DIY Are We There Yet? Wier includes a few songs on the pleasures of drink: "Captain Morgan called a meeting at the courthouse in Mt. Gay/To hear what Sheriff Wellers and Johnny Walker had to say" ("Quervo's Gold"), and "We're going drink-smoke-tell jokes and lie a lot/And spend all that money we ain't got" ("Hot Spot"). But unlike the fingerstyle guitar playing of Colorado's zen cowboy Chuck Pyle, which alone can hold an audience's attention, this recorded party requires a shot and a beer to get going. Regardless, Rusty's steadfast fans will want a copy of Are We There Yet? to scratch the itch that only they have. Others might do better to buy a drink next time Wier's resident party touches down at the Saxon Pub.
2.5 stars - David Lynch
AUSTIN LOUNGE LIZARDS
Employee of the Month (Sugar Hill)
A joke needs two components: the set-up and the punch line. Keeping that in mind, the Austin Lounge Lizards' Employee of the Month is conspicuously missing something. See, the album is one long punch line. What's worse is that given the first line (gag) of any verse, the widely practiced convention of rhyming usually makes it possible to guess the punchline with about 30-40% accuracy. You can't not know that there's going to be a sock joke in "The Other Shore." Even on a conceptual level the humor is spotty. Maybe "Hey, Little Minivan" is funny... to my dad. That said, "Leonard Cohen's Day Job" is borderline genius - noir folk feel and all; "If you need speedy lubin' I'll prove/ I'm your man." Great. And what native Lone Star state denizen couldn't appreciate the faux bravado and ridiculing overstatement in "Stupid Texas Song"? Throw in a few more yuks here and there and, well, you get a few more yuks, but that's about it.
2 stars- Michael Bertin