SXSW Record Reviews


Life in One Day (Mutant Sound System)

Basehead were so far ahead of the curve that seven years after their debut we still can barely see where Michael Ivey was coming from. Ivey's spent those years doing the lonely work of making bohemian hip-hop: music that's race-conscious, happy to talk about the pleasures of beer and weed, college-educated, and not ashamed to say so. Now he's got some company, in the form of Basehead guitarist Keith Lofton's splinter group. As Lazy K, Lofton sets a real slow groove, marked by Clarence Greenwood's subtle scratching, some jazzy lead guitar lines, and the judicious deployment of violin and viola. He's worked up a similarly laconic persona to go with it, doling out the same lazy drawl whether he's talking about being in a 12-step program for "asswatchers" or worrying about his girlfriend's coke habit. But Life in One Day's greatest virtue is its Nineties update of classic Seventies slow grooves. "Marley2" sets a tribute to the late great reggae messiah to a lo-fi version of "Mercy Mercy Me"; elsewhere, the half-remembered sounds of a Funkadelic slow jam, a Grant Green guitar solo, or a Chi-Lites lick burble in and out of earshot. They don't make 'em like this anymore, and you'd have to pay top dollar at a specialty shop to prove they ever did. (Thursday, March 19, Iron Cactus, 1am)
4 Stars - Jeff Salamon


Unite (Tuff Gong)

Hearing this collection of full-up grooves with French lyrics for the first time, one might just assume that Kreyol Syndikat is from somewhere in the French Caribbean, perhaps Guadeloupe or Martinique. As it turns out, they're based in Paris like so many other "world music" bands with roots in the various former French colonies. This comes as somewhat of a surprise as K.S.'s breezy sound conjures up images of palm trees swaying to tropical tradewinds rather than hazy vestiges of urban concrete jungles. There are a couple of tunes here that lay down an edgy, electro-dancehall groove, but this set is primarily a delightful example of a distinctly international roots reggae sound. There's nothing too heavy here, but they sure have an uncanny ability to hit the right groove throughout the album. The best tracks are "Roots Ragga" and "Too Much Blood," but really, there isn't a blatant loser in the whole batch. And at least to these ears, the sound of French lends itself quite well to the lilting music. C'est bon! (Friday, March 20, Flamingo Cantina, 11:30pm)
2 Stars - Jay Trachtenberg


The Ultimate Seaside Companion (HitIt!)

The Bells is fronted by Chris Connelly, the former Revco/Ministry man, but The Ultimate Seaside Companion is the antithesis of this earlier work, conjuring up influences from Tindersticks, Scott Walker, and Mark Eitzel. As such, Connelly explores the realm of songwriting and the effect of melody and lyricism with the Bells, showing a rare talent for the craft. The result is a beautifully rich album of pop songs that has a lush, sensual feel and a very simple approach. Recorded with Chris Bruce (former guitarist with Seal), Jim O'Rourke (Gastr Del Sol), and Bill Rieflin (Ministry), the sound is amazingly cohesive in light of its diverse group of musicians. Like a beautiful languorous day by the sea, The Ultimate Seaside Companion ebbs and flows. "Mississippi Palisades" and "Your East is My West" lay the uptempo groundwork like your first run into the chilly ocean. "Empty Sam" and "Toledo Steel" invite a state of semiconciousness like the warm afternoon sun. The title track is a relaxing, easy walk home as you take in the setting sun, looking forward to your next trip to the magical sea. (Saturday, March 21, Electric Lounge, 8pm)
3 1/2 Stars - Leah Selvidge


Role Models for Amerika (Alternative Tentacles)

Once an artist comes "out," is it their duty to wag the rainbow flag? Are they by default poster children for gay pride? Sheeeeeee-it, that's never been an issue for dykecore naked goddessheads Tribe 8. They never went through that coy public image like k.d., Melissa, or other lezzie icons. They pledge allegiance to pussy and sing about it. Period. They don't stop there, either. They head north to address double mastectomy in the perfectly named "Ta Ta, Ta-Ta's" and spout more volumes about their favorite male member in "Castration Song #22." Same old shit? Yes, but don't they get credit for having the nuts to make fun of themselves? Carp all you want about our happy weenie hackers covering the same turf over and over, playing the same four chords in the same eight patterns, or simply sit back and enjoy their masterful attempts at subtlety: "I buried my bone in mama's backyard/bone as big as a baby's arm." Hey! I listened to the Tubes, too! Damn, I thought "Junkyard Dog" was just a nice little number about an unfortunate encounter with the animal shelter. (Wednesday, March 18, Emo's, Midnight)
3 Stars - Kate X Messer


Runaway Sunday (Virgin)

When all the tres-chic nattering over Celtic music settles down in a few years, it will be illuminating to see which bands make the cut. For the Donegal-based Altan, whose approach is solid traditionalism, there's a comforting joy to pure Irish music with nary a synthesizer nor electric guitar in earshot (but occasional help from friends like Alison Krauss and Stephen Cooney). On Runaway Sunday, Altan's combination of dance tunes, waltzes, ballads, and especially airs lands well in the no-frills territory of traditional Irish folk, though the wistful voice of vocalist Mairead ni Mhaonaigh ("Suil Ghorm," "I Wish My Love Was A Red Red Rose") lifts it even closer to Tara, the high seat of the Irish gods. Even with the blessing of a voice like hers, the band relies just as heavily on instrumentals; witness the plethora of reels and jigs ("John Doherty's Reels," "Australian Waters") that abound. Spiritually, Altan is more closely related to the sound of Fairport Convention than the Chieftains, but the quest for timelessness is the same. When the smoke clears, my money will be on Altan. (Wednesday, March 18, La Zona Rosa, 10pm)
3 1/2 Stars - Margaret Moser


My Scientist Friends (Amphetamine Reptile)

Two guitars and a tight snare head ride together toward high-end transistor radio detonation, and for some reason, in the hands of Freedom Fighters, this approach to tried and true aggro-fuzz actually manages to be fulfilling amid the muck of this gasping subspecies. This Minneapolis trio's above-the-waist methodology is truly mind-blowing in its tinny intensity. The Presidents of the USA might have turned out this exquisite with enough black coffee. Although the lyrics of tunes like "CEO" resonate with enough coarse undergraduate class warfare missives to make even Noam Chomsky wary (e.g., "like the cum from my cock/the scum comes out on top"), the Freedom Fighters' high-minded frustration somehow manages to blend in nicely without undermining the music. There's more than enough stops and starts to keep all of punk's converts from the Rush camp stone gone for hours at a time. Let the Freedom Fighters bust you dead in the arse with their thrill show and you'll be going home hot and sweaty on the coldest night of the year. (Friday, March 20, Emo's, 9 pm)
3 1/2 Stars - Greg Beets


(Man's Ruin)

Hai Karate's eponymous debut (Don "Gas Huffer" Blackstone's side project) is like a cannon shot - a quick riveting blast. Quick: at 18 minutes, all nine songs could fit on one album side. Riveting: Hai Karate's music is similar to Gas Huffer's straight ahead brand of rock & roll, but with more amped-up grit. Blast: The tempo is consistently driving, from the feedback-fueled "Everyday Thing" to the powerhouse "Bad Luck." In "Rehab," the San Francisco quartet knows it's not necessary to sing every morpheme clearly; if you possess a heartbeat you'll get the message loud and clear, the words written on an aural wall built by humbuckers and jumping amp stacks. In the bridge of "Bad Luck," a flanger guitar wrestles with a nasty harmonica, sounding like the Buckeye State's New Bomb Turks on a black day. Maybe most of the songs sound the same, but Hai Karate ain't aiming for the diversity prize here. This album is more about expelling their spleens and anger, because being without release is a bad, bad thing. So grab a beer, nod your head, and let it out with a Hai Karate kick. (Saturday, March 21, Emo's, Midnight)
2 1/2 Stars - David Lynch


Rich Text Files (Secret Disc)

In 1981, CBS Records released Tutone-2, the second Tommy Tutone album. Ostensibly a vehicle for the songwriting team of Jim Keller and Tommy Heath, the boys hit radio paydirt with the lead-off track, "867-5309/Jenny," and went gold. Three years later, by the time the group released its third album, National Emotion, the marketing momentum was gone and so was the magic. And believe it or not, there was some magic to lose; Tutone-2, past that first track, proves to be an album worthy of selling a few copies. Like an early Tom Petty effort, Tutone-2 leads with clean, hooky guitar riffs, confident and catchy choruses (the hit was Keller's), and a distinctly odd voice (Heath's) that was part warble, part cry, and all heart. And like Petty, a musician in no danger of being toe-tagged with "one-hit wonder," Heath's voice sounds exactly the same today as it did 17 years ago - as do his songs. In fact, with the release of Rich Text Files, it seems that the Portland-based Heath (raised in Marshall, Texas) has finally made the follow-up to Tutone-2. Full of unhurried, mid-tempo reflectives like the blue-collar love story "The Grifters Prayer" or the album's centerpiece, "The World Ain't Flat," and imbued with a middle-aged sense of nostalgia ("Young Love, "Our Special Place"), Rich Text Files brims with the same wry energy of Tutone-2, updating it unselfconsciously. On "Jenny's Got the Blues," the long-awaited sequel to The Hit, the girl we all came to know off a number on the bathroom wall now has a daughter: "Now you're all grown up, no one knows what to do with you." Welcome to the New Wave Hits of the Nineties, Tommy; they could use a little heart. (Wednesday, March 18, Bob Popular, 1am)
3 Stars - Raoul Hernandez


May Day (A&M)

It may just be fabrication done purely for effect - the few pictures in the CD booklet of Matthew Ryan sitting in deep thought at a very antiquated typewriter - but even so, it accurately reflects May Day's ultimate result; Ryan sounds like a guy who works on an old typewriter. On his debut, Ryan's words are those of someone who, without the aid of RAM to hold skeletal thoughts together while details are filled in, painstakingly thinks each line through before committing it to paper and moving on to the next song. And Ryan's rough, guttural voice sells the stuff with unfeigned sincerity. This is the kind of album Paul Westerberg only wishes he could make as his post-Mats self: mature but not completely dissociated from its angry and dissatisfied youth. Sung with the same conviction as Whiskeytown's Ryan Adams and the passion of David Gray, May Day's only drawback is that it crawls a little too much. Well, it crawls throughout. Even the album's most intense moment, opener "Guilty," has very deliberate pacing - the warm, thick guitars that punctuate it are turned with disappointing frequency. And that's the difference between this being a regular old powerful debut and an extremely powerful debut. (Friday, March 20, Waterloo Brewing Company, 11pm)
3 1/2 Stars - Michael Bertin


Isolation Party (Matador)

This review has been written a million times: Here's this great American artist, who most of us have never heard of, yet he's insanely popular as an export. Is it just a smug record company/rock writer ploy to try and guilt you into liking a hard-to-peg artist like Tommy Keene? Heck, if Tommy Keene wanted to sell albums in the USA, he could. He's got all the chops, licks, and baby-faced good looks to pull a Rick Springfield (who, according to the press kit, he was told by an A&R guy to emulate...). He could pull off at least a Matthew Sweet. He's cuter - in that sensitive, shy, jangly, heartfelt, indie-rock guy kind of way. Should he bother? Is it such a rut? He records with whomever he wants (Jeff Tweedy, Jesse Valenzuela). He tours the globe comfortably. His fans are true. And he can cover Mission of Burma without need for explanation or excuse ("Einstein's Day"). Perhaps he's happy just to make great albums. Who cares if only those who appreciate him ever hear him? Well, we should. Perhaps there's a message in calling this work Isolation Party. (Wednesday, March 18, Liberty Lunch, Midnight)
3 1/2 Stars - Kate X Messer


greenelectric (Columbia)

That David Rice's major label debut has 11 better-than-average tunes isn't all that surprising. The Houston-gone-Los Angeles singer-songwriter has built a career on tireless touring and has therefore had ample time to write, rewrite, and gauge reaction. Even so, the recording of greenelectric apparently coincided with a burst of edgy personal writing. Yet while this is clearly a songwriter's album, its most provocative moments are almost wholly shaped by production. And rarely does a debut, let alone one largely self-produced, have any kind of cohesive tone; not only does Rice blur the lines between his glossiest and grittiest tunes, he ultimately finds sonic cohesion in disparate source material, providing a singular spirit for AAA pop ("Father"), funky waltzes ("Telephone"), and complex acoustic weirdness ("Superman"). The effect of Rice's jarring voice working against the lush production is fully consuming - to the point where the stop and start of each tune becomes less obvious than the album's overall texture. And at the end of that day, that kind of studio grace is a far more compelling achievement than merely recording 11 decent, but dry, tunes. (Wednesday, March 18, Bob Popular, 10pm)
3 Stars - Andy Langer



If Annie Lennox were from Ireland... No, if Nick Cave and Marianne Faithfull had a baby... Never mind. Noella Hutton will have to make her own way through the dreaded comparison jungle, but she's more than ably armed with dual weapons of voice and songs as well as sterling armor production from labelmate and Talking Head Jerry Harrison. Her eponymous 1997 release displays a remarkable sense of identity, evidenced by the opener "Attitude," and a commanding sweep of songs that explore the mercurial aspects of love and life through ballads and lush musicianship. It's not the smoothest path she's chosen - there's the seething fury of "Brother," in which she angrily sings, "Get off your ass... and be the man you could be," while the Patti Smith-like whisper-to-scream of "Fed Up & Hungry" made me ache for more of the same. (Knowing she has toured with both Eric Johnson and Storyville hardly offers any reference point except to suggest her broad appeal.) Given her propensity for one-word titles, I boldly suggest "Hunger" as a title for her next offering, not in reference to lack of nutrition, but as in "anxious for more Noella Hutton." (Saturday, March 21, The Library, 9:30pm)
3 Stars - Margaret Moser


East of Yesterday (Crazyhead)

One of the few decent country-oriented bands operating in New York City, the Hangdogs are the best argument available for why our glorious tradition of twang-and-keeerang! shouldn't be left in the hands of Austinites and renegade Nashvillagers. The Dogs' first full-length album, East of Yesterday, offers a generous helping of wise-guy roots-rock, that bracing sub-subgenre created at the street corner of the mind where Youse meets Y'all. The Dogs click and clang like they were born to play together, but their greatest strength is lead singer-songwriter Matthew Grimm (aka "Banger"), who's as playful a lyricist as Tom T. Hall. His idea of a love song is to ask a girl, "Ain't it funny how we hate the same things?" while his idea of a tribute to his hometown is to complain that, "They've got grunge-rock and hip-hop, jazz and ska and Bjork!/But they don't play no country on the east side of New York." And he can jerk a tear when he wants to; the one about the guy trying to sell his '74 Springsteen bootleg and Dwight Yoakam collection so he can buy an engagement ring for his girl kills me every time. Even if this doesn't sound like your cup of tea, it's worth showing up to the Dogs' gig just so you can get on their mailing list; the monthly Hangdoggerel newsletter is twice as funny as Seinfeld and shows no sign of going away anytime soon. (Saturday, March 21, Ruta Maya Coffee House, 11pm)
3 1/2 Stars - Jeff Salamon


Smelling Salts (Bloodshot)

Trailer Bride is spooky. It's hard to pinpoint exactly why, but the spine tingle they induce throughout their debut for Chicago's Bloodshot label is undeniable. It's in the easy back and forth of the slide guitar on "Wildness," it's in the slow, three-step time of "Cowgirl," and it's in the hypnotically dreary whine of singer Melissa Swingle's voice. It's a natural quality - an indefinable tone inherent to their sound that ruffles the neck hairs. When they try to exploit that quality, though, things turn from scary to campy. The ghost-like woo-ing of the saw being played on "Graveyard" and "Fighting Back the Buzzards" turns from novelty to distraction, making otherwise eerie and thoughtful tunes kinda goofy. The tale of un-edgycated momma lost in a world of studio technology in "Porch Song" is one of a few lyrical points that seems a bit overdone, and the lack of instrumental prowess leaves some of the more spirited moments like "Yoohoo River" sounding flat. These songs ultimately lean on the more sincere and straightforward tunes like "Cowgirls" and "Bruises for Pearls," which is where Trailer Bride's strengths lie as Swingle's technical ability catches up to her knack for intriguing melodies. (Saturday, March 21, Copper Tank Main, 9pm)
2 1/2 Stars - Christopher Hess


Songs From the Pink Death (Shimmy Disc/Knitting Factory)

After half a decade of playing studio hermit, Shimmy Disc/Bongwater avatar Kramer has emerged with a high-end collection of stone freak carnival noise that doesn't miss a beat. Joining Kramer are Damon Krukowski (Galaxie 500) on guitar and Sean Eden (Luna) on drums. The trio imbues Kramer's slightly off-kilter parallel universe with just the right amounts of psychedelic intimacy and Lower East Side performance art loopiness. Failed romance is the major theme of Songs From the Pink Death, but through Kramer's eyes, this timeless subject takes form in irreverent, allegory-laced tunes like "Buddy Holly Will Never Die" and the super-catchy "The Hot Dog Song." Another highlight is Kramer's helium-voiced rendition of "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away." The faraway production aesthetic that defined the Shimmy Disc sound during the label's late Eighties/early Nineties heyday is still very much a part of this album, but there's also a higher degree of sonic clarity here than what we've grown accustomed to. Dozing off after a swig of this just might lead to dreamscape revelations that leave you dumbstruck when you wake up. (Wednesday, March 18, Ruta Maya Coffee House, 12am)
3 Stars - Greg Beets



New York's Mach Five is definitely maybe a lot like Oasis. "Definitely," because every hook, melody, guitar tone, and harmony on this self-titled debut is pure Brit-pop. "Maybe," because the Beatles have been known to speak to, even influence, just a few folks outside of England. Clearly, to give credit to Oasis for every post-punk song-oriented pop band is to give Oasis far more credit than they deserve. Then again, Mach Five may just be to Oasis what the Stone Temple Pilots were to Pearl Jam. That said, Mach Five are no less derivative of Oasis, but definitely more infectious. As a straight pop album, this one is surprisingly flawless and a shamelessly catchy collection. Jeff Darien, who sings and writes with equal parts confidence and playfulness, is an undeniable star, and "I'm Alive," "Can't Stop It," and "Sunday's Here" should wind up three of the year's better singles. Better yet is guitarist Dan Gingold, the rare AOR-rock guitarist who seems genuinely more interested in the intricacies of the song than those of his instrument. Together, they're no Gallaghers, and that's exactly the point. (Wednesday, March 18, Babe's, Midnight)
3 Stars - Andy Langer


Decksanddrumsandrockandroll (Dreamworks)

On a series of singles released on England's Wall of Sound label, this Brit duo set clubland on fire with their muscular, rockist approach to dance music; only the Chemical Brothers, I think, make the much-lauded Big Beat genre (see this month's Spin) sound so big and beaty. The Propellerheads's debut album, predictably enough, suffers from the syndrome of so many techno full-lengths: Dance music works best in quick, single-length bursts of vinyl energy or in marathon sessions mixed together by a deejay. Put a bunch of techno tracks on a CD, leave the traditional three seconds of space between each cut, and you've got a recipe for head-scratching rather than booty-shaking. That said, Decksand drumsandrockandroll has no shortage of great tracks, from the already classic "Take California" and the bang-on "Bang On!" to the infectious "History Repeating," featuring the goldfinger-plated vocal stylings of Miss Shirley Bassey. For the U.S. version of the album, the duo has added two surefire appeals to the hip-hop crossover audience: collaborations with De La Soul and the Jungle Brothers. The only real misstep here is "On Her Majesty's Secret Service," a nine-and-a-half minute James Bond homage that runs one idea into the ground for way too long - just like the Bond franchise itself, now that I think of it! (Friday, March 20, La Zona Rosa, 1am)
3 1/2 Stars - Jeff Salamon


Last Exit to Garageland (Flying Nun)

New Zealand is home to a wonderfully parochial, patrician pop sensibility - so much so that the country as a whole seems blissfully unaware of what's making musical headlines elsewhere in the world. Flying Nun has always been home to artists a little off-kilter (Chris Knox, King Loser, the Clean, Look Blue Go Purple, the Chills), all of whom have musical theories based on pop song structure, but who dip deeply into the well of the bizarre. Garageland have taken that Flying Nun credo to heart, but have also looked beyond their shores; they've obviously spun their share of Pavement ("Tired and Bored"), Superchunk ("Fingerpops," "Come Back"), and My Bloody Valentine ("Nude Star") albums. They're also second cousins to one of the greatest NZ bands of all time, Straitjacket Fits, which is to say that the (slight) bombast and buckets of melody are all fuzzy around the edges. Except on the shining "Beelines to Heaven," a perfect slice of undiluted, bouncy, and timeless Sixties -ish pop. (Saturday, March 21, Tropical Isle, 10pm)
3 1/2 Stars - Luann Williams


Between Us (High Street)

Jules Shear has accomplished something quite remarkable. He has made an album of almost entirely indistinguishable songs. Now, an album full of homonyms is not in itself noteworthy. Heck, if that's all we're talking about here, then Shear is still about a dozen albums shy of AC/DC. That's hardly worth even talking about. On Between Us, however, Shear has cut 15 duets with 15 different co-stars and made them all sound alike. He's managed to make Rosanne Cash sound like Paula Cole sound like Ron Sexsmith. See, Shear's voice has this chameleon-like quality. It blends with that of the person on the other microphone and robs it of all its distinguishing characteristics; it's as remarkable as it is disturbing. There are three songs, though, that still manage to standout somewhat from the rule of lightly picked acoustic guitar and heavily weighted vocals on top of almost non-existent percussion. One of those, "Entre Nous," is the exception that proves the rule: a duet with Rob Wasserman where there is no vocal track at all. It actually sounds more like an outtake from Michael Hedges' Aerial Boundaries than a "duet." The other two, "Restaurant Scene" with Susan Cowsill, and "You Might as Well Prey" with Amy Rigby, are defiantly memorable because the former is such a damn fine song while on the latter Rigby somehow manages to avoid having her voice suffer the same fate as the other unlucky 13 collaborators. (Thursday, March 19, Cactus Cafe, 11:15pm)
2 Stars - Michael Bertin


My Bad (Nickel & Dime)

Call them overachievers if you want, but thanks to the PR savvy of frontman Paul Minor, Superego have not only garnered more free publicity than most other band's in town, they've also won a legion of supporters at their weekly Free-for-All jam sessions and scrounged enough money to release two self-produced discs. All this from a loose conglomeration of musicians led by a guy whose singing and songwriting talents are marginal at best. While Superego may shine as a fun-luvin', anything-goes bar band, their second release on Minor's own Nickel & Dime label is a lo-fi grab-bag of retro styles, moods, and textures. Credit Minor for conjuring the demon spirit of Burt Bacharach out of his four-track, but whether on the straight-ahead garage pop of "Waydown" or "Lilies of the Field" (remember when Husker Dü covered the Mary Tyler Moore theme song?), My Bad sounds more like the soundtrack for a bad Seventies cartoon band than the calling card of a would-be Svengali. Rest assured, when Minor sings, "I do what I have to do to get me through" on the album's closing track, you sense that in his rock & roll fantasy, he's the only critic whose opinion really matters. (Thursday, March 19, Bates Motel, 9pm)
2 Stars - Sean Doles

Look for more SXSW Record Reviews in next week's special SXSW pull-out section. And remember, all showcase information is subject to change; check the schedule in this issue.

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