Wide Open Spaces (Monument)
Monument Records, a Nashville label that has been out of business for 10 years, is coming back to life under the power of Sony Nashville, and it's raising its flag on the Dixie Chicks' Wide Open Spaces. It's a perfect match, really; this Dallas-based trio is Wilson Phillips, only all three of the "chicks" here are gorgeous and the famous parent hiding his face in embarrassment is Lloyd Maines (father of lead singer Natalie Maines). As such, the music is bland, the lyrics recount predictable scripts that have been written into pop songs for as long as they've existed, and about the only way to tell this is supposed to be country as opposed to pop are the strings - and Papa Maines on steel guitar. It's true that, in its recycling, the kind of generic pop drivel of songs like "Once You've Loved Somebody" or "Loving Arms" will always remain vital, but it's also true that each carrier of this torch is but a paper container, as expendable as the next.
1.0 Star - Christopher Hess
Some of My Stuff
Give Sarah Dashew some credit. In the deluge of female singer-songwriters, she has managed to find some unoccupied vocal dry land. Of course, that territory is somewhere between Patty Griffin and Gordon Lightfoot, making Some of My Stuff somewhat intriguing despite its blandness. Too bad, then, that Dashew's writing can't quite overcome the predominantly generic aspects of her music. Some of Dashew's stuff is further hampered by sub-par production and weird arrangements - as in the bitchin' guitar-as-synth sound on "Self-Fulfilling Prophecy," and the reprisal of the sound over a "Leaving Las Vegas" backbeat on "How." There is, however, an inherit allure to Dashew's voice, especially when she's not oversinging; as on the delicate opening track "Which Way," the piano-driven "Song Laced With Whiskey," and the album closer, "All Right." Those are the most memorable moments from Some of My Stuff, and unfortunately, there are exactly three of them.
2.0 Stars - Michael Bertin
REVEREND HORTON HEAT
Space Heater (Interscope)
Brethren, parishioners, it's time our good and holy brother Jim Heath saw the light. Beg him to turn away from the fat, greedy hand of the Man - he who would turn away a true Texas son from his own hand (Smoke 'Em If You Got 'Em), and that of our most beloved agent of goodness, Gibby Haynes (The Full Custom Gospel Sounds of the Reverend Horton Heat). Let good brother Heath see that Interscope, the dark angel that spreads all that is evil in our society - rap music - has sold his soul to the devil's minions: Al Jourgensen (Liquor in the Front), Thom Panunzio (It's Martini Time), and now Ed Stasium. Rather than revel in the rubbed raw, holy fervor of "For Never More" or let Heath's congregational trio testify in double-time on "Cinco de Mayo," Stasium pumps up the metallurgy, but not our divine prophet, whose testifyin' throughout the book of Space Heater evinces all the divine inspiration of a weeping virgin; "Goin' Manic" doesn't, while "Couch Surfin'" is sung with all the passion of said furniture potato. The opening instrumental "San Jacinto," the pizzeria ballad "Mi Amore," and the overly produced "Revolution Under Foot" are all worthy of worship, and many fine riffs abound here, but it's time someone recorded the Reverend Horton Heat testifyin' in a Texas shed on a hot August night and let that stand as Jim Heath's testament to God and the Lone Star State.
2.5 Stars - Raoul Hernandez
BIG FOOT CHESTER
Tabernaclin' (Sympathy for the Record Industry)
With all due respect to Stevie Ray Vaughan, it's awfully good to hear another band tackle Howlin' Wolf's "Commit a Crime" so recklessly. The most encouraging aspect of blues-rooted bands like Big Foot Chester (or Jon Spencer or even the Cramps, knowwutImean) is that these not-so-young bands have the kind of lowdown and dirty teenage disregard for convention that makes their music pump and pulse with life - the same kind of life that filled "Commit a Crime" with such passion and fervor originally. Which makes Tabernaclin' a more than appropriate title for these 14 songs that testify as much for Leadbelly ("Keep Your Hands Off Her"), Hank Williams ("Since My Sweet Love Ain't Around"), and the Misfits ("Hollywood Babylon") as it swears by originals (guitarist Davy Jones' "The Creeper," Chris Gates and Bill Anderson's "My Biggest Mistake"). Throughout, BFC rattle, thrash, and wail out blues so wicked and throbbing that when these guys play Stubb's, they should raise the ghost of the old One Knite's coffin-shaped door. Why doesn't this band have a regular night at Antone's? If Muddy Waters or Junior Wells were around to get a load of BFC, they'd go "huh?" and then be up onstage faster than Walter Daniels can change Hohner harmonicas. Tabernaclin' is a big, sweaty, in-yer-face reminder that blues is no kind of music to be safe with.
4.0 Stars - Margaret Moser
SANGRE DE TORO
Hold Yer Breath (Bacon Grease Industries)
Rolling like an endless succession of wave upon wave, Sangre de Toro manages to take ear-splitting muck and turn it into majesty. No surprise, really, when you consider guitarist Brett Bradford's highly influential work with Scratch Acid. This five-song taster comes off like the bastard stepchild of progressive rock, punk, and just being out in the sun for too long. Bradford's guitar work on "Quee Queg" is hot and bright enough to blur the air, and the melodic undertow that runs through the music does plenty to distinguish Sangre de Toro from their crash-and-burn compatriots. Simply put, there's an uncommon breadth to their heavy-handed tactics. As an added bonus, former Big Boy Randy "Biscuit" Turner shows up to provide growling, lecherous guest vocals on "Bag Boy," a song that is certain to sit uneasily in the hearts and minds of all who have sacked. There's plenty of geometry here for anyone who wants it, but it's Sangre de Toro's perfect hum that'll burrow into your cerebellum and keep you pressing the shock buzzer.
3.5 Stars - Greg Beets
Best known as Eric Johnson's drum foil in Austin's legendary fusion band the Electromagnets, local skinbeater Billy Maddox is the man behind the Receiver Set, and if this solo album takes many of its cues from the 'magnets, as well as from an even more recent Johnson/Maddox collaboration, Alien Love Child, it probably comes as no surprise. Like both those bands, Receiver Set primarily transmits jazz-inflected prog-rock fusion, only this time it's Maddox who's doing all the playing; he wrote all 13 songs, produced, engineered, and sang on all of 'em, and he plays nearly all the music on the album (bass, drums, guitar and synth). The title track and "Try" clearly demonstrate that the classically trained Maddox has spent many hours behind a drum kit, but it's surprising to find out that the longtime local musician is also a respectable stringbox slinger (obviously influenced by Johnson), turning chorus-y open chords into broad brush strokes on "Clear Choice." While the album would have benefited from an occasional constructive opinion, such as placing more vocal prominence in the mix, if you were ever drawn to the 'magnets or any of its alumni, you had better tune into Receiver Set.
2.5 Stars - David Lynch
THE GOLDEN ARM TRIO
It's highly appropriate that this endeavor gets its name from such an evocative film (The Man With the Golden Arm). With a here-and-there juxtaposition of mood and atmosphere, Austin's Golden Arm Trio grabs you like a jealous lover in the throes of co-dependency. And you don't mind one bit. Although the trio designation would lead you to believe otherwise, this forever fluctuating collective is really more of an expansive outlet for vanguard pianist/percussionist Graham Reynolds to explore a variety of musical tangents. Besides Reynolds, the only musician appearing on every song is ace tenor sax player Thad Scott. Jazz is the closest genre you can tie this music to, yet the Trio's sometimes discordant intensity leans more toward experimental fringe-dwellers like John Cage and Raymond Scott. That conviction was in full effect at the Trio's SXSW showcase, a jaw-dropping performance that got them banned from the Elephant Room. You see, Reynolds doesn't just play the piano - he attacks it by hitting the strings with mallets, banging the inside of the piano and preparing the strings with various objects. While "Rorschach" sounds a bit like Carl Stalling leading a combo rather than an orchestra, other songs convey both lazy contentment ("Three Inch Golden Lilies") and unbearable grief ("More Sad People"). There's also a pungent stench of New Orleans street funk in the metric drum/sax interplay of "The General" and "Bigwig." "The Rack" offers further evidence of Reynolds' percussive prowess with two empty steel trichloromonof-louromethane barrels (what the hell?). This isn't music for sipping martinis on a Sunday afternoon, but the wide assortment of sounds presented here is as exciting and inspiring as a stroll through a crowded street market replete with exotic fragrances, foods you can't pronounce, and bootleg electronics.
4.0 Stars - Greg Beets
Since the release of their self-titled first CD (also self-released), Quatropaw have undergone some fairly serious changes in personnel as well as in sound. What started as noticeably Midwestern pop-blues-rock found funk (and soul and country and hard rock) in a continually morphing search for musical identity. Now, still built around the vocal work of Beth Frydman and the lead guitar of husband Jason Richard, as well as the straightforward songwriting that has held things together all along, the lineup has solidified with the steady, linked rhythm section of drummer Derek Hatley and Rudy Eccles on bass. Quatropaw have decided that they are a rock & roll band, and it's a good call. Red is anchored by live show faves like "Little Girl's World" and "Taxi Driver" and the mix of the new songs like "Diamonds" and "Stained" reflects their live sound (which is where this band lives and breathes) better than any previous efforts. Richard's guitar often seems restrained, like he's holding back a bit, as does Eccles' bass, which is mostly free of the wild slapping rides he provides in a live setting, but the focus on vocals and collective effort over solos makes Red a good, cohesive album from a rock band that keeps getting better.
3.0 Stars - Christopher Hess
Viva Satellite (MCA)
The title for one-time San Marcos resident Todd Snider's third album, Viva Satellite, is plucked from a lyric in the song "Satisfaction Guaranteed." And of the hundreds of phrases Snider could have picked from here, it seems more than just a little odd that he would opt for that one, because damned if Viva Satellite doesn't sound a whole lot like the Georgia Satellites' debut. "Rocket Fuel" is a dead ringer for "Battleship Chains," while "I Am Too" is Snider's "Nights of Mystery." There are a few exceptions. "Yesterday's and Used to Be's" is a straight McGuinn-Petty thing. Moreover, the album kind of slows into some acoustic amblings as it nears its end. And where the Satellites had a shit-hot cover of "Every Picture Tells a Story," Viva Satellite has a shitty cover of "The Joker." Not that any of the similarities should be the least bit surprising, however, because anybody who caught Snider on his last trip through Central Texas, either here in town or out at Bocktoberfest in Shiner, might have noticed that former Georgia Satellite guitarist and singer Dan Baird was playing with him. Although Baird is nowhere to be found on the Viva Satellite, it sure sounds like he could have been.
3.0 Stars - Michael Bertin
Fried Fish (Poplash)
Fish or cut bait? Phillip McEachern would appear to be able to do both with equal skill. On his third cassette release, the founder of Austin's Diaz Brothers (something of a Prescott Curlywolf offshoot) creates moody, spare music utilizing minimal instrumentation, which because it was recorded on a four-track some will naturally call "lo-fi." Unless your definition of lo-fi includes the Residents, however, don't listen to those people. Try "found-fi" instead, especially in the case of side one's "Bait." Here, McEachern assembles off-speed samples ranging from motivational tapes to M's "Pop Musik" along with guitar and cheesy mall organ into a lonely, disturbing theme piece that is further explored in the individual songs on side two. McEachern can play his (borrowed) musical equipment, make no mistake, but on Fried Fish he comes across like the guy in 2112 who's found the instruments in the cave and proceeded to figure out what they do on his own. From his desolate cave, he frets about digging too deep in the sandbox and disturbing the minions of Hell ("The Debil"), while on "Shiny Man" ("got eight teeth, all full of gold") McEachern wonders in a Galaxie 500-like drone why he worries about the shiny man when he should be getting to bed. Haunting and ethereal, Fried Fish would definitely not be approved by the Priests of Syrinx.
3.5 Stars - Ken Lieck
Funanimal World (Freedom)
If you have compelling songs, simple hooks, and obvious chemistry, you don't need more than two and a half minutes to make a point (20 times), or more than two days' recording time on a two-track console. And you certainly don't need Mercury Records. Such are the lessons of Funanimal World, Prescott Curlywolf's third full-length record, and the somewhat belated indie rebound from 1996's sales-deficient 6ix Ways to Sunday. Yet for all its DIY, lo-fi, lo-budget spirit, Funanimal World is still as challenging, lean, and efficient as its predecessor. There are still three distinct voices and a collective hook-chorus-hook vision, even if those voices now seem guided more by Robert Pollard than the Carter Family. And why not? This live-to-tape format is clearly better suited to capturing jagged pop than jangly roots-rock. For proof, see how Prescott twists their own "Starkweather" into a raw rock nugget that dwarfs the Gourds' preemptive cover or how quickly they manage to construct a fully realized wall of sound on the 76-second "Sacred Girl." Better yet, there's plenty of crisp audio, a genuine flow, and surprisingly little filler - especially for an album not only recorded this quickly, but that also features an underlying energy clearly derived from their distaste for the record industry. And in some sense, that's too bad, because if this had been recorded for Mercury, and delivered a pair of radio hits with "Show of Hands" and "Baldachino," it would have been an even better story than "local band makes good on local label."
3.0 Stars - Andy Langer
THE FENCE SITTERS
More Blue Than Green
Country music subject matter is present and accounted for on More Blue Than Green, the debut from Austin's Fence Sitters. Some of the lyrics thumb a bitter nose at those who have been untrue, some of them recall the joyful days spent with a departed parent, some of them mourn the loss of love or the inability to find it. What makes these songs great, however, is the wit and irony weaved into the phrasings. In "Devil Born Again," the singer has been healed by a country preacher of a wound inflicted on him by a jealous husband, and with this kind of insurance policy, he knows he can get away with anything. "Jesus Walk Me to the Bar," ought to explain itself, but if it doesn't, the tune's flurry-fingered bluegrass jam - the foundation of More Blue Than Green - will. The lunging bridge of "Fine Line" and the high-speed string-chase of "After All" are but two furiously fleet-fingered examples. The presence of the double-bass and banjo are not always as strong as they could be (in the recording, not the playing), but the focus on the lyrics may explain that. Either way, More Blue Than Green is a hell of a lot of fun.
3.0 Stars - Christopher Hess
TWO HIGH STRING BAND
No doubt about it, the recent bluegrass revival has brought some damn good music into the clubs. Austin has definitely seen its share of foot-stompin', thigh-slappin' hillbilly hootenannies purt-near guaranteed to make you grin. Characterized by good pickin' and an appreciation of musical roots, the shows have added some raffish charm to a form that's always been a touch too precise. The latest comers to this jugtippin' parade are the newly Texan Two High String Band, recently settled in Austin after spells in Boston and Florida. Their self-titled debut (17 songs, all originals, and most under three minutes) proceeds according to front-porch form: a touch of country, a touch of gospel, a heap of mandolin, and all of it recorded straight to DAT in all its muddy glory. Pretty good stuff, on the whole, but Two High doesn't get it quite right: the lyrics are a little pale, the harmonies a wee off, and the solos are often predictable. A more troublesome flaw is the lack of a strong vocalist in a style that requires one: Brian Smith and Billy Bright share duties, but neither has the strength to bring it home. The album's four best songs are its four instrumentals ("Old Crippled Dog" is a particular treat). The danger of playing yesterday's music is that the ground has been tread before, by those much better than you. To make such familiar music sound venerable rather than hackneyed, you need damn good chops, a singer that makes the skin crawl on the back of your neck, and at least a helping of fresh perspective. Count Two High String one for three on that scale (for chops), and check 'em again in a year or two.
2.0 Stars - Jay Hardwig
This independently released 13-song CD debut from Austin's unheralded "canto nuevo" chieftains is a Pan-American walk through a library of rhythms and genres. With seminal Latin American "new song" exponents Mike Maddux on piano, accordion, keys, and clave; Monterrey's Javier Palacios on vocals; Martha Davids on guitar and vocals; and Glen Rexach on bass, Cenzontle ("Mockingbird" or "bird of 400 voices" in Nahuatl) offers a museum-calibre palette of cumbia, vallenato, milonga, son, bolero, guajira, waltz, and forró. Welcoming boy-wonder Rey Arteaga on percussion, Cenzontle has delivered a spirited introduction to traditional forms that stretch from South Texas to the furthest reaches of South America, turning in original lyrics and arrangements that take the debut disc high above the ordinary or mundane. From the haunting "Al Vaiven de Mi Carreta (the Rocking of My Cart)," a classic guajira, to the deliciously danceable and superbly ironic "Estas Pilla'o (Caught/You're Busted)," Cenzontle manages to capture the musical soul of a continent and renew its life and vigor in the process. Javier Palacios and Martha Davids, already a well-known vocal duet, combine undeniable sincerity and glittering harmonies. A stirring reminder is the bolero titled "Amar y Vivir." The overcrowded local film community should take note; this collection would do justice to any of Alfonso Arau's best celluloid overtures.
3.0 Stars - Abel Salas
Two Kinds of Laughter (Shanachie)
What is possibly the most touching moment on Two Kinds of Laughter comes tacked on to the end of "Let Go," an epilogue sung by a young child who is moving cross country, far away from his (her?) favorite singer-songwriter. While there are moments on the album proper that come close to the depth of this feeling, more often than not the tone turns from sad songs to ear candy. The album was produced by Adrian Belew, and the hand he used was a heavy one indeed. The finished product is an impeccably shiny collection of pop songs, reaching its peaks through the airy chorus of the title track and the heartfelt strain of her voice in "Eight," all of it carrying the bounce of Belew. While "Take Whatever I Can Get" may come a bit hollow (in vocal delivery as well as theme), and it seems "E Cosi Desio Me Mena" has already been recorded once and released by Poi Dog under the title "Circle Round the Sun," there are enough small, shiny moments like the unabashed parade of strength and resolve in the chorus of "I Wear the Crown" to make the kid's song a fitting end to Two Kinds of Laughter.
3.0 Stars - Christopher Hess
THE HORSE WHISPERER
Merely perusing the list of artists here, names such as Don Walser, Gillian Welch, Steve Earle, Dwight Yoakam, Iris DeMent, Emmylou Harris, George Strait, and the Mavericks is more than enough to get any respectable country music fan red, hot, and bothered. Better yet, the success of this stellar soundtrack isn't merely in the caliber of the artists included; the film's director, Robert Redford, could probably have gotten just about anybody to pony up some music for one of his flicks. Hell, he not only got Lucinda Williams to actually share one of her new songs with the general public ("Still I Long for Your Kiss"), he also got the Flatlanders (Butch Hancock, Joe Ely, and Jimmie Dale Gilmore) to reunite after something like 20 years. No, what makes The Horse Whisperer a four-star album is not the musician roster - there's a mountainous trash heap of bad soundtracks to disprove that theory - but rather the material they contribute. No signs of once-potential B-sides culled from rejected material and thrown together here. Start to finish, this soundtrack is a consistently superb collection of subtly distinct and noticeably elegant songs that are far too good to stand a chance on country radio. When the biggest complaint you could levy against The Horse Whisperer is its ugly red cover, it's time to let Iris DeMent sing "Whispering Pines" and let the wind do the rest.
4.0 Stars - Michael Bertin