Beautiful Life (TVT)
Kicking off Beautiful Life with "Classico," a Santana-inspired open invitation to "let it go," Austin hard rock favorites Vallejo fail to do just that on their sophomore effort -- cut loose. At the go-for-broke point of the tune, "Classico" starts into overdrive, the same sort of explosive outburst that characterizes Santana's best work, only to be reigned in for the song's ending chorus. As with the quintet's live performances, Beautiful Life rocks with solid AOR aplomb, plenty of phat riffs and meaty hooks -- "2053 (21st Century)" and "If I Was President" standing out in particular -- but counter to conventional pitfalls, the band shoots its wad on songwriting rather than soloing. Both are important. The second half of the album, mixed by DJ Hurricane, shifts gears slightly by updating the band's classic FM sound with tasty Ozomatlisms, while "Die Trying" is pure Alice in Chains. In fact, Beautiful Life, a noticeable improvement on last year's Vallejo, does most everything well except punch through that final wall of inspired studio performances. And we all know this young band is capable of punching.
2.5 Stars -- Raoul Hernandez
Seven Worlds (Ark 21)
Seven Worlds is Eric Johnson's latest old album in the archive release bonanza going on currently. This one was done in two parts, with half recorded in 1976, and the other half in 1978. It's no surprise, then, that 20 years later Seven Worlds sounds a little dated -- just like a Seventies fusion album. It also leads with two tracks ("Zap" and "Emerald Eyes") found on Johnson's major label debut, Tones, the only difference being a second bitchin' guitar solo on the former tune. Where the hardest of the hardcore Johnson fan might find it fun to dissect the cuts and find the minute differences, the casual fan already possesses most of the best material on Seven Worlds. On the other eight tracks, Johnson's singing -- never his strong suit -- is inconsistent. On "Showdown," the vocals sound forced, while "Missing Key," with its Wes Montgomery bits, would fare better as an instrumental. Johnson's guitar playing, which was the attraction anyway, is impeccable as always with the highlights being the two previously unavailable instrumentals, "Winter Came" and "A Song for Life." The former is Johnson doing a letter-perfect Blow by Blow/Wired-era Jeff Beck. Six-string virtuosity aside, over half the songs on Seven Worlds are a cut below par and that's ultimately what makes it a curiosity well short of remarkable.
2.5 Stars -- Michael Bertin
After a long stretch as the heart, smarts, and soul of Ian Moore's band, organist Bukka Allen has taken an encouraging solo turn, self-releasing a collection of dirges, lullabies, and waltzes that puts considerable distance between Allen and his recent past. In fact, Sweet Valentine is primarily driven not by piano, guitar, or West Texas memories (his father is famed singer-songwriter Terry Allen), but by lyricism: line after line of introspection, subtlety, and depth. On the album's most dramatic song, "Bust Out the Seams," Allen asks, "Wouldn't it be nice to be Jesus Christ/ To pawn all the problems away?/ To just change the hands of dad's golden plan and speak through a voice that you made?" Whether it's a metaphor for Allen's career plans or something more personal, it's still a theme that resonates throughout Sweet Valentine, as Allen deals directly with desperation, hope, relationships, and yes, spirituality. While Allen's voice, occasionally too thin and unconfident for the weight of the material, is still a bit of unfinished work, this collection of poignant and promising songs certainly isn't.
3 Stars -- Andy Langer
S.D.Q. '98 (Watermelon)
Doug Sahm has been everywhere and done everything, and as the natural product of that life, SDQ '98 is a rambling album. As the Texas Tornado hops around the globe, from Austin to Oslo, San Francisco to Amsterdam, Louisiana to Canada, and right back home to Texas, he aims to capture the spirit not so much of the places he's been, but rather of the rambling itself. He does it, too, recounting the fun side of life on the road by shaping his experiences into some nice Louisiana blues ("On Bended Knee") and balladry ("Louis Riel") in addition to his patented Cosmic Cowboy/ Tex Mex mix. The first track, "Get a Life," is a dorky take on what has become of Austin-town as well as a pot-shot aimed at young 'uns getting their first taste of Sahm's legacy via bands like the Gourds, who accompany Sir Doug on this and one other song on the album. Yeah, it's kinda dumb, but it's just goofy and catchy enough to accomplish both those goals. Sahm remains a vital contributor because he enjoys his work so much, and the feeling is contagious.
3 Stars -- Christopher Hess
MANUEL "COWBOY" DONLEY Y LAS ESTRELLAS
Adios Chiquita (MINI)
Thanks to Manuel "Cowboy" Donley, there are a lot of Austin-born women named Flor. Not because these women are Cowboy's progeny, but rather because his early-Sixties hit "Flor Del Rio" was so beloved that many parents named their newborn daughters after the song. Now, after a 20-year recording hiatus, Donley returns triumphantly with Adios Chiquita. Triumphant for three reasons: backing Cowboy, who earned his nickname in the Fifties because he sang at the front of the stage like cowboy singers, is his core band for 40 years, Las Estrellas; Donley's voice, firm and strong in prior decades, has mellowed like a honey cognac; and, most importantly, Adios Chiquita showcases the dying art of complex and melodic horn harmonies that define Tejano music, a genre developed and perfected by the Tejano Triumvirate of Ruben Ramos, Little Joe, and Cowboy Donley. Adios Chiquita also draws on Tejano's constituent parts: popular Chicano styles ("Escaleras Del Al Carcel"), R&B ("Jacaranda"), and the classic German polkas Donley heard in his father's barbershop ("Adios Chiquita"). Cowboy Donley, the Master, is back.
4 Stars -- David Lynch
Tainted Angel (Cold Spring)
Chris Wall has done something noteworthy. He's made a country album that doesn't make you feel dumb. For Tainted Angel, the local honky-tonker's fifth release, Wall has compiled a mix of authentic roadhouse fare with nerve, wit, and vigor; and yes, here's the obligatory use of the word "rejuvenated," as Wall, probably still best known for penning "Trashy Women," has teamed with local hick rockers Reckless Kelly to put a little more muscle behind his punch. The combination livens straight country material like "Turns to Tears" and "Big Blue Tear Drops," and gives real definition to "Half of What Killed Elvis" and "No Sweat" with their Steve Earle-ish backbones. The bulk of what's good about Tainted Angel, however, belongs to Wall. No other writer in country music would ever use the word "hypotenuse" in rhyme, then come back in the same song ("Three Across") with a dynamite lament like, "And they tore down the drive-in. Nothing good on the TV/ There's a brand new Howard Johnson's where the sundown used to be." The albums hits a lull when Wall puts slower numbers back to back, like with "I Never Got Over Losing You" and "The Empty Seat Beside Me," but Tainted Angel is never plain boring, and what's better, never insulting.
3 Stars -- Michael Bertin
The Last Hurrah (Freedom)
For nearly a decade, no one but the major label weasels who kept commissioning and rejecting Beaver Nelson's demos knew how the local musician's reckless barroom rock translated onto tape. Now, with the release of this long-delayed debut, Austinites will discover that the suits were right: Nelson's isn't major-label material, he's too good. His songwriting is too straightforward, too disquieting. His delivery is too direct, too tormented. And with only a few notably rockin' exceptions, this isn't the raw rawk album the suits expected, anyway. Make no mistake, Nelson's got the rock star phrasing and attitude down, it's just that this debut is obviously too gritty and soulful for a major label's expectations of cheery daytime radioplay or casual in-store spins. Instead, The Last Hurrah is an album for long drives and attentive at-home play, where the full effect of Nelson's clever lyrics and Scrappy Jud Newcomb's conscientious production can seep in. With hardly an underwritten song or lazy performance in the lot, Nelson's Last Hurrah sports a now-or-never vitality that perhaps only Jon Dee Graham's Escape From Monster Island or Lucinda William's Car Wheels on a Gravel Road have evinced of late. It's simply that strong of an album. And with any luck, it won't be Nelson's last hurrah after all.
4 Stars -- Andy Langer
ROBERT EARL KEEN
Walking Distance (Arista)
Bandera native Robert Earl Keen's second major label outing shows a fine-tuning of lyrical craftsmanship and a gradual departure from the inevitable comparisons to Jerry Jeff Walker. His songs of love and loss, hard times and good times, and honorable losers on society's outskirts all bear the stamp of authenticity that comes from having been around the block a few times. Songs on Walking Distance have the recurring theme of homecoming ("Down That Dusty Trail," "Travelin' Light," "Feelin' Good Again") with the common thread of redemption running through a lot of his lyrics; "But each new morning sunrise/is just as good as gold/and all the hope inside you/will keep you from the cold"). Sometimes hope is all there is to grab onto when things look dim, but hope is still present in all his songs. Sidemen like guitarists Rich Brotherton and Gurf Morlix, as well as Bryan Duckworth on fiddle bring a texture to Walking Distance's songs that call for a warm fire and a bottle of decent bourbon; some songs rock a bit while others go for a more introspective sound. The album's production is subdued and natural-sounding, thankfully free of Nashville-gloss overproduction. Another good one from Keen, who, with his battered optimism, would be a good foil for those legions of alt.country bands with their dour Midwestern outlook and practiced twang.
3.5 Stars -- Jerry Renshaw
MARY CATHERINA REYNOLDS
Patience is the kind of local release you want to like. With its engaging, pigeon-filled cover and chatty liner notes, it has an immediate impish underdog appeal, suggesting a singer-songwriter whose stars aren't hung on self-importance. And Patience is by and large a good album, built around some wistful tunes and the sweet and generally sure chirrup of Reynolds' high-pitched voice. There are shades of Dar Williams, Lynn Miles, and unfortunately, Dan Fogelberg, but they're never fully realized, as song after song pulls up a little short in the ooomph department. Not that Reynolds' doesn't craft some moving tunes: "So Much Love" captures the weary space in love's aftermath; "Darlin' Don't Forget Where You Belong," the soft sigh of learning to settle for less; "Seeds & Stems (Again)," the bottom-of-the-bag blues. Unfortunately, the many moods don't build momentum, and Patience drags a bit, limping along between moments of admirable stride.
2.5 Stars -- Jay Hardwig
Floating (Bones and Dreams)
Michele Solberg has a sharp, distinctive voice, making good use of strange phrasings and odd turns in pitch to create an intriguing and original style that makes her instantly recognizable. Unfortunately, the contrived and New-Agey feel of Floating neutralizes the intended effect of the vocals; her high and breathy crooning shoved head-underwater by the electronic clamor going on all around it (provided by Claude McCan, aka Claude 9). Fighting for air and for a little space to sing, Solberg is more than once drowned out by the bleeps, blips, and rough drum track of unfortunate overproduction. While "Try" and "Floating" come enticingly close to the sublime emotional transport promised by the better moments of the somber and ethereal ambience, songs like "Crazy Blue" and "Tell You" further expose the material in an unforgiving fluorescent light, bared as little more than disco soundtracks with half-realized poetry for lyrics. The problem is in the assembly. Somewhere between the stark and enchanting "Bones and Dreams" and the catch-all collage of the rest of the album is where Solberg's landing pad can be found. For now, she's just floating.
2 Stars -- Christopher Hess
MANUEL'S WOMEN'S FESTIVAL 2
In the year of Lauryn, Lucinda, Liz, and Lilith (Hill, Williams, Phair, and Fair), Manuel's Mexican restaurant, in conjunction with SafePlace, a local center for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, has gathered together a fairly stunning collection of Austin female performers that could make Sarah McLachlan reconsider her entire second-stage strategy for her femme festival. Unified by live, mostly acoustic performances and augmented by subtle orchestral contributions from Danny Levin, Gene Elders, and Govinda, Manuel's Women's Festival 2 is a tribute to the fact that whatever the music industry at large can do, Austin can do it better. Uniformly excellent, the performances on this single, 74-minute disc put to shame most everything on this year's 2-CD Lilith Fair concert souvenir, and by doing so, exposes a handful of lesser-known Capital City talent like Nikki Duncan, Lisa Richards, Jennifer Koury, and Kim Miller, all of whom shine alongside local scene stalwarts Betty Elders, Sarah Hickman, Ana Egge, Lourdes Pérez, Connie Kirk, and Margaret Wright. And this is volume 2! Time to start backtracking; somewhere out there is the first volume of these sweet sounds, and chances are it sports the same sort of main-stage performances as this gem. Or is that Jewel?
3.5 Stars -- Raoul Hernandez
When Joy Destroys Sorrow
Skip Shirley is a man of many talents. Making his own instruments is one of them: "Industrial Flute, Mutant Harmonica, Extended Double Pennywhistle, Prepared Guitar & Curious Stories." The last one, a bookend device for When Joy Destroys Sorrow, takes the album's many haunted and haunting sounds and frames them as if they were the gloriously vivid illustrations in Where the Wild Things Are. "My Albanian grandmother lived in Gary Indiana," writes Shirley on the back CD insert. "During one of the Appalachian work migrations, a radio station was set up in the city that played 'Hillbilly Music.' W.J.D.S. When Joy Destroys Sorrow ... Albanian Appalachian ghosts in the water." Yes, ghosts. Monsters, like the hideous, gnashing beast so close on your heels you can feel its steaming breath on the back of your neck ("La Sirena de la Luna"). God, with his broken toy piano melodies ("Jesus"), and the Devil with his overwrought calliope music ("Devil's Daughter"). A "Heron" even. The exotic Amazonian junglisms of "Diamanda Sprinkle," the Woody Guthriesque "Sunflower," and the deep, piano ballad ache of "Poop Monkey" all weave their own magic. A concept album in the way any completed song-cycle should be. "All tracks played Live-Solo-No-Multi Tracking" read the credits of a man already tackling New York. Skip Shirley is a musician of many talents.
4 Stars -- Raoul Hernandez
Only Love Can Break Your Heart (Trance Syndicate)
There is no love on this record, no broken hearts. These songs do not evoke tender feelings (or anger or sadness or fear or anything like them), nor will they make you think, in the musical terms of a four-minute pop song, of your significant other or the lack thereof -- you'll never get that chance. Echoes of emotive intent and vague glimmerings of communication surface throughout, only to be spread wide and dissected by the persistently and deceptively syncopated drums and straight bass, glorified by guitar and Fender 6 bass. The songs of Paul Newman are grandiose constructions and brutal deconstructions of the essence of melody. As the melancholia of "Where Are Your Hands Now?" offers sweet and elusive moments of peering through the mathematical armor, the melody is twisted and jerked around in a brilliant and sterling piece of performance. "Dawson 1, Oklahoma 0" ties chamber-rock arrangement (only the cello is missing) to subtly repetitive Tortoise-isms in yet another brilliant experiment. Every tune invites close inspection and many, many listens. Not love songs -- just beautiful music.
4 Stars -- Christopher Hess
Half Rack of Sugar
Like a rusty coil springing from your cheap-ass couch, Enduro compels you to scream and move. The no-bass trio, led by guitarist-cum-playwright David Bucci, squirms in the sparse, bluesy thwack of Jon Spencer, but the Austin band's final product is baptized in the Pabst Blue Ribbon spray of some drooling punk rocker who'll probably end the night passed out in a toilet stall. "Penthouse Suite" fires off with a ringing snare followed by a soulful progression appropriated from "Money (That's What I Want)," while "Shaky Sister" is an out-of-control carnival ride spinning to its own demented rhythm, and "Early Grave" has the well-worn feel of an old Poison 13 song. The whole album is as bright and scorching as a mouthful of tinfoil. Despite these rancorous, all-systems-down overtones, the shaft driving this bus is a well-executed groove that's custom-made for sloppy-kiss undulation. Strip clubs would be a whole lot sexier if they played music like this.
3 Stars -- Greg Beets
THE FLAMETRICK SUBS
Undead at the Black Cat Lounge (Texas Flat Lizard)
This live recording from one of the Flametrick Subs' ongoing Saturday night musick-and-black-eye free-for-alls captures the psychobilly essence of this Austin phenomenon in pure, beer-soaked form. It helps that the Black Cat's massive walls and high ceiling form an (un)natural amphitheater of sorts, allowing that precious, twangy reverb to ricochet all over the place. Actually, that's what this CD misses: Just as integral to the Subs experience is the viscous coating of sweat and bad vibes that clings to you hours after the show has ended. Nevertheless, Undead ... does a fine job nailing the songs, with everything from the traditional "Pride of Texas" to the title track from the band's last release, Amaze Your Friends with X-Ray Glasses!, all of it overscored with one hell of a vocal crowd. The question remains, though, why bother with a live Subs CD? This kind of hoo-hah in your living room is a less than charitable idea when it comes to your furniture's feelings, and the Flametrick Subs' music sans the band itself is a woeful miscarriage of rockabilly justice. Your ears might have a ball, but your body's only going to wonder why it's not prostrate and drenched in other people's beer.
3 Stars -- Marc Savlov
Kaleidescoptic Yesterdaze (Chiwawa)
Essentially a reissue of Shiva's Headband's 1976 album, Psychedelic Yesterday, this CD earns its new moniker by the addition of their 1968 single, "Kaleidescoptic"/"Song for Peace" to the mix. Touted proudly as the first charting single to come out of Austin, it would be nice if "Kaleidescoptic" was one of those magical tunes like the 13th Floor Elevators' "You're Gonna Miss Me" that seems timeless and bears repeated listenings. Unfortunately, it falls closer to the category of hippie-dippy drivel that was so common in the late Sixties; the type parodied so viciously in Spinal Tap's "early" singles like "Cups and Cakes" and "Rainy Day Sun." The bulk of the album is the '76 material, though, and that holds up better. There's enough boogie driving the band on the Psychedelic Yesterday tracks to keep you from pressing the skip button, and Spencer Perskin's fiddle drives things along just fine. To those who were there, this material is no doubt priceless as a historical document. To those who weren't, it may still be an interesting trip.
2.5 Stars -- Ken Lieck
Fuze is the self-produced album by Austinite Courtney Audain. The title is appropriate because each of the 11 well-produced original tracks drip with Audain's ability to seamlessly blend reggae, soul, R&B, blues and other styles into his own signature sound. The irie-laden Fuze also signifies Audain's genius in hosting musical friends to enhance the work, such as the gorgeous flamenco intro and outro by guitarist Teye in "The Longest Years," a tune that also features Charlie and Will Sexton, or the Jimmy Cliff-like version of Lennon and McCartney's "We Can Work It Out," replete with powerful vocal gesturing by Austin's own MC Overlord. Suffering at times from lyrical repetition, the righteously superfine Prince-y groove of "Born to Be a Star" is well-complemented by Malford Milligan's sweet soul backing vocals. More? "Let Our Love Grow" and "Give Love a Try" bring to mind Lenny Kravitz's Let Love Rule. Audain, who sings and plays at least seven instruments on Fuze, is surprisingly humble and credits God for his talent. In less-developed hands, these many influences and contributions might result in a hodgepodge of samples and examples, but Fuze wins as a uniquely accomplished debut.
3.5 Stars-- David Lynch
Although Blu, a local singer-songwriter, not a band, has a low live profile and little street credibility, his debut self-release features plenty of important admirers/collaborators (Billy White, J.J. Johnson, Kris McKay, to name a few) and enough sharp songs and crafty melodies to explain why. Yet, Tierra is clearly Blu's album, not an all-star studio invention. White's resourceful production never allows the band nor his own typically stellar guitar work to take the focus off the young songwriter's moody voice or his complicated songs -- an eclectic and well-textured cross-section of folk-rock balladry that goes a long way without any obvious hooks or catchy choruses. The flexibility of his soulful voice and lack of an overtly commercial spirit will draw comparisons to Ben Harper, Leonard Cohen, or Jeff Buckley, but it only takes a few spins of compelling songs such as "Radio for Help" and "Two Lovers" to realize Blu's already found his own niche -- balancing reflective and somber ideas with colorful rhythms. In a perfect world, that mature sensibility alone would yield Blu the buzz Tierra definitely warrants.
3.5 Stars -- Andy Langer
Bad Habits (Fedora)
If the sly grit of Matthew Robinson's milk-and-whiskey voice suggests he's been around the block a few times, it's because he has. A 30-year veteran of the local blues scene, Robinson has only recently moved stage center, fronting a band of Austin regulars that includes saxman Larry Williams and trumpeter Donald "Duck" Jennings. If nothing else, Robinson picked up some chops on those trips around the block; Bad Habits is a cool and confident debut. Robinson's soulful delivery and Jennings' simple horn punctuation recall classic Sixties and Seventies blues; Luther Allison comes to mind, as do both Freddie and Albert King. Add some less-than-precise production values and you've got an old-fashioned house party on your hands. Robinson isn't aiming to lay new pavement, Bad Habits traveling down mostly familiar highways and back alleys, but he surely gives a smooth and satisfying ride.
3 Stars -- Jay Hardwig
With Elliott Smith and Fastball on the charts these days, the climate for pop music is fertile indeed. And from the decidedly non-pop crescent that is Austin comes Darin Murphy clutching his new Solitarium, a dozen curious, roughly polished nuggets. While these songs may be a revelation to those who remember Murphy as half of the brother/sister folk duo Trish & Darin, Murphy's new incarnation is more like Big Star circa 1974, British pop filtered through Southern soul. Playing all the instruments himself, Murphy's songwriting displays a penchant for the bizarre, like the wonderfully drug-addled, Lewis Carroll-ish "Sermon on Mars," a Ziggy Stardust-inspired interplanetary shuffle. Other minor epiphanies include "Big Pink Glasses," a possible homage to Robyn Hitchcock, and "Stuck in a Hole" (co-written with Johnny Goudie), a tune that swims nonsensically in XTC-land. A wink and a nod aside, Murphy can wear a more serious coat: "Don't Look at Me" is a bittersweet rant that devolves into a swarm of guitar jangle, while "Down," the album's centerpiece, is a gorgeous, Lennon-esque ballad. In the liner notes, Murphy says the hook is not part of the song, the hook is the song. In this case, the hook is the whole album.
3 Stars -- Luann Williams
Song and Dance (Lazy S.O.B.)
As a scene, the postwar jazz swing revival may be an ironic pretender to sophistication, but you can't argue with the real-world sophistication of this music. The Lucky Strikes slide right into the Ray Anthony/Pete Rugulo school without missing a jump. Their secret weapon is the best horn arrangements in town, but what do you expect with Elias Haslanger on tenor sax and Freddie Mendoza on trombone? Finely crafted workouts like "Swing Let's Swing" feature short bursts of pure ecstasy from all the horns as a subtle backbeat makes you wish you were Sammy Davis, Jr. The Strikes even pull together a string section for the ballad "Just Lucky That Way." And let's not forget Craig Marshall's historically nuanced songwriting and vocals. Though Marshall doesn't quite hit that perfect Sinatra pitch, his voice still exudes depth and reassurance. This is true whether he's snapping along to "Things Are Looking Up" or shrugging off pain in "The Lonely Goodbye." Because it covers such a wide range of styles and emotions, Song and Dance is more than worthy of an extended engagement at the Sahara Hotel's Casbah Lounge.
3.5 Stars --Greg Beets
Pushmonkey has a lot riding on their self-titled new release. After endless gigging, the band's hard work has paid off with this major label chance to prove that their brand of cock rock is not solely a local phenomenon. Fans of the Austin five-piece will dig the Reznoresque lead vocals and Queensryche chorus of opener "Lefty." Likewise, the syncopated sonic wall of "No Dumb Wrong" and the erratic trumpeting on "Now" will please the sea of bobbing heads who frequent the band's homebase, Steamboat, as well as Pushmonkey neophytes. The vocal harmonies in "Loner" and "Maybe" are clearly the product of serious woodshedding, and "Spider" has iconoclastic guitar work reminiscent of Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello. Kudos to the man behind the controlboard, Mike Clink (Guns N' Roses), who bathes the 11 original tracks in that big sound. Of course like most freshmen outings, there are a few missteps, like the confusing liner notes and the faux English-accent background vox on the low-key "Cut the Cord." Pushmonkey executes well on toned-down tunes such as "Cut the Cord," but they sound more at home with heavy tracks. Luckily their high-profile debut is full of them. Let the headlines read "Local boys make good."
3 Stars -- David Lynch