Utter the words "Herb Alpert tribute compilation" too loud in my neighborhood and you'll get more than a "Taste of Honey," bub. To devotees of the Tijuana Temple, the thought of covering Herculean Herb is akin to flag burning. And covering the Brass Bard sans brass -- an arrogant lack of trumpet on 14 out of 15 songs -- why, it's unspeakable sacrilege! So cometh Surfin' Senorita, an attempt to pay homage to He of Taut Lip via surf guitar. And you know what? They've pulled it off. A passel of Austin and out-of-town combos nail the trumpet messiah right in his clammy, key-klacking paws. While purists may buck and whinny at versions fuzzed-out and fucked-up, Squid Vicious' "Wade in the Water" works as a slurry 13th Floor Elevators ode, and the Halibuts' not-quite-right take of "Taste of Honey," marred by some curious chord and note revisions, only distracts a tad, especially since they so honorably nail the sustained "trombone" blaaat and drum roll hook that makes the song so sweet. The Slackmate's "Third Man Theme" traipses into Nino Rota, Kurt Weill, and even Kim Gordon territory, and Herman the German's "Struttin' With Maria" belches a drunken oompah toast to the polka-conjunto connection. Yum! Even amidst 15 shrine-worthy instant classics, two cuts stand out: Donna Ho's nestling ukeleles on "Tijuana Taxi," complete with World Cup announcer Andres Cantor's immortal Gooooooooooo-al! taking the place of the border town's hubbub, and the Sir Finks' "Spanish Flea," which would do Jim Lange proud as the hands-down best version of the Dating Game theme since Homer Simpson's. This album is so damn fine that we'll bet our vinyl Tijuana Brass box set that upon first listen, before you can say "This Guy's in Love With You," you'll book a flight to Baja and start limbering up that lip.
4 stars --Kate X Messer
ASYLUM STREET SPANKERS
Hot Lunch (Cold Springs)
Austin's famously acoustic Asylum Street Spankers, the throwback ensemble who have been plying their old-time whimsy around town for half a dozen years -- confounding classification by playing a mix of jazz, rag, vaudeville, blues, and country -- are back with their third release, Hot Lunch which seems primed to add yet another tag: novelty. It's not just the prevalence of ukuleles, pennywhistles, and carnival barking, or the subject matter, which ranges from psychedelia ("Trippin' Over You") to alien invasion ("U.F.O. Attack") to, well, rear entry ("Fanny"), it's the elbows-to-the-ribs delivery of it all; there's scarcely a tune on the album played with a straight face. It can get to be a little much, but in there among the ham is a lot of fine musicianship: Among the delights on Hot Lunch are Leroy Biller's guitar, Stanley Smith's clarinet, Eamon McLoughlin's fiddle, and Adam Booker's bass. As always, Christina Marrs' ball-busting voice is strong and sultry, missing foil Guy Forsyth's powerhouse presence. Hot Lunch is not exactly what you'd call long on substance, but then again, Spankers fans aren't searching for substance so much as a snatch of tuneful wit and bravado, served up Tin Pan Alley style. On that score, Hot Lunch delivers.
2 stars --Jay Hardwig
DAVE BILLER/JEREMY WAKEFIELD
The Hot Guitars of Biller and Wakefield (High Tone)
Using Hot Guitars in your title sure is ballsy. It automatically references the blood-warming rhythms and leads of Stephane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt, as well as the superfine Western Swing of Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys -- towering figures who defined and contributed to two angles of jazzy playing that flourished in the years before and after WWII. So if nothing else, the title Hot Guitars is a high mark to hit, let alone add to. Call electric guitarist Dave Biller (occasionally with the Asylum Street Spankers) and pedal steel slider Jeremy Wakefield (sometime member of Lucky Stars) brazen, then, for their nomenclature, but when you listen to their pairing, be sure and crank it up, because this one smokes. Meeting originally in Wayne Hancock's band, Wakefield and Biller use the pairing of Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant as inspiration on the 14 mostly original tracks. Standouts include the roadhouse blues of "Biller Barges In," the Reinhardt-flow solo in "The Wandering Texan" and "Steel Crazy," where Wakefield's deft touch really shines. Biller & Wakefield: worthy of the title The Hot Guitars.
3.5 stars -- David Lynch
Texas Tattoo (Appaloosa)
Last Night (Tornado Alley)
First, there's the dress shirt, the one saved for special occasions. It looks good, and when worn, adds an air of sophistication. It's what you choose to make an impression. Then, there's the favorite shirt, the one to don when the groove is on. It feels good, and when worn, there are no worries -- it's too old to be ruined. It's what you wear to feel comfortable. Here's Texas Tattoo, then, polished to spit-shine this year, full of 11 mostly originals, and including backup from Lubbock homeboys Joe Ely, Butch Hancock, and Jimmie Dale Gilmore on Hancock's "Naked Light of Day." Taylor is playing for the listener here, slinging guitar around songs like "Stubbs Boogie" (again with Ely and Gilmore), "You'll Never Get Me Up," and "I've Got to Know" with guest Toni Price. The steely crunch of Taylor's panhandle guitar is well-served by his own production work, but too many cuts come off slick and a little stiff, like a new shirt. Maybe that's why Last Night, released late last year, slides on so easily. Ten tracks roar to life with the Mar-Keys' instrumental title track leading off the album and the remarkably effective and incendiary traditional gospel number "Oh Mary Don't You Weep" wrapping it up. Taylor's proficiency with bar band faves is such that originals such as his own "Gamblin' Man" and "1am Blues" fit snugly alongside Howlin' Wolf's "Evil" and Johnny "Guitar" Watson's "Gangster of Love." Jesse Taylor may not have decided how he's gonna dress, but given these two platters, it seems even he knows it's more important to feel right than look good.
(Texas Tattoo) 2 stars
(Last Night) 3 stars --Margaret Moser
ROBERTO SONTOYA RAMOS
Bass Street (Famoso)
The cover of Bass Street shows well-versed veteran and multi-instrumentalist Roberto Sontoya Ramos with his trademark Precision bass slung around his shoulder. In the background is a setting sun vista of downtown Austin, home to so many of the venues in which he has performed. Born and raised in Austin, Ramos is one of the most prolific bassists around, setting the atomic pendulum down behind such local stalwarts as Little Joe y La Familia, W.C. Clark, Joe King Carrasco, and Matt Powell. Not trying to be a one-man band, Ramos features 18 cameos from a select group of his musical colleagues on his debut's 10 original instrumentals. The problem is you don't know who plays what, because there's no specific track listing, which sucks if you want to know, for example, which drummer (or drummers?) produce the monstrous skin beating in "3 Plumbers." Truth be told, however, it's Ramos' compositional bass work that really shines here, like the cavernous groove under the George Benson-ish octaves in "Butterfly Besos," and the Funky Meters-meet-Santana (with whom Ramos has played) rockfest of "Biggabootie." They're all fair game -- blues, rock, jazz, Tejano, country. One wonders why, then, the disc doesn't hold more than a tight half-hour's worth of originally diverse music. Probably cuz Roberto is out, busy gigging.
2.5 stars --David Lynch
The Money & The Grass (MIA)
Debut albums from young artists can be tricky. The good news is there's a lifetime's worth of songs to choose from. The bad news is the bulk of those are often just souvenirs of their creator's shifting interests and influences. While twentysomething local Matt Powell occasionally falls into the latter trap on The Money & The Grass, he somehow comes off as more versatile than unfocused. First and foremost, Powell is a blues guitarist, and while he's got the early signs of a distinctive tone and a few genuinely interesting solos to offer, his blues material is relatively safe rock radio fare and often gets further on attitude than songwriting. There's some promising material here for modern blooze, but it's Powell's pop and singer-songwriter sides that are far more compelling; a trio of songs, "Rich Man," "What You Do to Me," and "Turtle & Rabbits," are subtle, lyrically challenging, and generally inviting. Better still, each tune also incorporates just enough fundamental blues guitar to bind them to the rest of the album. For that act of cohesion alone, Powell has proved himself worth keeping an eye on, which is what you want from a debut.
2.5 stars --Andy Langer
Listening to Irish Rain, it's not hard to imagine the sound PigGie Hat aspires to: mood-inflected blues-rock, meaningful but muscular, in the finest bar band tradition. At times, on the local band's debut, they nearly succeed: From the lazy languor of "Rememberance" [sic] to the anthemic urgency of the title track to the Hendrix-style noodling of "Lonely Moment," there's the distinct whiff of possibility in the air, the feel of something bubbling under the surface. Promising, perhaps, but those brief moments in the sun are steamrolled by the dull drone of the rest of the album, which reaches its regrettable peak on the turgid tunes "Not My Day" and "Draped in Black." Irish Rain has all the hallmarks of the first album of a young band -- simple songs, angry chords, and a youthful bravado that's almost affecting. Almost. Add to that a bassist who clings to the basic like it's a life preserver, a raft of moony lyrics, and a liner-note nod to the Budweiser frogs, and PigGie Hat fairly oozes with that unmistakable not-quite-ready-for-prime-time feel.
2 stars --Jay Hardwig
This album might have been better titled Floating for the visceral quality a word like "speeding" evokes, but make no mistake: The market for wispy-voiced women plying poetically dreamy lyrics is not to be underestimated. Once half of the Austin-based band Fabu, Amy Atchley delivers eight disarmingly simple tracks on Speeding, with catchy little hooks and sentiments straight out of My So-Called Life, or these days maybe Felicity. If these sound like veiled compliments, they're not; Atchley is quite adept at translating the complexities of love, as on the title track and in the tender loveliness of "Sentimental Girl," which is a natural for a single. The song's naked emotion doesn't cloak itself in obtuse lyrics or drown itself in treacly overproduction. Producers Mark Hallman and Govinda allow the sweetness of the music to carry itself while providing a solid framework for Atchley originals like "Julian," "To Follow You," and "Bye Little Bird." Playing acoustic guitar and piano throughout the album, the singer is joined by drummer JJ Johnson, bassist George Reiff, and guitarist Ron Welch, as well as Govinda, who lends violin to "Breaking the Waves." It's to Atchley's credit that she doesn't let her first solo album get overly girly, conjuring just enough of a misty morning feel to leave the listener wistful for the company of someone who cares.
2.5 stars --Margaret Moser
Suburban Legends (Spitune)
If the sophomoric lead-off track "Colorado on Trial" doesn't bring to mind visions of a UT jeepboy on a summer lark ("Colorado you made me love you, so I'm putting you on trial for turning me against my own state to whom I'd been so faithful"), then "Resumé," anecdotal post-grad instruction ("Resumé, resumé, ayyyy, hey, hey") leaves no doubt who Suburban Legends' intended audience is: fratheads. "Alice is Feeling Ill," for instance, leaves the listener feeling the same, as if forced to endure remedial freshman English forever. High school freshman English. In fact, as the album proceeds, it recedes in school years; "Drive-in Movies" ("nothing could be more fun") tests out at a sixth-grade level, while the album's crowning glory, "The Visitor," in which God drops by unexpectedly, sounds like a third-grader's short story set to music. On this song in particular, Pritchett, until recently a promising singer-songwriter in the Robert Earl Keen vein with an engaging voice somewhere between the Crash Test Dummies' Brad Roberts and Tom Petty, doesn't even bother crafting his words into verses; the story just tumbles out. Musical accompaniment throughout Suburban Legends is top-notch, but given Pritchett's retarded lyrics, one can only assume the last song, "Something About Red," pays homage to a crayon and not just the color.
1 star --Raoul Hernandez
Ante Up (Double Down)
The three members of Blind Luck seem much too down-to-earth to bother with terms like alt.country, and their regular gigs at places like the Back 40 require them to play too many covers for them to put on airs. Maybe that's what makes their debut CD, Ante Up, so free of artifice. Lead singer Carter Pagel may have the matinee idol good looks of Ricky Nelson and Chris Isaak, but he doesn't appear to be in danger of running out to buy a wardrobe of Nudie suits. Instead, he sounds content to stick with bandmates Jason Stolley and Roland Perez, playing unpretentious roots-rock like the 12 songs on Ante Up. Pagel, who penned the album's dozen songs, learned his lessons in songwriting well, carefully covering the subjects of women ("Christine"), cars ("Daddy's Cheverolet"), women ("All I Really Want"), cheating ("Mary Christmas"), women ("Long Distance Blues"), hard times ("The Tulip Song"), and of course, women ("Sweet As You"). But it's not enough to be engaging in sight and sound. The queue for talented young up-and-comers is a long one. This band's challenge will be to find their niche amid contemporaries like Reckless Kelly, Dale Watson, and Charlie Robison. That's a tall order and Blind Luck will have to ante up indeed if they hope to play for the high stakes. Yet, what's life playing in a band if not a gamble? The musician's lot has never come with guarantees, only the sweet lure of success. Next time Blind Luck comes to the table, look for them to play more ruthlessly.
2.5 stars --Margaret Moser
Bolinde (Red River)
Local Oklahoma-bred folk singer Thomas Anderson has a gift for imbuing the earth and sky with tangential human characteristics that can only be seen by someone who spends a lot of time walking barefoot. Appropriately, the first three songs on Bolinde take place amid the beautiful yet foreboding desolation of the American Southwest. Anderson makes you feel like you're in the passenger seat beside him as he contemplates the untamed landscape and its role in such thoroughly modern watersheds as Alamogordo 1945 ("White Sands") and Roswell 1947 ("Delta Wing"). "Tremolo" expands upon nature in a more personal way by using it as the backdrop for two sad lovers reluctantly taking two different roads. The dark title track uses the back roads of Arkansas for a morality play involving murder, interstate flight, and the song "Angel of the Morning." Anderson also displays his lighter side on the tongue-in-cheek "Come Back to America," an open letter to young prisoners of their own ennui who study overseas as if to say it was all their country's fault. Though brimming with clever witticisms, Anderson's biggest accomplishment on this mini-album was capturing the lonely wonderment of driving through the Chihuahuan Desert at sunrise where anything and everything can slip into your mind.
3 stars --Greg Beets
Go Within (Soul Prayer)
First Pam Hart goes "smooth jazz," now this: Beth Ullman, another of Austin's premier jazz divas, walks into the light -- "New Age." Actually, "New Age" is Ullman's categorization; Go Within would probably be better suited to the contemporary Christian section over by the candles. While Bethani (Ullman's full first name) and producer/ arranger/collaborator Darryl Dunn are the only two musicians listed under keyboards, synthesizers, and samples (except for a sole guest spot from local guitarist Mitch Watkins), God is the omnipresent force behind Go Within. Oppressive force might be more applicable, because if the musically and spiritually vapid "I Love You Lord" doesn't leave you wanting to exit this blasphemously bland service by song number three, "God Chant" will with "Oh my God, my God, how I love thee, how I love thee, how I love thee, oh my God." "Come in to the Quiet," co-written by Ullman and her husband/ composer/keyboardist Rich Harney, could almost be a jazz number, particularly given Ullman's exquisite voice, but that's as close as Go Within comes to any real heart and soul. By the time the album ends 34 excruciating minutes later, on "Spirit Set Me Free," you'll surely be praying -- begging -- for the same thing.
1 star --Raoul Hernandez
Voyage Into Indigo (International Rain)
Local quintet Happy Valley is able to traverse the same emotionalscapes as Ancient Future and Dead Can Dance, yet without sounding like a carbon copy of either of them or any the other instrumental mood bands around. On their second self-release, Voyage Into Indigo, the group, led by Brit-born Austin resident Darrel Mayers, manages to be both deeply contemplative and wildly festive, as in the opener "The Sandpiper," a tune which features Emme Bernard's elegant, South American-seasoned flute over Mario Gonzalez's lowrider bass riff. The Sunday-morning, black-coffee introspective state of "Pipe Dreams Dance" also stands out. Perhaps one reason Voyage Into Indigo sounds so well-balanced is because the band takes turns with composing duties. This can lead to uninteresting meanderings, but for the most part, the group sound works, especially in the airy, garden-of-earthly-delights sensation of "Alefa," the group coloration over a single comp line in "Kythe Caravan," and the surprising Radiohead-y intro and vocals of "Iridescence." As gravy, the production is lush without being drippy. No sophomore slump here.
3 stars --David Lynch
ZULU AS KONO
(Bent Over Cowboy)
Not too long ago, an entire scene coalesced around the Jesus Lizard/Fugazi axiom of dark, walking bass lines syncopated by obtuse jabs from air-raid siren guitars. Though the cognoscenti have long since moved on, Austin's Zulu As Kono still have an unquenched allegiance for the lost land of sharp curves and quick stops. They've even got those drooling, bellowing vocals that could just as easily be used for a drunken goddamn-you-to-hell speech outside a former lover's apartment complex. None of this is surprising when you consider multi-instrumentalist Brandon Crowe's tour of duty in the late, lamented prog-punk juggernaut Gut. Although Zulu As Kono sometimes wear the aforementioned axiom a little low on the shirtsleeve, the band succeeds when they start to monkey around with structure and texture. Of particular interest is "Roosevelt Square," a grainy black-and-white car chase score that bounces off the guardrails like a pinball. Likewise, "Wiseblood" eschews fury and bombast for a distorted bouillabaisse of bluesy chicken-scratch. The tune's vocal track sounds like it was cut after a week without sleep, which is quite appropriate within the album's overall context of disorientation.
3 stars --Greg Beets
Live in Montana (Rykodisc)
Not only has Rykodisc begun rolling out the super deluxe editions of the Meat Puppets' SST catalogue, overflowing with bonus tracks, additional artwork, and CD-ROM videos, the archivist's dream label has also put out a primer to goose neophytes and longtime fans alike. Offered up as "the first ever Meat Puppets live album," Live in Montana is the onetime Phoenix, Arizona-based trio in a tab of acid: raw, wired -- loud -- funny, unpredictable, pissed off. Recorded toward the end of their first decade of existence, in 1988, everything the Meat Puppets were and are is captured in the form of your standard 60-minute punk rock set. Opening with a taste of classic Curt Kirkwood quirk, the kinetic "Touchdown King," the ultra-tight threepiece has its "Automatic Mojo" going full bore by the time "Plateau" lurches into a whistling "Maiden's Milk," and then into one of the finest rock & roll nursery crimes ever written, "Lake of Fire." That "Plateau" and "Lake of Fire," both on Nirvana's Unplugged, draw attention to Kirkwood's obvious songwriting talents is appropriate given that nearly half of the album's 16 compositions are covers. And what covers they be: a priceless take on "Dough Rey Mi," with Kirkwood's echoed, sparkley guitar lines, which seques into a 16-minute medley of "S.W.A.T. (Get Down)"/"Attacked by Monsters"/"Blue Bayou." Ending with a couple of Black Sabbath chestnuts ("Paranoid," "Sweet Leaf"), Live in Montana, edited and complied by the group's drummer Derrick Bostrum, might be all the Meat Puppets you need if it weren't for the fact that the best is yet to come.
3.5 stars --Raoul Hernandez
Jazz Time for Texas
As far as straight-played, traditional back-line jazz, Jazz Time for Texas takes no chances, crosses no boundaries. And that works just fine. The material leans heavily on standards, from a stroll through Count Basie's "Good Bait" to a rolling and pretty piano-bass treatment of Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life." Sonny Rollins' "Pent Up House" hurts without a horn, though bassist John Fremgen injects a clean and bending bass solo, while Dave Brubeck's "In Your Own Sweet Way" is nothing but pleasant. The trio plays well together; they warm up, they stretch out a bit, trade solos, and get better and hotter with each passing turn. But that's all that's going on. Pianist and leader Marty Allen, who recently returned to Austin from the Bay Area, never pushes his piano to the fore, never takes command of the group; he seems content merely taking his turn. Likewise for Fremgen and drummer A.D. Mannion, both great players, neither pushing the envelope. Again, that doesn't make this a bad album. On the contrary, it's a good album, one that would see its fair share of use in any local jazz fan's CD player. It's just like a night at the Elephant Room, which is exactly what it is.
2.5 stars --Christopher Hess
MAXIMUM COHERENCE DURING FLYING
By starting their album with a pomp-laden brass processional, Maximum Coherence During Flying immediately lets you know that you've just strapped yourself in for what promises to be an epic musical adventure. The local sextet borrows liberally from a grab bag of disparate sources such as prog-rock, electronic, fusion, gothic, and film scores to create a cinematic panorama that recalls everything from King Crimson to Brian Eno to Johnny Winter's soundtrack for the L. Ron Hubbard novel Battlefield Earth. Whether they're battling crusaders or space robots, the band's lyrical thrust reinforces the epic designation. If there's an element of pretension here, it's backed up with equal amounts of sheer musical savvy. Maximum Coherence combines electronic noise with rich, organic melodies and tops it off with a multitude of arrangements featuring bass trombone, bassoon, cello, and flute among other typically non-rock instruments; the album seems to undergo a major stylistic shift once every three minutes. "Sterile Hands" morphs from a mellow sax and vibe treatment into a cacophonous short-circuit meltdown that pins the VU meters far to the right. This marathon-length album represents a heady time investment, but those who dig the big-screen treatment won't mind a bit.
3 stars --Greg Beets