If you're already a Jimmy LaFave fan, run out and buy Trail. Don't even think about it, just do it. There's nothing better than getting your hands on the best bootleg around, and that's what this 2-CD collection often feels like. Full of previously unreleased live material, radio performances, and studio tracks, Trail is nothing short of a brilliant assemblage of a decade's worth of discarded and hidden gems that could end up being your new favorite album. For the fan, this is a definite desert island album, but if you haven't already been initiated into the cult of LaFave, Trail is still worth your attention. It's a sweeping survey of original material as well as an affectionate tribute to some of the artists that shaped LaFave's own sensibilities and style. Songs by Bruce Springsteen, Joe Ely, Woody Guthrie, Bob Childers, and again and again, Bob Dylan, are given reverential treatment both acoustic and electric. And side by side, LaFave's own tunes don't often suffer by comparison. His "Loved You Like Rainbows" is cradled snug between Dylan's "Oh, Sister" and "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues," even as another original, "Never Be Mine" glows between "Down in the Flood" and "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue." To inject such integrity and originality into the dozen Dylan selections here is no small feat. Tell any Dylan fan that someone covers "Positively 4th Street" and they'll wrinkle an eyebrow and head for the door. But LaFave makes the songs his own. It certainly doesn't hurt that he has one of the most wrenchingly emotive voices ever matched to an acoustic guitar, either slightly sandpapery with astonishing range for its roughness seemingly pushed to its limits in pitch and perseverance with every chorus' finish. Equal parts singer-songwriter and roadhouse rocker, Austin's Jimmy LaFave is all about the songs those rare and precious few whose appeal starts in the gut and moves up to build permanent residence in the heart.
4 stars -- Christopher Hess
GERRY VAN KING
The Cause of It All (Aaron Avenue)
Since Gerry Van King (aka "The King of Sixth Street") is without a doubt Austin's highest-profile busker, he's also widely regarded as mere amateur night entertainment: funk for the drunk, live music for people who can't commit to paying cover, a tourist curiosity. During SXSW 98, then, it took a couple of those tourists to figure out what local "Picks & Sleepers" pundits hadn't that behind Van King's P-Funk medleys lies a damn fine songwriter. Ft. Worth's Aaron Avenue Records threw a record deal in the local musician's bass case that year, declaring in the Cause of It All's liner notes that they "couldn't remember any of the showcase bands we saw in 1997, but we could remember Gerry's songs." And they were right, because the Cause of It All is about songs; Van King penned all 10 of the album's tracks, and while all but a few play out like boarding passes to the Mothership, each is just as faithfully funky as anything Jammin' Oldies is spinning. In fact, Van King's signature song and The Cause of It All's raucous centerpiece, "I've Just Been Funkafied," already screams early-FM radio classic. Best of all, Van King's not bumping alone. Whereas conventional wisdom and a smaller budget might have recorded Van King and his bass as a Sixth Street field recording, The Cause of It All features a large and similarly Funkadelic-inspired set of session players, with each guitar line and each horn chart meticulously arranged Detroit/Casablanca style. The result is an album of first-class, old-skool funkateering: brilliantly short on unnecessary innovation but long on ultra-catchy choruses and surprisingly well-executed groove. Who'd of funk it?
3 stars -- Andy Langer
HAIRY APES BMX
Expatriape (Artist Workshop/V&R)
The foundation of each and every song on this debut from Austin quartet Hairy Apes BMX is a strong and sturdy one, built on an innate and interconnected sense of exactly what a groove is and how to make it work to maximum effect with minimal clutter. With keyboards, bass, vibraphone, drums, and other percussive additions, the Apes lay down track after track of easy moving funk-influenced hip-hop. There's a whole lot going on here, but it's eclectic, not scattered. Where "Relapse King" and "Jimmy Hat" push heavy on the beats, and "Fang" jumps from easy back line meandering to a blasting, hard-edged horn line, "Situboquita Fuera" is a cumbia that fits the flow beautifully, offering capable and harmonious vocals over a bouncing Caribbean rhythm. The vocals stand out here largely because elsewhere they don't, or if they do, it's not always good. The raps, of which there are many, are not the strongpoints of this album, but even where the rhymes are often clunky and the lyrical time anything but smooth, the instrumental exertion more than makes up for any break in the flow.
2.5 stars -- Christopher Hess
(Austin Music Mafia)
Austin's foremost cut-and-paste avant-punk collective taps the same anarchic grace as the speed-away perps on World's Scariest Police Chases; you don't know which way they'll turn next, but you'd better keep an eye on a band like Brown Whörnet if you don't want to wind up flat on your ass. Having established their proclivity for devouring an endless array of musical styles, Brown Whörnet's latest release is an exercise in reigning in the superlatives. The album begins engagingly with "Working Song," a mechanical, tension-building spiral that sounds like your local TV news theme on Judgment Day. Then it's on to the jaw-dropping prog-punkisms of "Arsenio's Fat Black Ass '98," a song appropriated from the late, great Big Horny Hustler. "Variations on the Pope" promenades through all your favorite speedmetaldeathcore clichés in under two and a half minutes before dumping you cold into the Middle Eastern-flavored rhythms of "Danse Raja." The band also revels convincingly in German synth-pop decadence ("Cutting Myself in the Mirror"), Carl Stalling-style music for circuses ("Puffy Upper"), and all night jazz-funk workouts ("Pash the Gaseous Pecan"). With just the right amount of both ambition and concision, this powerhouse is Brown Whörnet's strongest and most enjoyable work to date.
4 stars -- Greg Beets
Handful is a mouthful: Big-bottomed twin-guitar punk rock, lumbering one minute, limber and lithe the next, with searing Les Paul leads languishing in or lashing through a bodice of Gibson SG stricture. Phew! Mix-mastered by the molotov cocktail of locals Sweatbox Studios and Stupendous Sound, this debut retains all of the local band's shambolic vitriol, tossing in a few flaming pop bottles of surprise. While we all knew lead lady Sara White had the pipes, who knew her bare-toned alto was so strong and so potentially Grace Slick? Those dumb-shit, smart-ass lyrics finally make sense! And who knew that axe-queens Shannon Wade and Lisa Wickware were sneaking in so much liquidy texture to that squalling wall of Marshalls? Live, they're so damn loud, everything gets smushy. Here, delicate riffage rips through the gravel and growl; listen closely for Wickware's rollercoaster lead lick in "My God" it's freaking art. Fret not, the next two cuts, "2 Nice Girls" (about kissing two babes from Sister Spit, not Gretchen and Meg), and "Let's Get Lit," pummel stupid like muddy puppies on a fresh waxed floor. Added bonuses include twisted Little Golden Book art by naughty naughty Terri Lord, a sexy band portrait inside, and an undocumented alien track to finish it off with a giggle.
3 stars -- Kate X Messer
The Wheat Album
When your life's priority is your artistic endeavors say, a touring band there aren't many employers whose priority isn't to fire your ass. But musician-friendly Wheatsville Co-op isn't your everyday employer. Yeah, y'all know Wheatsville ain't your fancypants Whole Butts kind of grocery, but even those in the know would expect a soundtrack/tribute to the free-spirited 23-year-old member-owned market a frightening exercise in trustafarian hippie jams and libbruhl folksongs. Yet the closest these 15 songs written and/or recorded by Wheatsville employees gets to granola is Danny Dollinger's sardonic "Hillbilly Hippie." With members of Ed Hall, Pong, and the Goin' Along Feelin' Just Fines on the payroll, this compilation is more meat-and-potatoes rock, with an excursion into the dairy department with the dearly departed King Cheese (covering the Bee Gees' "You Should Be Dancing"), and the ice-creamilicious Ursa Major ("Blue Light"). Lest you forget this is a pinko co-op, Sixteen Deluxe ("Floor Thirteen") throws those funny herbs and tinctures in the cart, as do Palaxy Tracks ("Holly Grove"), Fifteen Minutes of Shame ("Northern Lights McCoy"), and the organ-ic Bunny Stockhäusen ("Words Can't Express"). A great way to get your RDA of subversive Austin rock.
3 stars -- Kim Mellen
Fight Songs (Elektra)
While other bands of their ilk are distancing themselves from the alternative country movement, Dallas' Old 97's just keep cranking out pop tunes with a twang and a vengeance. Fight Songs, their fourth full-length release, is chock-full of Ken Bethea's slinky guitar leads, Rhett Miller's sly and witty lyrics about girls or places he's been along the road, and rhythms that are ready for two stepping or slam dancing your choice. Nothing really new or overly surprising, just four guys from the big D doing what they've done since 1993, rocking with a rare fury and touching a few hearts along the way. You'll find yourself instantly singing along to the ravaged heartbreak of "Lonely Holiday," the youthful exuberance of "19," and the exhilarating pop punk anthem "Oppenheimer." Bassist Murray Hammond takes a vocal lead on the bluesy "Crash on the Barrelhead," lending some distinctly ominous overtones to the proceedings, while his McCartney-like oohs and aahs throughout add to Fight Songs'overall glittering sheen. While the Old 97's last record, Too Far to Care, had its share of detractors simply because it was viewed as overproduced and muddy in spots, Fight Songs is clean and jangly. As evidence, don't miss the disc's final track, "Valentine," as close to a folk song as the 97's get. When Miller sings "There ain't nothin' better than a girl that's movin' on" accompanied by a single acoustic guitar, it's a bittersweet moment, one that lingers with rare poignancy, a perfect ending to a nearly perfect collection of songs.
4 stars -- Jim Caliguiri
Underneath Texas Skies (Rodeo Mosquito)
Paul Logan's debut CD is somewhat revisionist Texas-style honky-tonk, its stripped-down production a welcome relief from the overly lush country coming out of Nashville these days. His lyrics veer from tongue-in-cheek ("You Make the Microphone Smell Like Beer," "Sex on the Beach") to sentimental ("Run With Me," "Leon County"), with wordplay that's reminiscent of country songwriting greats Harlan Howard or Cindy Williams. Some of the more compelling lyrics are on "Comanche Dream," a song about how the fondest desires are often just out of reach and that's exactly where they'll stay. Logan has a clear, strong country voice, but he sounds a bit restrained at times when he could be pushing himself a bit harder. That's a recurring problem throughout Underneath Texas Skies; too many songs wallow into mellow-dude cosmic-cowboy territory. There should be more honky-tonk shitkickers to balance things out. All in all, though, take a deep breath of Hill Country cedar, clamp your cowboy hat onto your noggin, and put Paul Logan into your CD player while you drive to Enchanted Rock. He's among the local musicians who remind us of what a great place Central Texas is and what makes it so special.
3 stars -- Jerry Renshaw
One Man's Trash: The Charlie Burton Story '77-'99
All hail Charlie Burton, who steps forward here to deliver One Man's Trash, his "one-CD box set," a 23-song retrospective covering the local's not-quite-storied recording career. Things start with 1977's "Rock & Roll Behavior" and don't quit until 23 years later with the brand-new "Lunch Time." Along the way, Burton lays his dependably wry and cheeky wit over a bed of country, rock, and R&B mostly the classic three-chord boogies of a boy very obviously in love with his guitar. There's something unassailably genuine about these songs, even if they are delivered with the trademark smirk of a man who can see God's will in roadkill ("My truck becomes a hammer in the toolbox of the Lord"). When the Burton smirk works, it's a gas, as on "Even as We Speak," "Wishful Thinking," and the instant classic "Without My Woman (I'd Be a Hopeless Sack of Shit)." When it doesn't ("Rabies Shot"), there's still a certain charm in the trying. Burton's musicianship won't knock you over, and vocally he's a fair stride this side of Otis Redding, but if the parts are after-market, Burton's taken them and built an exceedingly fine car, a rock-n-roll jalopy whose ride has only improved over the years. First-time riders would do better with 1997's Rustic Fixer-Upper, but Burton completists and others who are slightly off-center will enjoy this magnificent heap.
3 stars -- Jay Hardwig
THE FENCE CUTTERS
Extended Play (Make Yer Own Damn Records)
For a band that started out as an invite-your-friends jam at a downtown pub, the Fence Cutters (formerly known as the Fence Sitters) have come a long way in a little time. Where their debut CD, More Blue Than Green, was a charmingly rough batch of original bluegrass tunes, their second release in as many years, Extended Play, is a short collection of smartly written and thoughtfully played country rock & roll. Vocalist Shelly Leuzinger steps beyond her previous, mostly harmonizing role and sings lead on all but a few of the new songs, her voice as disarming as it is lovely. The bluegrass is still there, but Eric Roach's guitar seems more at home rocking out a little, and Chip Tait's drums fit in far better here as well. It ain't all golden, but there's definitely some precious metal to be mined from this album. The sad shuffle of "Lonesome and Low," the dark and rolling "Silas Lee," and the good-time "Cannon Ball" show the breadth of a band that's finding its feet awful quick-like.
3 stars -- Christopher Hess
Excerpts From Swine Lake (Tangible Music)
Iain Matthews is confounding. He has all the tools: a sad, sage voice, some fine guitar chops, an affinity for lyrics, and a star-spangled folk-rock résumé that includes Fairport Convention and Matthews Southern Comfort. Yet on Excerpts From Swine Lake, as on stage, the whole is less than its parts: Matthews' music sounds fine but is marked by a troubling inability to truly move the listener. Perhaps the blame lies with Matthews' rather plebeian songwriting. Excerpts From Swine Lake is filled with thoughtful, closely crafted songs, but somehow, they lack spark; there are few surprises on board, and whole songs can glide by without a note, lick, or lyric registering on the hmmm scale. There are hints and murmurs of something greater ("Cave In," "Something Mighty," "Break a Window, Break a Heart"), and when it all comes together as on the superb and harrowing birthday lament "Sight Unseen" it makes it all the more frustrating that it doesn't happen more often. Excerpts from Swine Lake languishes in a critical no man's land: accomplished enough to raise expectations but not inventive enough to deliver on them.
2 stars -- Jay Hardwig
OMAR & THE HOWLERS
Swingland (Black Top)
Despite the trendy title, Omar & the Howlers' latest Black Top release, the long-running local blues institution has made no changes in style, assumed no new image, and haven't gotten any cute new haircuts to try to get on VH1. In fact, all you'll get here on Swingland are 12 impressively rendered classics like "Hit the Road, Jack." Leading the pack is Kent "Omar" Dykes on vocals, bearing a roadhouse wallop like Dr. John's bastard cousin on "Alligator Wine." The estimable Derek O'Brien plies guitar most sublime, and is joined by George Rains on drums and Nick Connolly's fat, phat keyboards. Only six songs have a bass on them, with Paul Junior playing on "Yellow Coat," joined by Gary Primich, who adds his fine harmonica, and Cindy Cashdollar on lap steel. Still, it's the trio of Gary Slechta on trumpet, Kaz Kazanoff on tenor and bari saxes, and David "Fathead" Newman that gives this album so much class and punch. Newman plays as if he's having the time of his life blowing the most standard of blues horn riffs with pleasure, and when he and Kazanoff cut loose on "Quiet Whiskey," Omar matches them with equal abandon. Somebody tell the rest of the world there's a party going on.
2.5 stars -- Margaret Moser
Time to Burn (Jericho)
Now that Austin's "Little" Jake Andrews has traded his dimunitive moniker for a record deal, he's facing serious competition Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Jonny Lang. And as one of the blond blues boys, Andrews holds his turf not only as a veteran guitarist but as a vocalist as well. On Time to Burn, Andrews is bursting with soul, singing and writing as if he's been doing it all his life, which is more or less the truth. The material on Time to Burn weaves fave oldies ("Drivin' Wheel," "I'm Glad for Your Sake [But Sorry for Mine]") and local color ("Cry Baby" by Mike Kindred, "Too Sorry" by Doyle Bramhall) into Andrews' own material, less blues-based than soul-based. That soulful strut works well with Andrews' voice, a disciple of Kim Wilson, especially on a blistering "Just You and Me," a born radio hit in the style of the Fabulous Thunderbirds. It's a voice that will only get better with age. This year's SXSW swag included ashtrays promoting Time to Burn. "Was he old enough to buy cigarettes?" went the joke. Yes, he is, but more importantly, after firing up his guitar all over Time to Burn, he's been issued a license to smoke.
3 stars -- Margaret Moser
These four burly, boots-n-braces boys from Austin started a few years back, broke up, then came back together for this release of football-chant anthems. They bring a sound that harkens back to Ye Olden Days of bands like Sham 69, the Cockney Rejects, the Destructors, and the 4Skins, replete with lyrics about drinking, fighting, and being a skinhead. Most of the songs have a by-the-numbers approach, but the notable exceptions are "A Song About Texas," with conjunto accordion and the second half of the lyrics en Español, and ska-style rhythms on "King of Rudeness" and "Oi! to the Drinkin Boys." There's also a cover of local bootboys the Contradicks' anti-racist rant, "It's Your Turn." The production is crisp, with a beefy guitar sound, kerosene-throat vocals, and unison choruses. Just when you thought that stuff like this had fallen by the wayside, bands like the Oi!strs pick up the ball and kick it downfield again. Pour yourself a Guinness, close your eyes, and you can almost imagine it's Britain.
3 stars Jerry Renshaw
Head Driver (Rudy)
Attacking with a ferocious guitar assault and angry lyrics isn't new, yet Austin's shamefully under-appreciated Hotwheels Jr. makes a fresh noise with intricate yet raw fretwork and real melodies instead of aimless blather. With Head Driver, the local trio's first full-length release, they've honed their sound into solid slabs of post punk (think Sonic Youth meets the Fall at Yo La Tengo's house) that gather steam and emasculate everything in sight. Augmenting the deceptively simple lyrics, the guitar interplay between Mark Bradley and Adam Farina is the real core of Hotwheels Jr.'s sound, being high-spirited and inventive enough to draw fans from both the slash and burn school and those who like their string-bending with a little more finesse. While women bass players are nearly a cliche these days, Krissy Recla adds punch and much-needed vocal relief to the proceedings, at times recalling Brix Smith at her most appealing. Tunes like the title track, "Selective Memory," "Bad Habit," and "Lapse" possess an artful urgency and seemingly limitless joy. Hotwheels Jr. is here to remind you that rock, in the right hands, can still be exhilarating.
3 stars -- Jim Caliguiri
This rock & roll stumble through the minefield of drunken longing reeks of authenticity. You can almost smell the dirty nightclub air wafting through your nostrils as the Shindigs plow through one universal sentiment after another at breakneck speed. The Austin quartet lovingly epitomizes the punk-hewn version of the traditional barroom rock aesthetic. Anyone who spends a lot of time in bars is familiar with this arrangement, but singer Melissa Bryan has a voice you're unlikely to hear anywhere else think big gulps of helium coupled with a slight whiskey-induced twang. Bryan's unique delivery is a love/hate proposition, but even those in the latter camp can't doubt her sincerity. "Too Good to Last" takes on the lingering remnants of a quick-burning fling on the strength of an appropriately bitter pop-punk riff, while "Breathe" and "One for You" revel unabashedly in the dizzying warmth of freshly minted obsession. Guitarist Geoff Lasch's mastery of boozy solos that constantly tinker on the edge of chaos is another standout factor in the band's winning game plan. Theirs is a well-trodden road, but the Shindigs walk it with a style all their own.
3 stars -- Greg Beets
TWO MINUTE SINATRA
Call it a hunch, but two probabilities come immediately to mind the minute you drop Evaporate into your CD player and the first song boots up: "Chemical" is probably the best song on this local quartet's debut, and at 55 minutes, it's probably too long by about 20 minutes. The clues? Only one, really: This is "modern rock." Impeccable sound, fat, steely guitars, funky beats, scratching, and programming the obligatory guest rap and buried, processed vocals. Modern rock. Here's a few guesses: "Chemical" (Jonathon Fire*Eater), "Two" (Greg Dulli/Afghan Whigs) "The First Night of the Rest of My Life," (Filter, Machines of Loving Grace), "Crush" (Garbage). Lots of Garbage. And that's the good stuff. Lo' about song seven, "0 Generation," everything starts getting long and moody, like you've just waded into The Crow. Oh, you've stepped in it alright. Modern rock. Slick, soulless, generic. And over-long, which brings to mind that joke about the food being terrible and the portions too small. Fifty-five Minute Sinatra should have stayed faithful to their name.
1.5 stars -- Raoul Hernandez
Demon Angel: A Day and Night With Roky Erickson (Amsterdamned)
Yeesh. Why can't this be simple? It would be so easy to write how nice the music is on Demon Angel, how amazingly well-recorded this is at least compared to what one might expect from what's basically the soundtrack of an old public access TV special. Answer: because nothing is easy when it comes to Roky Erickson's life and music. Any new or rediscovered recording of Erickson that doesn't come from the Trance Syndicate files comes with the suspicion that it should be filed under "bootleg" and that Roky's getting ripped off again. In the case of Demon Angel, questions of royalties and where they're going remain, so any moral decisions are left up to the consumer. As far as the music, however, this is a sharp-sounding acoustic set from Erickson (with some sonic aid from accompanist/compiler Mike Alvarez) recorded over the course of October 31, 1984. It's also pretty much all the same songs you've heard on every Roky release since "Two Headed Dog" tied the local 13th Floor Elevators founder with the Sex Pistols in Rolling Stone for 1977's song of the year. It's your choice.
3 stars -- Ken Lieck