Shane Bartell's stars align
"Sometimes, when this place gets kind of empty ..."
This is the part where South Austin is no longer South Austin. It's Shane Bartell's infectious cover of the Church's 1988 mood-pop classic "Under the Milky Way," and from opening jangle to final crash, it morphs South Congress hole in the wall Ego's into a pop paradise where past, present, and future converge in a drunken tango.
"Whenever I'm alone with you," chimes in keyboardist Derek Morris, plunging into the Cure's "Love Song" before Bartell pilots back through the "Milky Way" in a dramatic crescendo. It's a medley outrageous enough to dazzle, and it does most every Wednesday at Shane Bartell's Loveseat, the most unresidency-like residency in town.
Often Bartell and random members of his band bassist Marcus Rice, keyboardist Derek Morris, and drummer Stephen Bres stumble onstage during songwriter Bill Davis' weekly set. Strange covers, drunken hijinks, and loads of Jägermeister are the rule, but presiding over all of it is the golden voice of Bartell, making heartache seem delectable and loneliness feel like a euphoric state.
"I don't want to be a singer-songwriter," swears Bartell over pitchers of beer at Burnet Road dive LaLa's. "I don't listen to singer-songwriters really. Elliott Smith, maybe Pedro the Lion or Mark Kozelek. Rufus Wainwright."
"Rufus arranges the crap out of his songs," cuts in Rice, Bartell's longtime bassist and no stranger to sharpening the singer's focus.
"Yeah. That's the kind of singer-songwriter I wanna be," concedes Bartell.
His first full-length, Too Soon to Say, has nudged him resoundingly in that direction. It's a slow-burning beauty with a grandiose underbelly, thanks in large part to local pop superproducer Lars Göransson. Yet it also has an underlying dissonance, pointing to Bartell's love of Radiohead and My Bloody Valentine, not to mention the Smiths.
"For me it begins and ends with the Smiths," admits Bartell, who fell hard into a world of shoegaze, Britpop, and the Manchester sound after ditching his Kerrville purgatory for UT and Austin in 1992. In fact, Morrissey along with James' Tim Booth comes to mind when hearing Bartell's commanding vocal lather, spiced with nonverbal utterings galore. Yet Bartell is no wannabe Brit; he just shares that penchant for bittersweet and lovelorn lyrics and melodies, as well as the ambition to wrap his songs around thrilling arrangements.
"I think the only way to grow as a musician is to understand your place in the grand scheme of things," says Bartell. "I'd rather listen to Iron & Wine, the Walkmen, stuff like that. I'm never going to be an indie rock musician, but why not incorporate it into the music?"
Central to Bartell's methodology are Rice and Morris, who play an active role in arranging the songs. "I have final say," says Bartell, "but I give everybody total creativity."
"He's been very patient since we trained him to let us figure stuff out," says Morris, a local music veteran who arrived in Austin from Beaumont via Nashville in 1993. Morris currently backs Bob Schneider after previously playing with Ian Moore. The keyboardist joined Bartell's group in late 1999, months after Rice asked aboard the ship while at a Quasi gig.
Rice, who studied bass at West Texas State University in the Panhandle, is a graphic designer (he designed both of Bartell's offerings) when he's not playing bass or accumulating a dazzling stockpile of Marvel comics and related toys.
Scarred by vicious musical spats with his old band, Bartell was adamant about assembling a constitutional monarchy this time around. He had a taste of success with Cling, a female-fronted dream-pop outfit that once opened for Oasis. Cling imploded in 1998, after which Bartell took a therapeutic yearlong sabbatical in Portland, Ore. When he returned, he opted to go solo, the path less traveled by musicians of his ilk.
"The only reason I want to be a singer-songwriter is because I don't want to be in a band fighting all the time," Bartell says emphatically. "That's the only reason.
"If a song is good enough by itself on just an acoustic guitar, it takes a lot of pressure off your back, because the guys that are arranging can do whatever they want to it."
Rice, Morris, and particularly Göransson are more than happy to oblige. After the twists and turns of 2001's wonderfully manic Reference EP (see "Frame of Reference"), the trio, with Bartell and then-drummer Darin Murphy, spent three days in the Hill Country recording Too Soon to Say, later fleshing it out with strings, vibes, pedal steel, and patches of unsettling sound.
The image of Göransson calling his cell phone on vibrate to get a certain timbre out of the guitar echoes that of the Smiths' Johnny Marr and producer John Porter manually synchronizing the tremolo on four guitar amps to get "How Soon Is Now?" It was all part of Bartell's vision to make "something deeply beautiful, but subtly flawed."
"I wanted to have really beautiful songs and have this ugliness embedded in there to make people feel a little uncomfortable," reasons the singer.
The germ of Bartell's idea emanates from Brazil. His love of bossa nova evident on Too Soon to Say's "Stars Burn Out" was also inspirational on a metaphysical level.
"There's a word in Portuguese, saudade," explains Bartell. "It means happy and sad at the same time. Bossa nova is exactly that happy and sad at the same time.
"We wanted to make a dark, sexy, beautiful record that can double as a breakup record."
The perfect dichotomy for the singer-songwriter who's anything but. No Donnie Darko covers on this one, though. For that, you'll need to take a Wednesday night spin on the Loveseat.
In addition to Wednesday nights at Ego's, Shane Bartell performs with a 10-piece ensemble, including the Tosca string quartet, at the Too Soon to Say release party on Saturday, Jan. 31, at the Parish.