New Austin Music Worth Your Bandwidth This Week
What we’re listening to
By Abby Johnston, Raoul Hernandez, Kevin Curtin, Doug Freeman, Rachel Rascoe, and Carys Anderson, Fri., May 7, 2021
Blue Heron Suite (Rounder)
In 2017, Sarah Jarosz became the second recipient of the FreshGrass Composition Commission, a grant to compose "a long-form piece of music for an ensemble that includes elements of traditional string band instrumentation." Guitar whisperer Bill Frisell preceded the Wimberley native, while Rhiannon Giddens and the Kronos Quartet followed. As she began to write, her mother battled breast cancer in the wake of Hurricane Harvey having ravaged the Texas coast and decimating Port Aransas, a summer mecca for the family.
When Jarosz premiered Blue Heron Suite at FreshGrass that fall, avant-roots traditionalists heralded the work. The then-23-year-old entered the Central Texas scene as a prodigy – singer, mandolinist, clawhammer banjo picker – and by now counts four Grammy Awards and nine nominations. Blue Heron Suite, that 32-minute song cycle, stretches her songwriting to soaring results.
Eleven songs, a term loosely applied to tracks designed to interlock, capture morning walks the musician and her mother took along the Mustang Island coastline and the great blue herons they spotted along the way. Like the titular bird, the writing feels at once powerful and elegant. Opener "Mama" weaves intricate guitar picking with ethereal, longing vocal melodies, and a plea not to be left behind: "Mama, where are you going?/ You know I need you here."
Jarosz's world building on that first track carries through the rest of the work through reprises and borrowed guitar licks that resurface and invert themselves, each time turning up something new.
The singer isn't afraid to interrupt her own stillness, which she evokes in extended, droning song intros and stripped down interludes. Electric guitar blisters over largely acoustic soundscapes in "Morning," piercing her layers of plucked urgency. Introspection circles back in "Across the Canyon," featuring finger picking that feels more Appalachia than sandy shores.
"Blue Heron" brings finality to the suite, cresting with its author's clear, confident soprano leading stilling harmonies that assure us everything resolves. Today, her mother's in remission, and coasts are on the mend. Like her beloved Port Aransas, Sarah Jarosz remains a resilient Texas treasure. – Abby Johnston
Sarah Jarosz celebrates the release of Blue Heron Suite on Sunday, May 9, by performing the album in its entirety via livestream on Mandolin: boxoffice.mandolin.com/pages/sarah-jarosz-world-on-the-screen-2021.
Austin Record Convention
Palmer Events Center, Friday 7 – Sunday 9
"Initially, we struggled with the decision on whether or not to hold the spring show," emails ARC founder Doug Hanners' right-hand man, son Nathan Hanners. "We sent out a dealer survey to see what they were thinking, and the response was basically, 'Please try to find a way to have this show! We need it after a financially challenging 2020.'" You and us both, merchants. In fact, this music industry worker might not have survived the past year without the safe haven of area Half Price Books, Waterloo Records, Antone's Records, Astro Record Store in Bastrop, and curbside service from Breakaway Records, End of an Ear, and more. Continues Hanners: "After that, we surveyed shoppers who overwhelmingly said, 'We'd really like for you to take precautions and hold the show.' We started exploring how to modify the show to reduce risks, but what finally tipped the scales was vaccine availability." Early shopping Fri.-Sun. runs $30, but Saturday and Sunday, 10am-5pm, is free for roughly two-thirds the size of a regular show in one-third more space since ARC rented both halls at Palmer this time around. Mask requirement, limited capacity, temperature checks at the door, dealer tables spaced farther, and hand sanitizing cover COVID precautions. So snag your canvas SXSW tote and manifest your life soundtrack in two huge ballrooms stacked high with vinyl, CDs, DVDs, posters, books, and (somewhere) the Ark of the Covenant itself. – Raoul Hernandez
Black Angels: Live at Levitation
Sampling a trio of performances from Levitation, the third-eye convergence Black Angels founded in 2008 at Austin Psych Fest, this "On the Run" edition – clear vinyl with a pink supernova exploding from the middle ("Lacquers Cut by Nick Townsend") – could easily double as the gateway drug to the homegrown heroes. At 31 minutes scalped from Mohawk 2010 (three tracks), Emo's East 2012 (two), and most notably 2011's unforgettable shaking of the Seaholm Power Plant, the single disc Live at Levitation would've dissolved on the tongue just as easily as a trifold triple-LP, but no matter. This vinylist, for instance, played the first side – "Manipulation," "Better Off Alone," "Surf City" – five times before turning it over for another couple of spins. The Seaholm artifact, "Manipulation," from the group's full-length bow Passover in 2006, embodies their medulla-probing drone same as "Reverberation" possesses 1966 genre touchstone and Texan tributary The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators. The burning embers of B-side opener "You on the Run," which touches off second LP Directions to See a Ghost (2008), gives as good as its flipside counterpart. "Young Men Dead," also from Passover, finishes like the Black Angels' capital "C," corrosive. – Raoul Hernandez
White Powder: Blue Dream
The term "white powder" usually refers to drugs or skiing and I'd venture these Texans don't have lift tickets hooked to their jackets. Audio MDMA? Indeed the Austin quartet bumps euphoric on Blue Dream's epic instrumentals, particularly the blissed-out shoegaze of "Connemara," where sun-kissed fuzz guitar bends backward to meet rushing waves of rhythmic color. Heavy, but never harsh, WP jams full-spectrum stoner rock through the dynamic rhythmic attack of Jeff Swanson, Win Wallace's shapely bass rumbles, the angle-aching wah-wah workout of guitarist Jason Morales, and Ezra Reynolds' multifarious movements on the black-n-whites. The latter, centerstage in locals Jazzus Lizard and Suckling, whirls Jimmy Smith organ amongst the dirty jungle groove of "Costa Bravo" and makes keys scream on "Rula Jabreal." A coterie of speaker rumblers, three-quarters of whom played in onetime Room 710 favorites Gorch Fock, the band's veteran chops crackle on eight engulfing cuts, plus a sweet cover of Steely Dan's "Dirty Work." The 46-minute session, recorded in 2013 and only now seeing light, parallels the Mesoamerican Olmec head depicted on the cover in that a buried artifact suddenly emerges. – Kevin Curtin
Cocaine & Rhinestones
In 2017, when Tyler Mahan Coe launched his podcast on an alternative history to 20th century country music, it offered a refreshing back-of-the-tour-bus take on the tales and legends of the genre – the dive bar to the polished dance hall of Ken Burns' Country Music on PBS. As expected from the scion of one of outlaw country's most notorious and complicated figures, the younger Coe doesn't mince words or suffer fools, and his meticulous research brings the receipts. The much-anticipated second season of the podcast finally drops with a whopping two-hour dig into Houston's Starday Records. Although Cocaine & Rhinestones purportedly focuses this entire season on George Jones, its host revels in taking back roads and the Possum only accounts for a fraction of the opening as it spins into deep dive detours ranging from pinball to truck songs. None of it strikes as gratuitous, since Coe ties these threads together with an irascible insight and infectious curiosity to pull back the curtain on the accepted takes and reveal the industry and underground mechanics churning behind the hits. – Doug Freeman
Molly Burch's "Control" Announces New LP
Local Captured Tracks-supported singer Molly Burch's grandiose, compassionate songwriting last emerged on 2018 sophomore LP First Flower, followed by a 2019 Christmas album. Earlier this year, synth-driven single "Emotion," a collaboration with Wild Nothing, teased an evolution from smoky-voiced indie folk to full-on pop production. The song lands on Burch's fourth full-length, Romantic Images, due July 23 with production by Tennis' Alaina Moore and Pat Riley. The work centers "Burch's radical choice to shed the anxiety and insecurity of her 20s [to embrace] her truest self." Behind an alluring piano intro, the stirring, club-influenced slow build of "Control" accompanies the announcement, as well as a video directed by Burch and Jackie Lee Young. – Rachel Rascoe
Pamela Hart: Happy Talk
"When life takes a turn that leaves your head in a fog, you find comfort in remembering good times and safe places," writes Pam Hart in the liner notes to her new CD Happy Talk. "My mind takes me to my mother's kitchen." Totally in sync with Mother's Day, Austin's reigning jazz diva of the past three decades still gets associated with Billie Holiday thanks to a hardcore Lady Day fixation in the Nineties, and photos of the singer with gardenias in her hair on this nine-song dive into genre staples won't disabuse some of that notion. And yet the deep, rich, stately nature of Hart's intonation summons the sovereign command of Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and onetime mentor Nancy Wilson on these sublime comfort grooves. The band stacks the best of the best – drummer Brannen Temple, trombonist Andre Hayward, John Fremgen and Tommy Howard on guitars – while an airy flute solo by Althea René on "Tenderly" and Mike Malone's sax spell on "Don't Go to Strangers" match the boss lady's weightless vocal glide and all but approximate a food coma. Hart inhabits the natural phenomenon cited in "Wild is the Wind." Closer "We'll Be Together Again" soothes like a lullaby. "This compilation represents the memories I hold on to for comfort during COVID-19," finishes Hart. Right, dig in. – Raoul Hernandez
Afterglow: Beginning + Surviving
After almost three years of daily digital publishing, UT's first and only music magazine gears up to release its debut physical publication. Artist profiles, genre analysis, and personal essays complete with original photography and illustrations, the 160-page behemoth unites its content under two themes: beginnings and survival. Afterglow ATX co-founder and Chronicle contributor Selome Hailu began the project last spring. To coincide with the new decade, the inaugural issue emphasized a fresh start with help from local talent: Riders Against the Storm go long on local activism, while Hex Boyfriend shares the thrills of starting a band with your friends. Then a pandemic hit. As production stalled thanks to quarantine, Hailu asked me to begin organizing the next themed edition: survival in the music industry. So I curated stories of tenacity: how Tameca Jones became the Empress of Austin Soul and how Amigo the Devil flipped the script on the misogynistic murder ballad. Many a Zoom call later, we combined the two issues into one hefty celebration of life and sound. The $17, 26-story coffeetable book is ready for order until May 17. A bargain, if you ask me, but I'm biased. – Carys Anderson