SEPTEMBER 14, 1998:
Long Walk Back (Curb)
While taken as a whole Long Walk Back is somewhat unsatisfying, there are
some mighty special moments sprinkled throughout to make Junior Brown's latest a
worthwhile listen. Brown's audience is comprised of those country music fans who
appreciate his decidedly retro songs with a humorous edge and guitar players who
are constantly amazed at what he does rather nonchalantly with his unique instrument,
the guit-steel. Long Walk Back is likely to please both camps as it deftly
straddles the path he's taken by including songs like the super shuffle "Long
Walk Back to San Antone" and the oh-so-twangy "All Fired Up" next
to the wacky romp "Rock-A-Hula Baby" and the serious extended guitar workout
of "Stupid Blues." The latter tune, the most overt homage to Jimi Hendrix
that Brown has ever recorded, features Experience drummer Mitch Mitchell in a nice
piece of musical matchmaking. Brown's fretwork has rarely sounded so enthusiastic
and daring, with squeals and multi-note runs interspersed with thoughtfully placed
solos. While treading on familiar territory, Long Walk Back also indicates
Brown isn't afraid to take some chances and it's a keeper.
After all the hype proclaiming Willie Nelson and Daniel Lanois
the year's most provocative pairing, turns out the hyperbole reads better in the
credits than it sounds on the album. Since songs, not producers, made Nelson a legitimate
legend in the first place, however, Teatro still succeeds more often than
not -- almost in spite of Lanois' everything-but-the-kitchen-sink clutter. In
fact, other than inviting Emmylou Harris to sing on 11 of Teatro's 14 tracks,
Lanios' singular accomplishment lies in how well his signature tune, "The Maker,"
holds up against a combined set of older Nelson tunes and a batch of new Spirit-style
tunes so stunning they would have been just as moody and atmospheric with or without
Lanois. Teatro's most poignant moment, then -- a straight reading of Nelson's
'66 classic "I Just Can't Let You Say Goodbye" -- is also Lanois' most
restrained. Here, Emmylou Harris' shadow harmonies and Bobbie Nelson's slow Wurlizter
whirl not only set up Willie's best Teatro guitar solo, but also the tune's
frisky finale: Nelson's casual observation that, "The flesh around your throat
is pale/indented by my fingernails." For once, there are no big drums, splashy
rhythm changes, or slick vibraphones -- just a great singer leading a great band
though a great song. Unfortunately, just a little more of that simplicity and a lot
less of Lanois could have made Teatro less provocative and more compelling.
Eric Johnson should have made this album 20 years ago. Or rather, Austin's favorite
Stratocaster son should have been making this album for 20 years. Recorded in 1974
when Johnson was 19-20, the Electromagnets' sole release (original pressing: 4,000
copies) not only features the guitarist's most furious and uncompromising fret-work,
it easily outscorches any and all of his three solo efforts. Perhaps because this
jazz/rock "fusion" band was actually drummer Bill Maddox and electric pianist
Steve Barber's long-running experiment (bassist Kyle Brock rounding out the quartet),
Johnson was free to just cut loose, which he does in grand style. Lead-off cut "Hawaiian
Punch," every bit the blast its title implies, the burning "Dry Ice,"
and searing live bonus tracks of both tunes, illustrate Johnson's prodigious talents
like no other compositions in his catalog. And though Electromagnets suffers
from no small amount of New Age noodling ("Motion," "Nova Scotia"),
the flighty "Salem" featuring vocals by one young Chris Geppert (aka
Christopher Cross), the overall dynamic, remixed into the Nineties by Richard Mullen,
is light years removed from the aesthete of its day, "progressive country."
Rather, it's what Joe Nick Patoski terms in his typically smart then-and-now liner
notes "intellectual heavy metal music."
In his first recording as session leader, Edwin Livingston,
one of Austin's premiere jazz bassists, has reached out for a sound all his own,
and with the help of four original compositions and one extended improvisation, he's
pushed the envelope a bit. The bass solo in the first tune, "AKA Fiddy Jones,"
is all over the place, taking high thin to reverbing lows, Livingston hitting quick
eighths and sixteenths at all points in between as if he had three hands. The soloing
is loose in "Shytown," taking a nod from the sparse jamming style of Charlie
Haden in a small combo, while "Hattie-n-James" changes step with a nasty
stroll through some bluesy jazz, Livingston's bowing heightening the swagger. And,
as is to be expected by now, he gets some heavyweight performances out of his longtime
comrades. Elias Haslanger's sax work is impeccable -- adventurous and inspired
-- while Fred Sanders' piano is likewise free-roaming. Drummer J.J. Johnson and
Livingston fit like a tight handshake, always in tune with who has the time. This
is more than a solid first effort -- it's an exciting taste of things to come.
Fire Thinks of Water (Zombo)
THE LOCAL GROUP
The Process of Making Light (Zombo)
Fred Mitchim is a local musician known for poetic song and album titles, such
as I Catch Birds for the Queen of the Night. And his two new releases, one
under his own name, and one with the bland but amusingly named The Local Group, keep
this tradition of interesting nomenclature alive. What's behind the names? The shorter
of the two and only loooong songs on Fire Thinks of Water (the two
songs total over 50 minutes), the title track, finds Mitchim singing with inflections
like Michael Hedges -- a preachy Michael Hedges. And it doesn't help that the
song moves rhythmically from being interestingly offbeat to disjointedly off-kilter.
In contrast, the opening track, "Down Black River," with its wide tonal
pallet, paints a similar picture to the one brushed by Rush in "Xanadu."
The song then morphs into a dreamy segment not unlike the Beatles' "Tomorrow
Never Knows," making it clear that Mitchim knows how to orchestrate and arrange
sounds. The Local Group's The Process of Making Light finds Mitchim in a tighter,
band context. Timewise, the seven songs don't top 40 minutes, so the Local Group's
effort is slightly more accessible, such as the intrapersonal lyrics churned with
a cynical beat on "Sure Thing." The visible reference to the title of The
Process of Making Light is the cover picture's galaxy close-ups. The musical
reference is the title track, with its interstellar ja-hazzy main line cushioned
by percolating rhythms, and replete with a backward-starting, hyped-up, "Maggot
Brain"-esque guitar solo. Sometimes though, the songs drop out of orbit, or
in the case of "Love Town" never quite take off. A pleasant intergalactic
Simian Dreams (Enhanced)
"Wow! What is this? I really like it a lot!" bubbled the pretty young
intern as she ran breathlessly into the music offices of the Chronicle to
discover the Pocket FishRmen's new CD Simian Dreams in the boombox. I didn't
ask if she'd been listening to the words -- I really didn't want to know. Yep,
the FishRmen continue to have a miraculous way with a pop-punk-thrash-Kiss melodies,
with a distinct style that comes just shy of making each album sound the same, but
it's the longtime local band's lyrics -- some insist that calling them "juvenile"
would be a compliment -- that lead many would-be fans to dismiss them outright.
I've always had a soft spot in my head for these guys, though. After all, they left
"over the top" behind in the dust years ago. If they did a song about sex
acts with a gorilla, well, that'd just be stupid. Simian Dreams, then, boasts
no less than four! And there's a solid three more with the word "merkin"
in the title! Do you see where I'm going with this? There's no way the FishRmen could
be as stupid as they sound, so I'm betting that one day, we'll be able to decipher
secret messages in their songs that will lead us to world peace, space colonization,
and eternal life. They just don't think we're ready for it yet.
Duffel Bag (Sandwich)
The delicate, hypnotic waltz played on a single
guitar that floats you into the opening song on Duffel Bag, the first full-length
from Denton's Transona Five, is a promise. "No Door" promises that for
the next 10 songs, you'll be in a place more peaceful and more beautiful than the
normal world you occupy. Through a consistent wash of shimmery keyboards and a soft
touch on guitar and drums, the band keeps the promise and goes further than that,
expanding on the sound they formed with their outstanding EP from last year, Melatonin
Bullet. This time around, they add some goofy French ditty about fromage
("Pourquoi Manges-tu?"), extended synthesized melodies enhanced by guitar/keyboard
player Rachel Smith ("Recorder Loop"), and to the extent that's possible,
a rolling guitar jam ("Estrogen Blaster"). The band's strength is in their
divinely sleepy, melodic songs, which lope along repetitively, building and thickening
each tune with every roll -- as on "Hey, Hey, Hey," "Stair,"
and especially "Coin Toss." Plenty of this mood candy in this Duffel
EndSerenading, the indie swan song from Austin's Mineral,
spends much of its time skirting between heavy melody and just plain dissonance with
guitarists Christopher Simpson and Scott McCarver constantly weaving single-note
lines around each other. The bulk of it, then, comes off like Henry Rollins meets
Lullaby for the Working Class alternating with the more ethereal moments of Swervedriver.
Unfortunately, the album lacks intensity, whether overt or understated, of Rollins
and Lullaby respectively, or Swervedriver's knack for texture. As a result, aside
from standouts like "Palisade" and "ForIvadell," EndSerenading
is more lethargic than hypnotic or dynamic. And when the band builds from its loose
meandering sound to big pay-off explosions, as in "Walking to Winter" and
"Gjs," the catharsis is so long in coming that it's almost ineffectual.
That's the general architecture of much of this album: start off discordant, slowly
pick it up, then end rocking. If only Mineral would spend a little less time before
bringing the rock, EndSerenading would be much easier to dig.
Unintelligible lyrics screamed under the mix, violent, mostly instrumental progressive poundings all lost in Hellraiser-like labyrinths, and no discernable songs. And it works! Mostly. A trio of local thrashers, Transfixr's tincture might be muddy brown, but then said idiom always called for a similarly shaded mix. Propulsion is all that's required of thrash, and as long as the throbbing, often choppy music delves ever further into its own dark depths, nothing else matters. Transfixr have it down. In fact, despite the minor detail that all 12 of this scary debut's songs morph into one another like a series of nightmares, tincture's 48-minute running time passes quicker than you could pull out your own entrails. Sure, it might improve things if one could make out the occasional vocal writhing, like "Glass Packed" ("shut yer fucking mouth"), but with this kind of abuse, one gets the general idea. In the upper right-hand corner of the back insert, off-set from the song titles, is stamped an inconspicuous "nc17." Does this mean that even accompanied by a parent or guardian tincture is unsuitable for children under 17? You bet your squeamish little heart it does.
2.5 Stars --Raoul Hernandez
Conductor (Revolution Music)
The Good and the Bad. That's the skinny on Conductor, the latest from Season
to Slaves, a local trio that often plays at Steamboat and Stubb's. For example, some
of the introductory fretless bass notes slightly miss the mark in "Slave Trade,"
but the tune also features a nice cameo by Heather Bishop on viola. Likewise, "I
Will Run" possesses a fine post-climax windup, but a harmonica fly-by that drops
the song's intensity prematurely down. Die Gut und die Schlecht. One on hand,
"New Heavy" has more Ian Moore-inflected "ye-ah"s than any song
should legally contain, but on the other hand, the KLBJ-friendly riff from "Cradle
Song" is a bottomless cup of chunk. Le bien et le mal. The album's last
song is propelled by a deep space intro groove vaguely tinctured with Arabesque singing,
and while worth mentioning, its not being listed in the liner notes precludes that.
Which also means that all of the above-named song titles could be wrong too. El
bueno y el mal.
Blue Chemicals (Flywheel)
Longtime stone-cutters at Sixth Street's rock & roll castle, Steamboat, Austin's
7 Stones hammer out post-Soundgarden hard rock like KLBJ quarrymen. Sounding a little
like Living Colour's Corey Glover, vocalist Ray Prim imbues the local quintet's building,
bashing hard rock with enough soul to counterbalance the well-woven guitar interplay
of axemen Jayde S. and Tate Farrar. Producer Jim Wilson's big budget-sounding production
gives the music enough separation so that everything falls into place -- everything
but the songwriting. While the opener "Breathe Again" promises big things
like fat hooks, ample riffage, and better-than-average lyrics, the three fail to
come together on this full-length debut's other seven tracks the way they do on the
instantly memorable second cut, "Restraint." With its ultra catchy "bright
lights, dumb metaphors" refrain, this song alone shows what the hard-working
7 Stones is capable of. Now, boys, carve out seven more like it, and let's see then
what ye hath wrought.
(High on the Hog)
Medicine Show (Big Tex)
As chief songsmith for the Shakin' Apostles, Freddie Steady Krc ruminates about
a time long past: Medicine Show presents tunes about family bands, frontier
opera, and buffalo slaughter. Couple this with a broad musical variety -- the
album traipses across several different genres, from rock to rag to gunfighter ballad
-- and it seems a good formula. Unfortunately, Medicine Show falls short
of its aim, hobbled by moments of overproduction and lead vocals leaning towards
the wan. The first few numbers are indicative of the problem: The titular "Medicine
Show" tries to lay claim to the mantle of Texas rock & roll, but winds up
sounding like warmed over ZZ Top, while "Crazy Flowers" sounds suspiciously
like something from a Chris DeBurgh album. Things get better from there, but it's
evident that Freddie Krc's songs have more muscle than his voice, and it's hard not
to think that these tunes would sound better if sung by, say, Billy Gibbons. Give
the Apostles credit for mixing it up a bit, for laying down a good tune or two --
for using the words "hurdy-gurdy girls" -- but in the end, Medicine
Show has more ambition than reach.
When it Rains it Pours
With many of his contemporaries espousing the joys of the big bands, Seth Walker
swings the other way, if you will. When It Rains It Pours skips down a somewhat
less-traveled road, that of Gulf Coast blues/swing, making it a little more Texan,
but no less danceable. With a back-up combo featuring keys man Floyd Domino, bassist
Larry Eisenberg, drummer Frosty, and Kaz Kazanoff and Chris Womack on sax, you'd
think it would be tough to make a misstep, and you'd be right, actually. Still, considering
that this album consists of 90% original material, the sole exception being Tiny
Grimes'"Tiny's Tempo," all the talent in the world couldn't pull it off
if Walker didn't know his territory well. Suffice to say he does pull it off. Now
pull on your dancing shoes.
You don't have to be an old-timer to realize that there's something comforting
in the pop and hiss of a needle hitting spinning vinyl, that there's something good
and glorious about a fine ol' 45. Austin's raucous rockabilly queen Marti Brom must
feel the same way since her latest batch of songs comes in a box set of four 45s.
The title tells you right off that Brom is selling more than nostalgia -- she's
selling attitude. And there's plenty of both on these analog anachronisms. The box
o' singles opens with a lively take on Ralph Stanley's "Latch On," but
it's the B-side that really shines: "Wicked White Lies," a Brom original,
is a cruel country heartbreaker as bitter as it is blue. Side after side, Brom makes
it clear that she's as liable to pick up a rolling pin as ask for a li'l kiss, and
you'd best know the difference. A solid set, 20 minutes worth when all is said and
done, and if you took $3 for your record player at a yard sale five years ago, don't
worry; Mean! includes a (gasp!) digitally remastered compact disc of the same
When the Night Is Through (Mercury)
Once upon a time, debut albums weren't make-or-break,
they were just the first step in a career. First and foremost, they were about establishing
identities, and if a few great songs happened to brush up against the learning curve,
nobody complained. In that regard, Mary Cutrufello's major label debut serves her
dreams of a rock crossover well. With plenty of aching vocals, gritty guitar, and
sing-a-long choruses, the Houston-based guitar-slinger establishes herself as an
unabashed rock & roll throwback -- someone who might yet satisfy all those
folks who were too smart to accept Melissa Etheridge or Sheryl Crow as substitutes.
Unfortunately, all that hope comes wrapped in a wholly inconsistent, badly produced,
and fairly unimaginative album that relies more on instincts than craftsmanship.
Worse, Cutrufello often finds herself scrambling to save an underwritten tune with
breathy theatrics. The exceptions, most notably the Stonesish "Miss You #3"
and "Tired and Thirty," an epic power ballad that showcases the hard-worn
twang only her Texas fans know to expect, convey far more confidence than most major
label freshman seem capable of mustering. Let's hope Mercury delivers its oft-promised
serious career development and that this really is only a debut, because while it's
obvious that this isn't a great album, it's also apparent Mary Cutrufello may only
be a couple of albums off.
Last Night's Wine (Open Lane)
Why doesn't Last Night's Wine buzz as hard as Tunji's
jam-jazz-r&b-rock live performances? Not because the local quintet isn't full
of funk; both "Lush Life Lane" and the postmodern Great Gatsby feeling
of "Pink" disprove that. And it's not because the band didn't use their
studio environs to spread out creatively, four guest horns packing such punch that
Tunji should seriously consider having them onstage for the next gig. And it's certainly
not the sound, because this debut is a better-than-average recording and production
effort. No, it's because the band is simply a better live band. That's not to say
they can't lay it down on tape, yet with the exception of "Piss Poor Trade Off,"
which tries being too many things (including a tribute/steal of Bob Marley's "No
Woman, No Cry"), virtually all eight of the album's original tunes could be
stretched out and developed more. Just as the band does onstage. Maybe it's time
to record that headlining slot?
This is what happens when bands put out a CD before they're ready. Marmalade has
a few decent ideas that might work wonders on the black shirt contingent of alterna-rock,
but they execute these ideas with all the subtlety of a slaughterhouse. Passages
calling for restraint are overbearing, with a song like "It's Her Life"
starting out as a promising empathetic ballad before inexplicably barreling into
a badly misplaced boogie-woogie chorus. Leave Jim Dandy back in Arkansas where he
belongs. "Pull" features airy pop vocals being snuffed out by a thick,
distorted guitar attack. What the hell? This omnipresent effect saturation compromises
everything in its path, the overall sound being what you might expect from a jambox
stuffed under a mattress in a musty practice space. Speaking of, a little woodshedding
might be just the tonic Marmalade needs to do itself sonic justice.
Opening their debut with a misstep -- one of those fake "searching the
dial" intros that's clumsy, unoriginal, and doesn't lead into the first song
well -- Blue Cartoon quickly recover as their "Parachute" opens the
set proper; it's relaxed but encouraging pop about what you expect ("I will
be your parachute..."). Engaging melodies continue throughout this local release,
and while you have to give high scores to each individual tune, unfortunately the
album ends up suffering from sameness. The Beach Boys-like harmonies of "Best
Laid Plans," hints of James Bond guitar in "How Many Times," and occasional
keyboard flourishes from Austin-based pop svengali/producer Ron Flynt of 20/20 give
the listener a little poke now and then, but overall, Blue Cartoon is pining
for an uptempo number or two. I mean, who would have thought that a song that starts
with the line, "I'm gonna buy a motorcycle/Gonna ride it 'til I don't know where
I am" ("Forgetting About You") would be a slow one?!? Still, it's
worth slapping yourself around a little to get through the course of the album, with
the CSN-ish "Notes I'm Sending" and a breezy cover of the Ian & Sylvia/We
Five hit "You Were on My Mind" among the rewarding near-album's-end efforts.
Angel Town (HMG/HighTone)
Katy Moffatt's gently tremulous voice makes an Emmylou Harris
comparison natural. And when the one-time local plays the part, as she does on the
first three tracks of Angel Town, she plays it well enough. But when Moffatt
strays from standard folk and country fare, she goes from inert imitator to miscast
pretender. Her supple voice is a terribly awkward fit to Chris Smithers' "Love
Me Like a Man." And Moffatt overplays Cole Porter's "Miss Otis Regrets"
with Chris Elliot-like artistry. It's on the three tunes Moffatt penned with Tom
Russell -- "Jigsaw Love Affair," "The Game," and "Mother
of Pearl" -- that she sounds most comfortable and natural, which make sense.
Why rely on other people's material then? The resemblance to Harris may not be something
that Moffatt can help (and, as that may be her best asset, why should she want to?),
but she could do herself a world of good by spending more time in her own skin instead
of trying to fit into others'.
Local songstress Floramay Holliday ain't afraid to tackle the big subjects, as
the opening line from her self-titled debut makes clear: "We're all born, then
we die/And in between that lies the Mystery." From there on out, Holliday spends
the better part of the album plumbing the mysteries, from love to God to Labrador
retrievers (mostly love and God). She's not too bent on solving those mysteries,
mind you, but content to poke around in their shadows, finding meaning where it lies.
For all that introspection, the first half of the album plays rather bland, a little
short on images that stick, melodies that soar, or arrangements that crackle. Three
chords and a nice enough voice; the standard singer-songwriter formula, but not enough
to distinguish Holliday from the masses. Things get a little spicier in the second
half, as she adds gospel, shuffles, and reels to the mix (there's even a good motorcycle
ballad), proving that these songs can fly if given the chance. There's genuine promise
here, but it comes a little too little and a little too late to make Floramay
Holliday stand out from the crowd.
Life of the Party (Lucky Dog/Sony)
The lesser known of Bandera's Robison brothers,
both on the same Sony Music Nashville imprint, Charlie Robison might just lay claim
to being the more notable debut. Though not as well edited nor as expertly crafted
as Wrapped, "little brother" Bruce's recent Lucky Dog debut, Life
of the Party lands high on Austin's contemporary country music charts by virtue
of Charlie's voice --- the one doing the singing, and the one in the songs. A
classic cowhand drawl, Charlie Robison's voice is a welcome greeting; the type of
voice that makes you look up from the bar. Confident, cocky even, it borders on redneck
("Poor Man's Son") without losing the heart the ladies twitter over ("Loving
County"). Like his blonde boy good looks, Robison's voice camouflages some fundamental
deficiencies in the whole bargain -- too many songs come off by rote ("Don't
Call Me a Fool," "I Don't Feel That Way," "Waiting for the Mail")
-- but then an instant honky-tonk anthem like the locally well-covered "Barlight,"
or the noble, Robert Earl Keenish "My Hometown" makes one forget all that
in a hurry. So does the Lloyd Maines' impeccable production. Bruce may have the songwriting
skills, but Charlie has the voice to sing 'em, the face to front 'em, and the swagger
to make Nashville and all points South sit up and take notice.
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