OCTOBER 13, 1997:
EVAN JOHNS AND THE H-BOMBS
Love Is Murder (Freedom)
There's been a lot of hard drinkin' and hard livin' between the recording of this
disc (originally released in 1983 as Evan Johns and the H-Bombs), and the
Evan Johns of today, but if ol' Ev lacked gravel in his voice at the time, all the
energy was certainly already there. And of course there's his playing, which never
strays far from barn-burning intensity. Johns never really crosses the line into
punk rock, but neither does he play "mere" rockabilly, either, and this
set is a good reminder of what he can do with a guitar (and why the papers in Washington
have lately been trumpeting the return of their hometown boy). This is the stuff
that got Jello Biafra interested in the H-Bombs, and it hasn't lost any of its explosiveness.
Also featured is a previously unreleased bonus track, "One Ton Home" which,
if not the best thing on the disc, is at least satisfying filler.
One of the Fortunate Few
A listening party was held recently for a rather middlin' local artist who has
merely glanced off the national scene for the whole of his 30-plus year career. It
was embarrassing. The "product," which is how it was presented, wasn't
just overproduced, sappy, and clichéd, it was terrifying in its mediocrity.
This guy, who shall remain nameless, employed nearly every trite melody and tired
lyric he could possibly squeeze out no matter what century it came from. The only
thing that made it tolerable was the boxed wine and teeny grilled sausages. This
is all a rather harsh lead-in to Delbert McClinton's first album in four years. Listening
to One of the Fortunate Few, my mind kept harking back to that depressing
party, and how, despite the presence of some of his closest blues and country artist
friends on several of the tracks, the fact is somebody's doing McClinton an incredible
favor. The Fort Worth legend is truly one of the fortunate few if he can pull in
Lyle Lovett, B.B. King, and John Prine, among others, to play along. Some of the
better songs here are better due to their involvement, such as, "Leap of Faith"
with B.B. King, and "Too Much Stuff" with Lyle Lovett. Their support, however,
isn't enough to yank this album out of the resale bin where I'm going to take it
as soon as I get through writing this. Sorry, Delbert. But hasn't this roadhouse
blues thing been done, and done, and done until you want to pull the plug on that
weezing old amp? Bonnie Raitt really stamped the last word on the genre for me. Sometimes,
you gotta just let the greats have the last word.
Never mind that it was part of a piece that landed Jewel on their cover, if nothing
else Time magazine gives good cover copy. Last summer, the newsweekly concluded
that Anchorless was a "confident debut" and that Kacy Crowley was
"one to watch." Now, a sticker with those quotes adorns each copy of Anchorless,
an album so singularly honest and slick that even without Time's prodding
it's already become Atlantic's absolute priority. And as well it should be, because
Time's assessment of "confidence" is dead on -- Anchorless
is indeed overflowing with poise and conviction. Most of that composure resonates
in Crowley's husky voice, a malleable but sturdy tool that was perhaps prematurely
aged by busking over passing Sixth Street traffic. Here, on both the smart mid-tempo
material ("Anything," "Vertigo") and melodic rockers ("Singers
Are Ugly," "Hand To Mouthville"), Crowley is far more Stevie Nicks
than Sheryl Crow. And if her voice occasionally sounds rough, it's because the material
is so lyrically demanding. Both "Scars," a smart cancer/stardom metaphor,
and "Rebellious," with its stunning "I dyed my hair and I got tattooed/
And I let my body get recklessly used" line, are the type of autobioghraphical
testimonials few dare to offer on a debut. And while those tunes, featuring a cast
of local all-stars like Jon Dee Graham, Craig Ross, and Michael Ramos, represent
Anchorless' theoretical core, the late addition of "Bottlecap" represents
the album's commercial centerpiece. It's an undeniably slinky, born-for-radio pop
song, perfectly calculated to become next summer's summer song. While that alone
ought to excite the Atlantic brass, the consistency and depth of this album ought
to excite and inspire folks closer to home, because this may be the homegrown debut
that proves Austin, art, and widespread appeal may not be so mutually exclusive after
all. "One to watch" indeed.
Redemption Road (Silverwave)
Eliza Gilkyson has the power to evoke sorrow, sex, depression, and hope. Her songs
speak to a point in the center of your being where you can't avoid or deny the vulnerability
of being human. The brilliant studio sheen laid over the tunes works in "Our
Time," a painfully pretty song about the struggle of living as an emotional
creature in the modern age. Unfortunately, Gilkyson has dwelt long on the line between
the modern age and the new age -- and stepped over. The luster becomes blinding,
and the production too embellished. Instead of enhancing the melodies or highlighting
the lyrics, the production often shields the listener from them, like taking a ride
in a Caprice Classic, the ride so cushy that you don't feel the road moving beneath
you. This is odd, given that this is a self-produced album. "Her Melancholy
Muse" is one of the more straight-up songs, a point where you feel the touch
of the artist through the music. Behind the cymbal flourishes and the tremolo are
some beautiful songs, it's just too bad there aren't more glimpses over that willowy
wall of sound.
THE FABULOUS THUNDERBIRDS FEATURING KIM WILSON
High Water (High Street)
Kim Wilson doesn't make bad records. Not on his own nor with the ever-evolving
outfit known as the Fabulous Thunderbirds. After nearly 20 years of recording, the
T-Birds have as impressive a body of recorded work as any band can boast, ranging
from the raw roadhouse blues of their early Takoma/Chrysalis albums through their
flirtation with success with "Tuff Enuff," to the more recent Roll of
the Dice. If everyone (and Austin is particularly guilty) will get over the fact
that Jimmie Vaughan left this band years ago, they'll hear that Wilson has emerged
with the same charisma and showmanship as his former partner, and is imminently capable
of fronting the current lineup with all the panache of his early turban-wearing days.
High Water offers a dozen new tunes written by Wilson and co-producers Danny
Kortchmar and Steve Jordan that showcase his songwriting proficiency with liquid
grace. From the loping sensuality of the opening "Too Much of Everything"
to the gospel-tinged title track to the reggae-flavored "Someone Who Cares,"
High Water ebbs and flows between riptide blues ("That's All I Need to
Know") and swelling waves of soul ("Promises You Can't Keep"), layered
with Wilson's achingly sexy harmonica playing. This isn't the gassed-up Thunderbirds
of the Eighties but a seductive undertow drawing you into the warm embrace of the
Nineties. And shouldn't the blues be like that too?
LONG JOHN HUNTER
Swinging From the Rafters (Alligator)
The Titty Twister was probably nothing compared to the Lobby Bar. Robert Rodriguez's
vision of whiskey-soaked barroom evil in From Dusk Till Dawn might as well
have been the sin-soaked Juarez dive in which Long John Hunter swung from the rafters
for 13 long years. By now that story is well-known, and even if Hunter's low-down
Texas blues aren't, Chicago blues beacon Alligator Records is working hard to correct
the situation. On Hunter's second release for the label, the 66-year-old guitarist
and writing partner/producer Tary Owens once again demonstrate that a fresh batch
of smoking, simmering blues originals are just a round of drinks away. Never mind
that last year's Border Town Legend is still as hot as the Fourth of July,
Hunter and Owens rounded up locals Derek O'Brien, Mark "Kaz" Kazanoff,
Martin Banks, and James Polk, and holed up in an Austin studio to cook up another
side of Texas roadhouse ribs -- the blues kind. Mmmmm. Hot off the grill and as fresh
as that last whiskey. "I Don't Care," "Both Ends of the Road,"
"Trouble on the Line," "I'm Broke," all of 'em stinging, horny
(great trumpet and sax work), and knowing -- the blues kind of knowing. John Sayles
knew, putting together that great jukebox in Lone Star. It's time Texas film
served up some Long John Hunter.
Tailspin Headwhack (Silvertone)
If Sikk is Kiss' cover project and the Bon Bons celebrate AC/DC, then what do
you call Austin's Stevie Ray Vaughan tribute? Chris Duarte. Obviously, this joke's
set-up was Texas Sugar Strat Magik, Duarte's solidly played, but suspiciously
conservative, national debut. It was far more wank than song, and yet, for indiscriminate
guitar fans, it managed to fill the Stevie Ray Void. The good news is that while
the joke's punchline is still funny, its impact may be nullified by Tailspin Headwhack,
a far more ambitious and consistent work. Primarily, the difference is texture, to
the extent where both a no-brainer like the Meters' "People Say" and a
straight blooze composition like ".32 Blues" can sport similar Axiom Funk-style
drama. Better yet is Duarte's take on B.B. King's signature, "The Thrill Is
Gone." Here, Duarte's mid-tempo approach wisely eschews the songs' inherent
funk, concentrating instead on unwinding a smooth Santana goove. And he nails it.
Not surprisingly, there are still a few too many wasted thoughts and clumsy choruses
on the six Duarte-penned tunes, but most of the damage is negated by stunning solos.
Duarte hasn't forgotten this is a guitar album for guitar fans, and his tone is meticulously
consistent. Unlike his debut, there is nary a 30-second solo nugget you couldn't
extract, put on the radio, and immediately recognize as Duarte. Maybe it's just the
natural familiarity a second album brings, or maybe Duarte has finally found Chris
Duarte lurking in SRV's long shadow. Either way, playing this steady and dependable
is a rare and welcome display of maturity, particularly in a market saturated with
teen wonders. Now take a minute to laugh again at the joke -- it ought to be the
last time you see it in print.
You Light Up My Life: Inspirational Songs (Curb)
It's true, the world needs LeAnn Rimes' version of "You Light Up My Life"
about as much as it needs another prime-time 20/20 knockoff. Same goes for
"Bridge Over Troubled Water," "The Rose," "I Believe,"
"God Bless America," "Amazing Grace," and the national anthem.
Life would go on just fine if Rimes chose Sonic Youth's "Teen-Age Riot,"
Wu-Tang's "Shame on a Nigga," Sleater-Kinney's "I Wanna Be Your Joey
Ramone," the Stones' "Stop Breakin' Down," and the Dead Kennedys'
"California Über Alles" as "inspirational songs." Wal-Mart
(and probably her dad) wouldn't be too happy, and KHFI would have to find something
besides "How Do I Live" to play every half-hour, but the sun would
still come up. To be blunt, the people who buy Rimes' albums don't care one iota
about Thurston Moore, Corin Tucker, Jello Biafra, or Ol' Dirty Bastard. They care
about Rimes, and all they want is to hear her sing -- so much the better if they
already know the songs. And by the way, she can sing.
Diamond Blur (Blue Rose)
The standard knock against Americana, from a marketing standpoint anyway, has
always been that it's too rock to be country and too country to be rock. Rainravens
may have solved that particular commercial dilemma. Don't go rejoicing too much,
though, as the solution comes at the expense of the alt-country soul. In order to
bridge the gap, Rainravens have played it a few beats lazier and dropped the songwriting
down a couple of rungs on the ladder, enough that Diamond Blur sounds like
a Robert Earl Keen knock-off without the fury of desperate characters one step shy
of wreck and ruin. Actually, Wilco, tailor-made for your parents, may be more accurate,
since singer Andy Van Dyke's voice has definitely got plenty of Jeff Tweedy in it,
but it's also got a smattering of Steve Forbert in there as well. And it's on "Stick
Together," where Van Dyke sounds more like the latter than the former, that
Rainravens hit on something of their own rather than sounding like they are trying
to pull off someone else's tricks (although if you're into theft, "Empty"
is a fairly moving Anodyne reject). Rainravens may have a sound that'll make
Americana more palatable to more people but, well, "Empty" is a pretty
apt word to describe the creativity (and emotional) tank that these guy were running
MANUEL'S WOMEN'S FESTIVAL
Forgetting even that the proceeds of this compilation go to the Center for Battered
Women, there are a number of reasons you need to own this CD. Miss Margaret Wright
is one of them. Her inspired march through "In God's Land" is one of many
moving moments on the Manuel's Women's Festival. Heather Bennett's "Throwing
Sparks" is another, her choppy piano the bop-complement to Wright's gospel power.
Acoustic folk is sprinkled generously across the board, and appropriately so. From
Ana Egge's rending "Bless Me Mother" to Karen Tyler's biting and bluesy
"House of Cards," these songs speak to the problems this project hopes
to combat, and every selection tells a tale to be labored over. Likewise, the timeless
sound of the Greater Mount Zion Baptist Choir belting out "Jesus Is a Rock in
a Weary Land" will get you singing praises of your own. Reaching from gospel
to samba to folk to jazz, this collection of Austin's best and least-known female
talent offers a near-complete cultural education of what women in Austin music are
up to, which you couldn't otherwise get without spending countless hours in record
stores, churches, and clubs.
Frequent Lunacy (Trance Syndicate)
EIGHT FROZEN MODULES
The Confused Designer
Somebody open lunar hatch number nine and tell Ken Gibson to get in here. In space,
no one can hear you scream, so Gibson's been banging on the outside of the ship and
sending these terrifying echoes and shrieks down the oval hollow decks below. Jesus,
what a racket -- and it's creepy as shit. Take the lead-off song and title track
from the Furry Things' latest album, Frequent Lunacy, which at 30 minutes
is 13 shorter than the group's hedphones "EP" from earlier this
year: Trebly beats underwritten by wind-tunnel voices, siren sounds, and occasionally
Gibson's guitar. "Burn For" sounds like an oxygen fire raging in the decompression
chamber, before the ambient dub of "Luxate" douses it and the space aria
"Similar Place" puts in a faint call for help from ELO. Things are pretty
quiet by the time the fifth and final space odyssey, "Angel Warm and Cold,"
floats by, and by this time Austin's former feedback kings are lost in space. Grounded
perhaps only by an insistent bassline, "Warm & the Cold Electrified Angel,"
the lead-off pulse on Gibson's solo project, The Confused Designer, is a little
more down-to-earth -- like echoes and shrieks in the sewer system. Drums `n' bass
beats gush down said water tunnels, sweeping along everything in their path, like
the annoying "Undeformed Allusions." Fortunately, other D&B workouts
like "Heartbeat of a Dog," which lives up to its provocative title, work
much better. "Sand Bubbles" is a familiar, sand-melting atomic blast first
glimpsed on one of Trance Syndicate's The Kahanek Incident series, and helps
distinguish Gibson's solo project as ample reason to strike out on his own. Extreme
studio smarts will prompt that sort of thing. Reel him in, Hal, and tell him to stop
screaming and get back in the studio.
MERCHANTS OF VENUS
Who would've ever thunk that this year's biggest musical trends would be lounge,
ska, and Puff Daddy? Of course no one bothered to predict that as we were all swept
up in last year's hype surrounding, uh... surrounding, uh.... See? My point exactly.
The lifespan of the average musical phenomenon is slightly longer than that of a
puddle in the Centex summer sun. And with Who Knew? this local septet drips
another drop into the watery body of lounge. Too bad Merchants of Venus are on the
backside of a wave that is, as we speak, crashing onto the shore of past tense. Let's
be clear here, though, Who Knew? isn't disposable because lounge is just about
passé. No, that would be to unfairly indict a band just by genre association.
In fact, calling Who Knew? disposable at all is unwarranted, because it does
have some skillfully constructed originals with some jump in them. Who Knew?
is forgettable because it has little to offer that would compel anybody to remember
it after this whole fad has run its course. For example: Who remembers that, uh,
that band that was big, when uh, when whatever it was was all the rage? See, with
its sexy horn arrangements and slinky guitar rhythms, Who Knew? swings, sure,
but so does Muzak on occasion.
Throw the Flying Saucers, Orange Mothers, and Smashing Pumpkins in a blender and
this six-song, 30-minute EP is what would come out. It has dreamy pop vocals, a meandering
rhythm section, and songs that build in waves, usually culminating in a crunching
volley of guitar noise. Sound familiar? Of course it is. Overdone? Well... normally.
But here, Marvel Ann is heavy without being overbearing (something Billy Corgan has
yet to learn) and doesn't get lost in the dreamworld of too much solipsistic guitar
wankery either -- like so many other My Bloody Valentine disciples. But, except the
more-drastic-than-usual tempo changes of "Immortal," there isn't much differentiating
one song from the next. Perhaps it's to be expected when mood and texture are more
important to a band than sharp hooks and verse-chorus-verse structure, but because
of that, the aspect of Make Believe that lingers longest is how much vocalist
Nik Snell sounds like that guy who sang the Eighties New-Wave staple "Three
Strange Days." Marvel Ann certainly deserves better than that.
Angel Seed XXIII (MetalBlade)
It's nice to know there are constants in life. A good Merlot will always get you
drunk, a black Jag XJ-6 will never slip next to a beige Saturn, and the new Skrew
CD is going to make your grandmother's eyes bleed. Sledgehammer producer Bill Metoyer
adds even more low-end crunch to this hellbound trainwreck of aggro noise. Sure,
Skrew overlord Adam Grossman has been following this same path for years now, parlaying
the early thrash aesthetics of Angkor Wat into one of MetalBlade's shriekiest acts,
and though that live battering ram of sound hasn't always made it into the band's
releases in the past, Angel Seed manages to capture the full brunt of Skrew
minus the studio trappings. Relative newcomer Frapp's throbbing basslines are full
of blunt, rank, nasty underpinnings, and Grossman's chops (and vox) are as sloppily
wicked as ever. It's not exactly a step in a new direction, nor is it quite more
of the same old slog. Instead, it's Skrew as they sound on a blistering Back Room
Friday night, all spit and gristle and sampled mayhem.
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