Monday, March 31, 2008

A Brokeheart Pro - "The Kitten Next Door" (Kitten Next Door Records 2007)

It’s starting to seem de rigeur for me to begin these reviews with a boring, self-indulgent bit of personal history. Ask around the bars I used to frequent if you want an idea of how much I like to talk about myself. Well, fuck it. There is a point to this that will tie in to the actual record review. Feel free to skip down a few paragraphs.

As a kid I was lazy as shit. I hated doing anything that smacked of work. Even the dangling carrot of cash recompense was rarely enough for my long-suffering father to get me to mow the lawn. I despised playing sports. When I announced to my parents at the age of 14 that I wanted to learn to play guitar I was regarded with the level of skepticism you would expect considering I had taken interest in almost nothing but reading books my entire life. Still, I convinced my dad to let me buy a beat up Yamaha acoustic at a pawn shop with my birthday money and to get me some lessons.

It never entered my mind that I would play in a band. I wanted to play guitar because I wanted to be like Randy Rhoads. I was terrible at math and music theory was an utter mystery to me. Through grudging practice of such gems as the rhythm guitar part of “Tequila Sunrise” I learned time signatures, open chords and transitions. I then graduated to barre chords. It wasn’t long after that that I heard The Ramones for the first time. I quit wanting to be like Randy Rhoads and started wanting to be like Johnny Ramone. Trying to be like Randy Rhoads was too much like work.

After hitting some Houston punk shows it suddenly dawned on me that I could be in a punk band. While I deeply loved rock ‘n’ roll and was already well on my way to music geekdom, this had nothing to do with it. These guys in bands, even if they were socially inept and/or anti-social, as was I, got attention. Especially from girls. While I was under the legal age these guys also got free beer and they weren’t much older, if not younger, than me. Sad as it may seem, there’s my motivation for becoming a working musician.

I tell this story to use as a counter-point to the musical career of Jeannette Kantzalis, the woman, and for that matter only person, behind The Kitten Next Door, released under the name A Brokeheart Pro. She neither was nor is lazy at all and no part of her motivation is suspect.

I don’t know how I missed every aspect of this woman’s career until now. Beginning recording her own songs by age 11, she scored a job as a songwriter for publishing company Peer/Southern by age 18 and landed a record contract with A&M Records by 19, releasing the record Pink Mischief as Jeannette Katt. Mere months after a nasty split with A&M she resurfaced as Jeannette Kantzalis fronting garage pop outfit The Chubbies, a decade long project that released a couple of sides on Sympathy for the Record Industry (which is really when I should have tuned in – just goes to show that even though drunken living and chain smoking go hand in hand with living and breathing rock ‘n’ roll you still miss things).

Jeannette is back, this time on her own as A Brokeheart Pro. Disregarding for a moment the songs themselves it is stupefyingly impressive how good The Kitten Next Door sounds when one considers she produced the record and played every instrument on it. Jeannette has no formal training in any of this – a testament to how far dedication, passion, and experience can take you. Lou Barlow, eat your heart out (those of you that know me know I’d never say that lightly).

Album opener “Dark Red and Loud” grabs you immediately – a mid-tempo song with excellent use of sonic space between the instrumentation and vocals. A sparse Ry Cooder-ish slide guitar complements Jeannette’s voice – the best aspects of Kate Bush by turns with the most soulful aspects of Alison Limerick. Its tone is evocative of some lost desert highway, a feeling well reflected in the desperate, self-destructive love story of the lyric.

Don’t get lulled in or settle on any expectations, though. Track two, “You Don’t Know”, blasts out at you like The Runaways might have sounded if they’d been from Tucson. As surreal as that may seem, it works really well and you begin to get a sense of the range of influences that Jeannette can bring to bear. There’s the bouncy vamp of the title track, the sultry “Bleed On” with a vocal that would do Debbie Harry proud, and the beautiful broken-hearted ballad “Pink Mischief”, the strongest track on the record.

She throws in a couple of covers for good measure. Ryan Adams “Hard Way to Fall” (Ryan Adams and the Cardinals, Jacksonville City Lights, Lost Highway 2005), which doesn’t work for me. I’ve got a sneaking suspicion this has more to do with me than Jeanette’s interpretation. My encounters with a pre-fame Ryan Adams have left me feeling his lyrics are disingenuous at best and likely soured me on him forever. You don’t need to tell me I’m the last person on earth who feels this way. Much more to my liking is The Killers “Bling (Confessions of a King)” (Sam’s Town, Island 2006), probably because hey, I love The Killers, and Jeannette’s interpretation is such a unique take on the song.

There’s more on this record to be impressed by (Jeannette’s use of her voice as a background melody instrument in several places is stunning), but I don’t want to give it all away. It would be a crime to diminish the impact this record will have on you at first listen more than I already have.

You folks need to pick this one up. Let’s leave it at that.

You can pick up The Kitten Next Door at and check out her MySpace at

3.5 out of 4 broken hearts

Friday, March 21, 2008

Rumination on "The Flaming Lips - The Fearless Freaks" (Shout Factory 2005)

It would be silly to review a DVD that came out almost three years ago, but I just watched it. Plus, the time elapsed since release didn’t deter me with The Road to God Knows Where when I reviewed it back in back in December but, hey, I was new at this and that particular documentary deserves a good hashing over every few years.

In 1987 I was listening to the Funhouse Punk & Noise Show on Pacifica radio 90.1 KPFT out of Houston (it faded in and out depending on the weather, etc. – we were pretty far out of town at that time) late one night. I don’t recall which night of the week, as the show was constantly being moved around to various late night slots due largely to indiscretions on the parts of the hosts who went by the noms de guerre Chuck Roast and Austin Caustic respectively. The Funhouse Show was my almost exclusive source for finding punk rock at that time and I listened religiously every chance I was able to find it on the dial. I even taped a few – the cassettes are lying around here somewhere waiting to be digitized.

Anyway, on the night in question Chuck Roast announced that he would be playing, in its entirety, the new Flaming Lips record Oh My Gawd!!! on the grounds that it might be the greatest record ever made. From The Beatles sample that kicks the record off through the one that ends it I found myself in whole hearted agreement and beat a path to Infinite Records at Westheimer and Montrose the very next Saturday to blow my pittance of socked away cash on it. While the whole “greatest record ever made” thing doesn’t hold up, it’s still one motherfucker of a powerful piece of work. I was an immediate fan and stuck with that band through Clouds Taste Metallic – in my opinion the last great, or even good, record they ever made.

This is where I’ll get in trouble, I know. The Lips have become international superstars on the basis of their post-Clouds music and I’m literally the only person I’ve ever encountered who holds that singular opinion stated above. Here’s the deal – The Flaming Lips went from being a powerful guitar based psychedelic pop band to a mellowed out keyboard/vocal effect prog rock pop band. As I’ve mentioned before I’m all for bands experimenting in new directions, especially if they do it in such a way that doesn’t smack of a sell out and leaves the essence of what makes the band unique undiluted. God knows The Flaming Lips did this – you can tell a Flaming Lips record, even having never heard it before, immediately upon hearing it. They're still 100% The Flaming Lips, whether I like the music they're making or not.

I’m going to start sounding old here. If it wasn’t broke, why fix it. The music contained on the records spanning Oh My Gawd!!! through Clouds Taste Metallic are textbook examples of how to make a record with a common sonic theme in which none of the songs sound the same. Every track is strong, experimental, and works in some positively viral hooks that stay with you for years (at least in my case). Why hare off in an entirely different musical direction when you haven't even fully explored the strengths you already have in spades?

What I’m left wondering, and what The Fearless Freaks didn’t address to my satisfaction at all, is how this sea change in style came to pass. A canny observer will note that this began to happen with the arrival of Steven Drozd as, initially, drummer and the subsequent departure of guitarist Ronald Jones, who was having issues with Drozd’s unconcealed heroin addiction. (as an interesting side note, to me at least, Steven was a drinking buddy of mine here in Austin during his Janis 18 days – Bryan Bowden, Hunter Darby, he and I hung out in the same small group of people catching shows, hitting parties, and generally making drunken nuisances of ourselves. He, of course, has no recollection of me now).

The documentary glosses over not only this major change in the band’s direction but several other pivotal moments in the band’s career. I’m left wondering, “Why?” If director Bradley Beesley had access unlimited enough to interview Steven Drozd about his philosophy on drug addiction while Steven is cooking and shooting up heroin it seems like he could have teased out some insight from Wayne Coyne and Michael Ivins over the different directions the band has taken through the years. The movie seems more an exploration of personal philosophies, especially Wayne Coyne’s, rather than a comprehensive or even cursory history of the band and an examination of what makes it tick and continue to be so vital after all these years.

I guess in the end I felt a little cheated. That’s probably my own fault – I went in expecting one thing and came out having received another. What I did get was certainly entertaining and insightful, but if I want personal histories I’ll read the biographies (and likely review them here). For a rock ‘n’ roll documentary I want the live footage, the tension and release, and whatever catharsis (or lack thereof) that can be achieved through a TV screen.

The Fearless Freaks is worth checking out; I just won’t be checking it out again. I got it the first time through, Wayne. And Steven, for the sake of the friendship you’ve forgotten as well as your welfare as a human being, I’m glad you’re off the junk. Keep making them records – even if they don’t appeal to me there’s definitely something going on there, which is a lot more than can be said for almost every other major label artist out there. Maybe sooner or later you guys will even release another one I like.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Arthur C. Clarke RIP

1917 - 2008

His books may never be taught in high school or college literature courses, but his optimistic view of humanity's future and his technological prescience, not to mention his talent for spinning one hell of an entertaining story, certainly make him worthy of the admiration and respect a man of letters deserves. He came up with the idea of the telecommunication satellite, for Christ's sake.

Think about that the next time you're driving along the highway risking your own life and the lives of those around you by yammering away on your cell phone about what happened on "Lost" last night. Maybe, when you finally cause that fatal car accident, he'll meet you in Heaven and kick your ass.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Exile Parade - "Fire Walk With Me" b/w "Still Number One" (Self-Release - Single 2008)

First of all, I'd like to thank Warrington, UK's Exile Parade for sending me 25 copies of their new single "Fire Walk With Me". I'm not quite sure what I'm supposed to do with such largesse, but I can't fault them for their generosity. I would hand them out to my friends, but my phone hasn't rung anywhere near 25 times since I quit drinking. Just goes to show - never quit drinking. Never.

The cool thing about "Fire Walk With Me" is that, while it instantly brings the word "Mudhoney" to mind, it seems to be drawing more from the same source material that inspired Mudhoney rather drawing inspiration from Mudhoney itself. The similarities are glaring, but Exile Parade, on this song at least, brings its own distinctive spin to the melange of influences that came to fall under the umbrella term "grunge". The production, credited to Owen Morris, is cleaner than Jack Endino's (which, in my opinion, is no bad thing), the fuzz lead guitar riff is equal parts Wayne Kramer/Ron Asheton, and lead singer Lomax [sic] has a gravelly shout that occasionally slips into Lemmy Kilmeister territory. In short this song would not sound out of place in a "grunge" specialty show on late 80's college radio. It would fit so well because, as mentioned above, these guys seem to have a reverence for The Stooges, The MC5, and other bands that led to the rise of "grunge" as a sub-genre rather than for "grunge" itself. This makes for "Fire Walk With Me" being a fine little listen.

It's the b-side where things get a little confusing.

While I'm certainly no opponent of bands displaying their diversity I'm not sure that a two song single is necessarily the proper venue to span two opposite extremes. In the context of singles, a band should play to their strengths in exploring a certain musical style, and save the surprise of displaying their strengths in exploring another for the next single. The early Rolling Stones were masters of this (or, depending on who you believe, Andrew Loog Oldham was).

Exile Parade shifts gears dramatically for b-side "Still Number One". The aural assault of the a-side has been traded in for a much poppier sound that is honestly more reminiscent of mid-80's Big Country or, while hailing from America, the heavily British influenced The Call than big, loud, in your face rock. It's not a bad song by any means - it's just a jarring shift in style, especially in a CD format in which it follows immediately on the heels of the aggressive energy of "Fire Walk With Me". It might work a little better on vinyl, in which there's the necessary delay of flipping the record over, but I'm not convinced even that would be enough.

I'll be interested to hear Exile Parade's upcoming full length to see if they integrate the two styles more smoothly, or even make a greater diversity of sounds work. For this single, while the songs are solid and show promise, they don't really seem to indicate a direction. If these boys can get that niggling detail worked out they may just be a force to be reckoned with.

2.5 out of 4 parades

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Dave Stevens RIP

Dave Stevens died March 12th, 2008 of leukemia at the age of 52. Dave created The Rocketeer which, before the movie ruined it, was one of the coolest comic books out there. His style, whether in The Rocketeer or his other work, was very 1940's pin-up poster art, and he did it better than anyone from that time or this. I met Dave in LA only briefly in 1987 or so. He took my friend Keith and I out for lunch and we talked about everything from comic books to movies to rock 'n' roll to pop culture in general. While we didn't stay in close contact we kept up with one another through our mutual friend Sam Park.

Call it what you want - pop art, derivative art, not "real" art at all - and you'd be full of shit. Dave's talent was overwhelming. You will literally find no one who ever met the man who has a single bad thing to say about him as an artist or a human being. His style, grace and charm at both endeavors is at least equal to anyone I've ever met in my life.

Adios, Dave, the world is emptier in so many ways for your passing.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Breeders - "Mountain Battles" (4AD 2008)

When I first heard The Pixies Surfer Rosa in the fall of 1988 I was totally knocked on my ass. I had never heard anything like it. The track that jumped out at me the most was "Gigantic", sung by the bass player credited as "Mrs. John Murphy". When Doolittle was released in 1989 I was there to buy it and, while suitably impressed with the album, was disappointed that "Mrs. John Murphy", now revealed as Kim Deal, had a much reduced presence. I saw The Pixies on the Doolittle tour, and discovered that their reputation as a notoriously dull live band was not unearned. The one saving grace was the energetic and engaging stage presence of Kim Deal. Imagine my delight in 1990 when I caught wind of a project that Kim Deal and Throwing Muses guitarist Tanya Donelly had put together called The Breeders. I immediately rushed out and bought Pod and, to the dismay of several of my Pixies loyalist friends, decided The Breeders kicked The Pixies ass up and down the block. The Safari EP in 1991 further cemented my opinion. Then, in 1993, came Last Splash.

Few records have affected me the way Last Splash did upon hearing it for the first time. It was, and is, in a word, brilliant. Beginning to end. Easily in the top five records of the decade. I saw The Breeders live and, in spite of the relatively recent addition of Kim's sister Kelley Deal and her obvious self consciousness and stage fright, they were terrific. I couldn't stop listening to the record. When I wasn't listening to it I couldn't get the songs out of my head. I thought, This band will go down as one of the greatest American bands ever!

Then, silence. Rumors began making the rounds of serious drug abuse in The Breeders camp. Kelley Deal was busted on drug charges. The Breeders had broken up - a rumor seemingly reinforced by Kim Deal's band sans Kelley The Amps release of Pacer in 1996 (a perfectly charming record, but lacking the ballsiness, so to speak, of The Breeders). Kelley Deal re-emerged with The Kelley Deal 5000. More rumors - Kelley was back in The Breeders and they were working on an album, but the sessions were again plagued by heavy drug use and little progress was being made. Finally, in 2002, The Breeders released the lackluster and unfocused Title TK to mixed reactions and a great deal of disappointment from me.

When I heard The Breeders were at work on a new album, what would be their first in six years, I dragged up as much of that enthusiasm left over from 1993 as I could. Certainly over a six year period the Deal sisters could crank out some truly inspired stuff.

I wish I could say this is true of Mountain Battles. While not quite as lackluster as Title TK it displays the same lack of focus and exudes a laconic vibe that suggests the Deals just don't care anymore. Album opener "Overglazed" begins promisingly enough with a nice energy until you realize it's a repeating three chord riff with the words "I can feel it" sung over it again and again. That's it. That's the first song.

From this launching point you generally get a record comprised of songs like "We're Gonna Rise" - they sound kind of like The Breeders, but they don't go anywhere and sound like the band was bored during the process of recording them. Even worse, you have songs like the inappropriately named and self-indulgent "Spark" or the following "Istanbul" which is just plain stupid (I'm sorry - there's simply no other word for it).

There are redeeming interludes - "German Studies" shows off some of the old energy and, as the song is sung entirely in German, a sense of humor as well. The driving bass and catchy melody of "Walk It Off" is worth the listen, and "Here No More" is immediately reminiscent of "Drivin' on 9" from Last Splash. Reminiscent is, sadly, the operative word here. Even these standout moments are pale reflections of The Breeders' finest moments. "It's The Love", the second to last song on the record, finally sounds like The Breeders ought to sound - the riff and melody are engaging, the energy is up, and the appealing simplicity of a great pop hook is present. Would that the Deal sisters had made a whole record like this. They're certainly capable. Or at least used to be.

The record closes with the title track, "Mountain Battles" - a dense, slow, keyboard heavy exercise in avant garde self indulgence unlike anything else on the album. It's really a good summation of what you just listened to - briefly original but primarily slow, boring and uninspired.

I need to go listen to Last Splash.

Mountain Battles releases April 8th, 2008. The Breeders perform a free SXSW 2008 show in Austin Saturday, March 15th at Waterloo Park.

1.5 out of 4ADs

Monday, March 10, 2008

SXSW and the Marginalization of Austin Music

In the mid to late 1980's there was quite a bit of national attention being paid to the Austin music scene. Bands like The True Believers, The Reivers, The Wild Seeds, Glass Eye, and The Texas Instruments and performers like Daniel Johnston (this is by no means a comprehensive list) had, through their uniquely Austin take on rock 'n' roll, caught the ears of record company execs everywhere. Not to diminish the talent and originality of these bands, the success of REM and the emergence of the Athens, GA music scene played a significant part in this, as record company scumbags are always on the lookout for the next local scene they can exploit and, in so doing, ultimately destroy after the money has been made. Austin was in their sights.

These industry stuffed shirts (I don't care how hip they dress - that's what they are) were ultimately unsuccessful in breaking the Austin music scene of the time nationally, possibly due to the entrenched independence of the bands or perhaps that the "Austin sound" was too unique to central Texas to be understood or commercially viable nationally. The possibility of national exposure and the ability to quit day jobs, however, very understandably resulted in a deal of collusion between the bands and the record labels early on.

If I'm not mistaken (my once razor sharp memory is failing at an alarming rate - could it be the 12 - 15 beers a day for two decades?) it was in 1986 that MTV descended on Austin and made a sort of documentary of the scene including interviews and live performances set up specifically for the film, and this was subsequently shown on MTV (this was at a time when MTV was still associated with music - you youngins won't remember it). This certainly served to maintain, if not increase, the larger music industry's interest in Austin music as an exploitable commodity. It also gave rise to a small local music festival called South By Southwest.

SXSW was conceived as an avenue by which ambitious and talented Austin bands would play over a three day weekend, allowing a specific time of year for industry types to check out local talent, as opposed to making several trips across the year to catch a performance by a band they had their eye on. While I have no direct experience with this history I was, for whatever reason, at all the hip parties shortly after that time and rubbed shoulders and had conversations with those who had put the festival together, not to mention most of the bands and performers involved.

The first SXSW was held in March of 1987 and was pretty much an instant success. From this humble beginning it has bloated into the three week long multimedia juggernaut that it is today.

I had been knocking around, playing in various short lived projects, drinking heavily, and attending all the hip parties, including the SXSW ones, for a couple of years before I became involved in the first serious band of my life in the spring of 1991. By this point SXSW had grown considerably, attracting bands from across the country and some international acts. The focus was still on indie bands trying to make that jump to some commercial success, but it was starting to become more difficult for native Austin acts to be accepted for a showcase slot. Those with consistently large local draws and any bands containing a member of that original 1986 batch were shoe-ins, but a lot of hard working, innovative bands were being passed over. The band I was in, on the strength of two self released cassettes (that was the medium an unsigned band released a record on in those days) and several strong live performances, had attracted the interest of both Atlantic Records and Rykodisc. No money had been discussed, but we were under consideration. In spite of this we were passed over for SXSW 1993.

Upon speaking with a member of the permanent paid staff of SXSW regarding this I was told that local unsigned bands, in order to receive realistic consideration, must have shown serious initiative in self-promotion, self releasing material, contacting record labels and sparking their interest, and getting self financed touring under their belt. My band had been considered four upstart drunks who had accidentally hit the right chemistry at the right time, which wasn't far from the truth. I didn't find these conditions unreasonable - it certainly improved your chances of A&R types showing up for your showcase slot, and if you couldn't count on that then why take up space that bands who had laid the groundwork could more usefully take advantage of? It bore out for me as well - my next band, in spite of (deservedly) no label interest, had dogged record labels, spent a ton of money on promotion, put out a record (on CD by now) and toured the Midwest. We were accepted for SXSW 1997. We broke up two months later.

The next band I started I took everything I had learned and worked it to the max - mailers, promos, self-financed recording, self-released CDs, self-financed tours, self-financed publicity, making sure the songs had hooks and were as marketable as anything out there on an indie label - I spent practically every spare moment I had working that band. Over the 10 years of our existence we were invited to play a SXSW showcase once. We were placed in an out of the way Tejano bar that's management had decided they had made a mistake agreeing to be a SXSW venue. How do I know this? They shouted it in my and my drummer's face during the altercation that ensued when the club management had our van towed while we were playing. The SXSW stage manager did nothing to intervene. Phone calls placed to the SXSW office to complain were never returned. We were never reimbursed for the $110.00 it took to get the van out of impound at 3AM.

It was shortly after this that it became apparent that being a big local draw was not enough to be invited to play SXSW. The bands were increasingly national bands with comfortable record contracts already in place. There were exceptions, but they were few and far between and even fewer of those called Austin home. Very prominent world-class acts such as Iggy Pop started showing up and performing "special events". Woe to the bands who's showcase slot was scheduled during such a "special event". It kept getting bigger. It's now the largest music conference of its kind in the world.

The idealistic people who started the whole thing to help musicians find some success have turned into the very ones exploiting them for pleasure and profit. Was this inevitable? It's hard to say. The intentions were good, and I'm sure that these people think they still are. From where I stand, it looks like a week long vacation for music executives (not for SXSW staffers - even with my disillusionment I know how hard they work this time of year).

I've never personally known a band that got a record contract due to a SXSW showcase performance, and I've known a lot of bands. Bands I've known that have gotten record deals during the conference have gotten them due to performances at non-SXSW parties. The best example I can bring to mind is my buddy Britt Daniel's band Spoon (this involved one of the most ingenius self promoting false rumors possibly in the history of rock 'n' roll. It never would have worked had Spoon not already been a fantastic band. If you don't know the story, well, it's really not my place to relate it here). The only time record company people came to see my band play was at these non-official, usually daytime events. At SXSW 2007 my band had secured a record deal with a European indie label and were actively looking for an American indie to release our record over here. In spite of this, we had been passed over for a showcase slot and had to organize our own event.

Getting mad at SXSW is like getting mad at the weather (which I regularly do, but I have pretty serious psychological problems). It's like a force of nature now - an unstoppable force with no immovable object to stand in its way. Maybe the silver lining around its massive bulk blocking out the sun is this - it's forcing unsigned and indie bands to go DIY again. That's something the US musical landscape has been in desperate need of for some time. A crucible from which fresh, innovative music emerges will always re-energize a co-opted art form. I have to hold on to the hope that this already is or soon will be the case.

I guess the most disappointing thing to me about all this is that SXSW is no longer a celebration of the music. It's become a celebration of the music industry, and I just find that incredibly depressing.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Alejandro Escovedo - March 2nd, 2008 - Aquarelle Restaurant Francais

Alejandro Escovedo's youngest daughter and upscale Austin French eatery Aquarelle owner's daughter have something in common - both children attend Escuelita Del Alma, one of the most highly regarded daycare facilities in Austin or the surrounding area. Maybe in the country. When the beloved teacher of these two children was diagnosed with cervical cancer Alejandro and Aquarelle joined forces and did one of the things Austin does best - threw her a benefit.

At $50.00 a seat the contributor received a five star French dinner (even if it was served buffet style), an unbelievable dessert spread, and limitless free wine courtesy of a local winery. Not to mention a stellar performance from Alejandro and a back-up band that included Stephen Bruton on mandolin and guitar, Hector Munoz on percussion, and a fantastic bass player who's name I didn't catch (I've seen him play and even met him once or twice, but can't remember his name - getting old is hell).

I felt compelled to write about this because it seems like its something becoming all too rare, and perhaps dying out. Not benefits in general, which will continue to be organized for friends in need as long as there are music scenes, but benefits like this one. Rather than 8 - 10 bands in a bar or nightclub, you had a single performance by a critically acclaimed and much beloved local songwriter and performer held at a nice restaurant for a price that almost anybody could afford and was worth every penny. Alejandro can easily sell out any mid-size venue in town. You would likely spend more than $50.00 dining at Aquarelle on any given night. These people donated time, money and resources to help not a fellow uninsured musician in need, as is usually the case, but for a daycare teacher.

Obviously such an event wouldn't be economically feasible for every sick person in a city. It doesn't, however, seem outside the realm of the realistic to have similar events more frequently benefitting, say, charitable organizations or medical research groups. There are certainly enough A-list musicians in Austin, and I'm sure many other metropolitan areas, to make this possible. Maybe the tattered remains of my idealism is showing through, but as our inhumanity toward other humans continues to rise it seems one of the easier and more obvious ways to fight back. There's no reason to stop having the small benefits for ailing fellow musicians or the big ones for such things as relief for victims of natural disaster - just a way to provide a consistent, unsensationalized middle ground. I think the benefits would ultimately far outweigh the effort not only for the recipients of this largesse, but for our society as a whole. Subtle, or not so subtle, reminders of our responsibilites to one another as human beings capable of empathy and compassion not only seem like a good idea to me, but an almost urgent necessity. Bear in mind this is coming from probably the most misanthropic person you've ever come into contact with. If I can muster passion for something like this I'm willing to bet you can too.

If you're so passionate about this then why aren't you doing anything? you'd be justified in asking. Well, I think I'll probably get started on it. Having the privelege to attend the benefit I'm talking about provided some powerful inspiration.

Alejandro's performance? Outstanding. He drew heavily from his first solo release, the Stephen Bruton produced Gravity. The generally melancholic tone of his songs was complemented perfectly by roiling black clouds threatening a storm (which thankfully didn't materialize) and wind gusts that sent dead leaves spiraling around the band. He also managed to work in his two arguably biggest hits, both from A Man Under the Influence, "Rosalie" about half way through the set and an energetic rendition of "Castanets" to close things out. After a couple of minor rough moments early on the band Alejandro had assembled fell in together and shone like the professionals they are.

I think I found this all so moving because it managed to restore a tiny amount of my long faded hope that there is good to be found in people. That by itself made it worth the price of admission.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The Whigs - "Mission Control" (ATO Records 2008)

What do The Smithereens, INXS, The Pixies, Pearl Jam, Foo Fighters, Guided By Voices, and The Replacements have in common? Well, they're all rock bands to begin with. And, I'd be willing to bet that you can find them all in Whigs frontman Parker Gispert's record collection.

The Whigs, hailing from Athens, GA, were responsible for quite a bit of excitement with the self-release of their debut Give 'Em All a Big Fat Lip in 2005, so much so that Dave Matthews' label ATO Records picked them up in the summer of 2006 and Fat Lip received national release. This led to The Whigs almost instantly becoming darlings of the national press, being hailed as everything from "band of the day" to what amounts to the Great White Hope of 21st century Rock 'n' Roll. Fat Lip is a raw blast of underproduced, confident rock that was certainly worthy of notice and, of course, set up expecatations for the surely brilliant follow-up. This is generally dangerous ground for young bands. Otherwise the term "sophomore slump" would not be so widely employed in the context of rock music.

Mission Control boasts a more polished production (the production credit goes to Beck's behind-the-board man Rob Schnapf) than its predecessor and moves in a distinctly more radio friendly pop oriented direction. This is not necessarily a bad thing but, while Fat Lip displayed the band's influences to a nice and subtle effect, Mission Control moves them to the forefront and leaves the record sounding like a derivative mishmash of ideas pioneered by other bands.

The record kicks off with the immediately catchy "Like a Vibration", and it's no surprise its so catchy as it is instantly reminiscent of The Smithereens, a band whose singles were catchy as shit. The fact that the song has a harder, faster edge than The Smithereens seems like an effort to make sure these instantly recognizable melodies and hooks are tailored to the aesthetics of a younger audience. "Production City" follows, and it literally sounds like it could have been an out take from INXS's Listen Like Thieves, right down to a very Michael Hutchence vocal delivery. After a couple of duds placed right in the middle of the song sequence (the tradional place for filler) The Smithereens show back up on "Hot Bed", The Replacements drop in for a visit on "Need You Need You", and INXS swings back through to help out on album closer "Mission Control". Its a rare moment on the record when an obvious comparison can't be made - I'll leave it to the listener to find the many others not listed here.

This is not to say that there aren't truly inspired moments. "Right Hand on My Heart", deservedly the album's single, stands on it's own with its driving beat, droning guitar riff, addictive vocal melody, and impressively soaring chorus. The chorus on "Already Young" is far and away the hookiest and most memorable moment on the record in spite of a recognizably Foo Fighters verse construction and a completely out of place Dave Matthews sounding pre-chorus breakdown that smacks of producer interference ("What this song needs is a dynamic!").

Mission Control is a really fun listen. With the exception of the aforementioned duds ("Sleep Sunshine" and "1000 Wives") the record exhibits a youthful energy and just the right degree of rebellious snottiness - something all too lacking in so many young bands today. It's clear they had a blast making this record and don't have any problem with people knowing it. All of this combined with comfortably familiar riffs make Mission Control a really appealing piece of work.

That being said, The Whigs are in no way the Great White Hope of American Rock 'n' Roll. They're good at what they do, they're a lot of fun, and they're sure to sell a lot of records. Perhaps in time they'll even find their own voice - one in which the inspirations are paid tribute but utilized to allow them to grow as a band without sounding so unfortunately deliberately derivative. I think they have it in them, but right now they're too busy staying on proven ground to find out.

Mission Control is being enthusiastically received critically. It's already being called "Album of the Year" by many critics although it only came out in January. That this is the case is pretty strong evidence to me that mediocrity is becoming the order of the day in the music trade again. It's not The Whigs' fault, and there are plenty of bands that deserve the mediocrity label more than they do. That a record so obviously built on the backs of truly innovative bands, both defunct and active, is being hailed as something providing salvation to a stagnant genre is, to me, a cause for alarm. It speaks to a willful ignorance or fear of music that is really pushing the envelope in the arbiters of what's considered worthy of attention in the music trade. That may not necessarily be something new, but it never gets any less insidious or depressing. My heart goes out to The Whigs who, at least for the moment, have become the inadvertent poster boys for this phenomenon. It sure sounds like they really just want to rock.

Sophomore slump? I guess it depends on your point of view.

2.5 out of 4 recycled riffs