Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Eric Hisaw - "Nature of the Blues" (Saustex Media 2008)


I first ran into Eric Hisaw at the deservedly notorious Hole in the Wall in the mid-90’s. This was, of course, before The Hole became the sterilized, family friendly, soulless thing it is today. The owners/managers took a refreshing interest in giving smaller acts a venue from which to build an audience and actually booked bands that were interesting and challenging. One of those bands was The Lone Star Queens, a bluesy cowpunk (for lack of a better term) outfit fronted by the charismatic, abrasive Hisaw. While I didn’t have the easiest time getting along with him, I fucking loved his band and there was no question that there was some serious talent going on with the songwriting.

The years have passed and both Hisaw’s personality and sound have mellowed and, while the first has made him really easy for me to get along with, more importantly the second has served to really push the nuances and subtleties of his songwriting to the forefront. Eric’s third release, 2006’s The Crosses, was something of a breakthrough for him, providing long deserved recognition both nationally and internationally. Powerful and oozing pathos, it certainly seemed like a hard act to follow.

Well, not only has Eric Hisaw followed The Crosses, he’s clearly surpassed it. Nature of the Blues is a brutally honest, often dark, and very dramatic record. The songs that aren’t obviously autobiographical spin tales of broken people, desolate places, and ends of the line with such a bona fide confidence that it would be impossible to consider that he hadn’t experienced something at least very similar in his life. Story songs, autobiographical or not, can easily become onerous to listen to. Hisaw deftly avoids this with his lyrical skill – those that won’t identify directly with the material will, like reading a Raymond Carver story, get the vicarious thrill of a tour through the dark side of one corner of the American experience, in this case that of the blue collar southwest.

While the first two tracks are by no means weak, the record really takes off on the third track, “Carnival”, an almost existential rumination on feeling trapped in the small town of your childhood and teenage years and the seeming hopelessness of finding a viable way out. It barrels along for the next five songs, each stronger than the next, before downshifting for the slower, more introspective “Tomorrow”. Things pick up again for the last four songs, the standout being “Jake”, which takes the prize for this record. Lines like “I’ve never known success / so boy you do your best / to turn out better than me” are fucking priceless and capture perfectly a bleak kind of hope that is pervasive throughout the record.

Roots rock rarely gets better than this, and it’s a shame that more mediocre artists (I’m not naming any names – enough people in Austin hate me already) take the lion’s share of the local music industry’s attention. I don’t think it will be long before somebody wakes up and notices this powerhouse that they have willfully or accidentally forgotten to give his due. I doubt he cares much – he seems to be doing pretty well outside of Austin. And it would be just like Austin to ignore one of its under-rated best until they’ve moved on.

My recommendation, to Austinites in particular but also to anyone reading this, is to pick this one up. That is if you enjoy interesting and challenging roots rock that provokes an emotional response as opposed to something you can just dance to. There’s already enough of the latter stinking up the scene.

Eric Hisaw’s record release for Nature of the Blues is Friday, July 25th at Jovita’s on S. 1st St., 7:00 PM.

3.5 out of 4 Carnivals

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Old 97s / Sleepercar - Floore Country Store - San Antonio, TX - 07/18/2008


I can’t say much for Sleepercar, as I only caught their last couple of songs. Gotta say that, while their energy was to be admired, the music didn’t make an impression on me. It’s pretty standard practice to close a set with a few of your best, most memorable songs (oldest rule of show business – leave ‘em wanting more). If Sleepercar was adhering to this paradigm then I unfortunately have some serious doubts about them. I’ll wait to hear the record before passing final judgment, but God knows when that will happen.

An Old 97s show, in the right venue, is always something to behold. Floore Country Store is one of those venues – large enough to comfortably hold a crowd that will generate an enormous amount of enthusiasm and energy (around 500) while not being so large that the sense of intimacy and camaraderie with the band is sacrificed. I’ve seen The Old 97s in every setting from a smallish club to an arena, and they’re never so engaging as in this setting.

The songs roll out of them like a hit parade, each one sounding at once as familiar as your favorite Old 97s song – even if you’ve never heard it before or had time to get familiar with it. Even their weaker songs, of which there are more than a few from their late 90’s/early 00’s offerings, take on a new and exciting life.

They ambled unceremoniously onto the stage with an enthusiastic “Howdy, y’all!” from bassist Murray Hammond and launched into “The Fool”. Immediate technical problems arose, as Murray Hammond’s mic had cut out sometime between “Howdy, y’all!” and his first backing vocal. Always charmingly unprofessional, Rhett Miller took a long tuning break while the band vamped on the opening riff of second song “Barrier Reef” for 16 measures or so. Once Rhett wandered back center stage and started the song Hammond’s mic kicked in and it was four on the floor for the next hour and a half.

While they're in the midst of ripping a song out of their instruments it’s difficult to believe this is a band that, by their own assertion, never practices. It’s occasionally at the beginning and often at the end of songs that it’s easier to believe. The fact that some songs lurch into gear and many others simply fall apart rather than end is part of that unprofessional charm I mentioned, and certainly feeds the camaraderie that builds between audience and band as the show progresses. It’s a beautiful thing to observe.

I think one of the reasons seeing the band in this kind of setting really appeals to me is it reminds me strongly of the punk/underground shows of the 1980’s. This is really unsurprising as all four of these guys came up in that milieu, but, man, do they engender the whole feeling of being a part of something and that there’s no real line between the guys on the stage and the people in the crowd (while avoiding the epidemic violence that ultimately, as far as I’m concerned, ruined that scene). It helps that the audience is generally so enthusiastic, and this was certainly true at Floore. Most of the crowd sang along, danced, and went nuts to almost every song in the set right up until the first encore, which is where my inevitable complaint comes in.

I’ve found the “acoustic interlude” at a rock show obnoxious since at least the days of Uncle Tupelo, which is the first band I can remember doing it. I didn’t fork over my money to watch one member of the band self-indulgently hog the spotlight and the audience’s attention to play their thoughtful, acoustic songs. It’s boring and it shatters the energy of a wonderfully careening set like a bottle hitting a wall. For the love of God, Rhett and Murray and anyone else out there doing it, save it for the fucking coffee shop. Or your solo tour. If you simply have to play these songs slap together an arrangement that includes the whole band. I don’t think I’ll be the only one that thanks you for it.

To be fair, The Old 97s as a whole band were able to more or less pick up where they left off for the final two encores and close things out with a truly rafter rattling rendition of “Timebomb”. It was hard to ask for or expect anything more after that.

Overall, this show was so close to a home run as makes no difference. I know bands dream of selling out arenas and enjoying the freedoms that such a level of success brings, but I’m glad The Old 97s have settled into the level of success they’ve found. It’s enough to keep them comfortably viable and doing what they do for years to come without shoving them into a realm in which they don’t translate. As it is, give me a medium sized room, a sound system, The Old 97s, and 500 rabid fans, and I’m sure as shit going to have the time of my life.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Alejandro Escovedo - "Real Animal" (Manhattan Records 2008)


A good way to tell the difference between a true Austinite and someone who just lives here is to ask them what they think of Alejandro Escovedo. If the say, “Who?” you know you better quickly find some generic small talk to fill out the conversation if you want to continue it at all. At least if you’re a sanctimonious, opinionated ass who dwells to the point of obsession on the subjects of Austin music, art and politics. You may not be such a person. I sure as fuck am and so are most of the people I call my friends. One fairly common rule of thumb amongst people like yours truly is this – you don’t fuck with Alejandro Escovedo.

The man has led a life and had a career far more interesting than any fictional rock ‘n’ roller, or for that matter most real ones. As co-writer and guitarist for The Nuns, one of the earliest punk bands to appear on the West Coast, he opened for The Sex Pistols final show along with The Avengers at Winterland in San Francisco. He proved to be the glue in cowpunk outfit Rank and File (California version cowpunk, not to be confused with the anarchic mayhem of music so categorized in Austin and represented primarily by The Hickoids), as Rank and File lost direction and ultimately dissolved with Alejandro’s departure. He went on to front the seminal Austin roots rock legends The True Believers (to use a tired cliché, if you were able to look up “seminal Austin band” in the dictionary there would be a picture of The True Believers next to it). After leaving The True Believers he launched a solo career in 1992 with the release of the astounding Gravity, a record so passionate and emotionally charged that it’s immediately impossible to forget. A string of brilliant, passionate, primarily melancholic records followed. In the midst of all this he fronted and wrote the material for Buick McKane to allow himself an outlet for his need to play balls out rock ‘n’ roll, battled a near fatal bout with Hepatitis C, and led a dramatic personal life involving wives, ex-wives, friends, ex-friends, collaborators and ex-collaborators. He’s never achieved mainstream success, but just about every critically acclaimed serious artist out there cites him as an influence, and many of them count him among their friends.

That’s the short version. Like I said, you don’t fuck with Alejandro. Unfortunately, after some careful listens of his latest release, Real Animal, I find myself in the uncomfortable position of, if I’m to write an honest opinion piece, doing just that. Bear in mind I love Alejandro’s body of work – anyone can hit a bump in an otherwise smooth and beautiful road.

I don’t think there’s been a more anticipated release from an Austin artist since Spoon’s Merge Records debut Girls Can Tell in 2001. The promotion leading up to the release of Real Animal has stressed that it’s a collection of songs exploring Alejandro’s musical journey from The Nuns to present, including personalities encountered, befriended, and idolized. This it certainly does, and while the stories are there, this is where the record ultimately musically fails.

Where Alejandro’s best work has a natural and seemingly easy flow to it, much of Real Animal sounds forced, as though inspiration was passed over in favor of cramming these sets of story lyrics into often incompatible song structures, arrangements, and instrumentation. These failings are most evident in songs like “Chelsea Hotel” and “Chip n’ Tony”, which are trying so hard to be “rock” songs they come across as pale imitations of the same. Alejandro’s rock credentials are well established, with catchy solo songs like “Castanets” to the raw power of Buick McKane at its best, not to mention most everything that came before. It seems strangely out of character for him to be recasting himself as something he already is, and without the deftness of hand and easy grace of his earlier work.

Other problems crop up. Tony Visconti’s production and arrangements are almost uniquely unsuited for Alejandro’s brand of music. While a layered lushness, compressed guitar tone, and choral background vocals may have been perfect for other projects on his resume such as The Moody Blues, T. Rex, or David Bowie, it is glaringly out of place here. “Sensitive Boys” is certainly reminiscent of Bowie, but its disingenuous melancholic tone (when Alejandro usually does melancholy so well) makes it sound sappy and the Vegasey semi-choral background vocals are so out of place they go the rest of the way to ruining the song. This shows up again in “Golden Bear”, ruining an otherwise perfectly serviceable chorus. Alejandro has proven adept and even ingenious in incorporating strings in his songs, but the string arrangement on “Nuns Song” is positively jarring over his appropriately snotty reminiscence of the life and death of his 70s punk band.

The record is by no means a total wash. In spite of an unwieldy musical breakdown in the middle of the song, opener “Always a Friend” is a hooky singalong that pulls you in immediately. While hampered by Visconti’s over-production “Sister Lost Soul” is a definite keeper and the strongest track on the record.

All the songs on this album were co-written by Chuck Prophet, a long time contemporary and friend dating back to Alejandro’s California punk days, and I can’t help but wonder if this is what made the difference. Two old friends reminiscing about the good, or for that matter bad, old days is sure to be entertaining to them, but rarely to outsiders. In this case the phenomenon translated to the music being made, which is a shame considering both of these guys are such talented and powerful songwriters on their own.

As for Alejandro Escovedo, I’ll anxiously await his next record and hope that he allows the songs he writes to flow from within rather than directly out of the past.

2.5 Real Animals

Thursday, July 10, 2008

FreakAngels

I mention in my profile that I'm into comic books. Well, I am. Big old comic book fanatic and have been as long as I can remember. Not the superhero shit. I'm also not some obsessive collector type. I don't go to conventions or dress up in costumes. I read 'em and, after I've accumulated a pile, dump 'em off on the local used book store.

Anyway, it's my opinion that some of the better, more literary writing and storytelling going on in this day and age is occurring in this format. FreakAngels is a free weekly online comic written by Warren Ellis, who happens to be one of my favorite writers. I encourage you to check it out. If you dig it, sneak into a comic shop when no one is looking and buy some of his stuff. Ask the guy or gal behind the counter to recommend writers in a similar vein - he or she will talk to you way too long but you'll end up with a list of writers that will blow you away. Eventually, maybe, you'll even be able to admit to others that you're into this stuff.

So if this makes me a geek, as my wife maintains, so be it. I don't really give a shit. Check it out and see if you're one too.