Grading on a curve

This was the year local music broke, but was it fixed?

Look at the bands with whom they share the pop charts--Hootie and the Blowfish, Live, Silverchair, Better Than Ezra, Alanis Morissette. Each has an unflinching conviction about nothing at all, singing and playing so passionately to obscure their lack of emotion. It's music made from expired formulas, the sound of a copy machine whirring.

Deep Blue Something and the Nixons reveal no insights and yet insist they have something to say. They're hollow cliches set to vacant melodies. At least audiences weren't fooled by the Nixons, who have sold only about 24,000 copies for MCA and have two albums left to go on their contract.

Give a band like Tripping Daisy this much: If "I Got a Girl" was the annoying first single that wouldn't disappear, then "Piranha" was the unexpected follow-up that challenged its audience to follow along with the dramatic highs and lows. It's hardly the ubiquitous song on local rock radio--"Blown Away" from their 1993 album Bill seems to get more play these days--but such is life, and death, on modern-rock radio.

And pity poor Hagfish: Their London Records debut ...Rocks Your Lame Ass was a better-produced version of their 1994 Dragon Street debut Buick Men, loaded with the sort of quick-hit hit singles modern-rock radio loves to love. But before "Happiness" had a chance, the Presidents of the United States of America came along and beat the 'Fish to their own gimmick--the suits and ties that bind, that punchy pop audiences keep mistaking for punk.

Redbeard keeps swearing Spot's going to be big, and he even helped land their tiny Memphis-based Ardent Records label a distribution deal with the mammoth CEMA to prove the point. But we've been down this road with the Rueffer Bros. since their days in Mildred: They've got talent, ambition, and smarts to spare, and "Moon June Spoon" sounds great on the radio, but the new wave isn't the same as the old wave. It still sounds like XTC to me, only faster and louder, and while that's a bonus on this end, Redbeard just likes it because it sounds so 1987.

Much has and will be made (in these very pages, of course) of the fact this is the year Dallas music broke out of its Deep Ellum shell; each week, it seems, the rumors circulate about how this new young band or those veterans are being courted by some major label. Relative newcomers like Comet, Earl, Girl, American Analog Set, Buck Jones, Shabazz 3, and Mazinga Phaser harbor much promise, raising their young voices among the din.

Here, then, are the highlights of this year--those records that aren't just good "local records," to be judged against some grading curve that takes into account locale. They're listed in no particular order because this isn't a contest.

Greasy Listening, Dooms U.K. (Direct Hit Records). The word "genius" is an overused one, possessing so little power these days, but it's one often applied to John Freeman with good enough reason. By perverting the rock and roll form, turning Black Sabbath's "Paranoid" into a ska number and using heavy metal's ridiculous clichs to overcome his own perverse fixation with bombastic rock, Freeman and his sidekicks have come up with a concoction that defies the easy description because it doesn't look for the easy way out. They're no gimmick or novelty band, though, bridging the gap between metal and art-rock with nothing less than a school kid's smirk and a showman's flash. Songs like "The Dark Messiah" and "Sweet Home Atlantis" are hilarious and affectionate parodies that don't spoil the joke by ever giving up the punch line; when Freeman sings, "I am the dark messiah, spawn of crimson fire" or tells of the lost city under the sea, it makes no difference if he's serious or silly because he's probably a little of both.

Slobberbone, Slobberbone (Independent). A disciple of the Uncle Tupelo school of music, where they teach rock and roll through a country twang, Brent Best is the real deal--no Midwesterner posing as a good ol' boy. Slobberbone, the band and the album, came out of nowhere (Denton, actually), splitting the difference between rock and country and leaning a little heavier on the electric side of things. And it's an epic record, desolate tales spun to a melancholy sound that gets louder every time you hear it. "16 Days" is the mood-setter Jay Farrar has yet to write, the lonely musings of a man who barely has enough energy to just "lay here and sweat" in a decrepit old house.

The Waltz King, Cafe Noir (Carpe Diem). There is no more lovely sound than Gale Hess' violin or clarinet and Norbert Gerl's viola in tandem with Jason Bucklin's guitar and Lyles West's stand-up bass. It evokes something lost, desperate, sad, foreign, intangible--like a dream half-remembered two days after the fact. Caf Noir's third album is their finest yet, a gorgeous and ethereal amalgam of their classical and jazz tendencies (one need only hear their interpretation of Stravinsky's "Andante and Galop"). Randy Erwin, the once and future yodel king, no longer sounds out of place in the mix, his voice now an instrument as suitable to the arrangements as the accordion or the mandolin. Nowhere is that more evident than on "In Love Alone," on which Erwin sings about the "worst kind of lonely" like a man who knows about such things.

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