By Jeremy Hallock
By James Khubiar
By Observer Staff
By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
Skiffle Beat Records
Ambling through a smorgasbord of distinct sounds can be as dangerous as trying to inject a little humor into your music. Overplay your hand in the former case and you come off as unimaginative; mishandle the latter and you're titanically annoying. Screw up both and you're in Snap Floosie.
Two local releases attempt to walk that line and succeed to varying degrees. Denton's Riddle Me This piles its plate high with diverse sounds--steel drums, surf guitar, sitar, maracas--and manages to integrate them into a series of songs that don't let an occasional wink-wink or nudge-nudge detract from the music. That said, it bears noting that the more RMT sticks to traditional structure, the more successful the song. The island-tinged fantasy of "Together Again" and the hard-rocking "Lost" come off much better than the rambling monologue in the spoken-word-and-drums "Area 51" about alien visitation, and even a nicely rolling country-surf guitar line can't keep you from wishing for a moratorium on covers of "In Heaven There Is No Beer."
Overall, though, the band assimilates and deploys its various accents unobtrusively, with a finesse that echoes Brave Combo--not surprising, since bandleader Eric Keyes credits Combo man Carl Finch with mentoring the band through its three-year development. Fun and worthwhile.
The Sutcliffes, named after onetime Silver Beatle Stu, really have to be seen to be appreciated; their joyfully animated stage presence is an essential part of their act, and Smirk shows them to be outgrowing their "nuclear skiffle" (if we're gonna continue the Brave Combo theme) roots, but with mixed success if considered apart from their show.
At their best on Smirk--songs like "Catch the Night" and "Groovy Toupee"--the Sutcliffes pull off a meeting of wry humor and high drama that puts you in mind of Dan Hicks playing John L's; the humor and somewhat cynically acknowledged truth behind the wordplay in "Absence"--"Absence makes the heart go wander"--recall classic Martin Mull.
Cynical acknowledgement will only take you so far, though, and removed from the charisma of the Sutcliffes' stage show, other numbers--"Grease Trap Truck" or "Gin Blossom Girl," which sings the praises of an alcoholic girlfriend (not that funny if you've ever had one)--come off a bit mean. Even the often hilarious takeoff of Jimmie Dale Gilmore ("Have you ever seen Dallas from a '79 Datsun/in the middle of August with no air conditioning")--takes on a certain edge that's more a sneer than a smirk. Overall, though, the album's sense of humor works and is worth the valleys for the peaks.