Spirit of '96

Last year showed pop still has more than a ghost of a chance

Pawn Shop From Heaven
Junky Southern
Parallax Entertainment

Reed Easterwood is one of Dallas' most underappreciated musical artists, a point he underlines with his band Junky Southern on Pawn Shop. A skilled technician, an ambitious writer, and a superb texturalist, Easterwood maps out music that--while born on the bayou--stretches from Ichigoo Park to San Francisco. Even when he doesn't quite pull it off, he stumbles upward.

Cruising in the Neon Glories of the New American Night
Mazinga Phaser
Womb Tunes

There's a point, while traveling, when you're on the transport mechanism--be it airplane, railway car, or (so sorry) bus--when external light fades with the end of the day. At first, with cabin lights blazing, you can see nothing but interior reflection--your own face, those on the other side of the aisle, the back of the seat in front--but when the captain/engineer/driver cuts the power to those visual aids, all of a sudden the reflections of familiar interior reference points become transparent and you can see the outside world streaming by. Part dream and part dare, Cruising has a few faults (most of which are hinted at by the title) but is an astounding first album, remarkable for just that sense of overlaid reality.

open
rubberbullet
Last Beat Records

Soundtrack for the apocalypse? That would depend on whether you subscribe to the bang or the whimper theory. Harsh and angular most of the time, smoother but still aggressive the rest, this album isn't for everybody, but it makes a compelling argument for the necessity of noise.

Beheaded
Bedhead
Trance Syndicate

Post-punk Crazy Horse? Actually, there's not much bar band to the expansive and thoughtful music of Bedhead, but the band does have Neil Young's sense for (assumedly) involuntary but powerful tonal poetry, the sense of a song making sense as it's heard. If Neil had graduated high school in the late '80s, not the early '60s, his songs might sound like Bedhead's. Like Neil when paired with Crazy Horse, Bedhead is undeniably electric and unabashedly in love with the guitar, yet thoroughly modern--to the point of being ahead of most of the competition. If Mazzy Star were braver, they could aspire to this.

Bag of Fear
Bag
Lost Records

Bag nips from just about every calendar page in rock's last 35 years, but the dominant flavor is mid-'60s psychedelia (there is a lot more to the local psych scene than most people realize). More linear than experimentalists like the Vas Deferens Organization and referring to great British lodestones like Barret/Fripp/Eno only tangentially, Bag's compelling music is bipolar, orbiting between stoned contemplation of the Monkees and exploiting the guitar heroics behind American King Crimson-isms like the Velvet Underground. Great corrosive, fuzzed-out guitar sound, garage-y yet ambitious, Bag of Fear howls at the edge of greatness.

Pinned
Tablet
Last Beat Records

Bands can learn from Ziggy, they can learn from Mott and the Melvins, but what they really need to do is learn to put together an album that can so convincingly ring with "howdy, I'm not from around here" energy that, for all it seems played for you (there on the floor), there's never any doubt that it could be played by you, the one essential lesson ignored by the whole DIY movement. On Pinned, Tablet takes stock of that lesson in all its myriad forms, from Black Oak Arkansas to Bowie: Singer Steven Holt is obviously a breed apart; the drumming of David Christopher is immediate to the point of being urgent, and the guitar lines of Paul Williams are sharp and smart. For the band the weirdness may well be problematic, but we are much the better for it.

Soul Food Cafe
So Bright, So Blind
Invisible Records

The argument that it's a mistake to consign a mix of blue-eyed soul and rock 'n' roll to the pop graveyard (the section containing the headstones of acts such as Hall and Oates, George Michael, and the Average White Band) isn't made much these days, especially by musicians. With So Bright, SFC both explains this--you have to have a pretty good bag of working chops--and makes a pretty good case for remedying the situation. Sean Wisdom's voice is a great emotive vehicle, and Brad McLemore is one of DFW's most underrated guitar players; time will tell what audiences will allow them to make of it.

Chandelier Musings
Comet
Dedicated

This album manages a neat trick--sounding both familiar and utterly alien, sometimes at once. On their first full-length album, Comet has managed an unusually cohesive sonic signature that flows like the roar of a gas jet. Artists twice their age have gone ten times farther on half as much, so watch these guys.

Honorable mention:
birch county, birch county; Pilot Records.

Merkin Wig, Riddle Me This; Doilie Records.

Pretty Ugly, Mess; Last Beat.

Thank God I'm Livin' in the USA, Pump'N Ethyl; Dragon Street Records.

Mood Swing Music, Brave Combo; Rounder Records.

Rockin Bones, Ronnie Dawson; Crystal Clear Sound.

--Matt Weitz

The best live shows of 1996:
The Dangerous Kitchen: ACREQ plays the music of Frank Zappa, McFarlin Auditorium, January 20.When the Canadian experimental group ACREQ (in English, the Association for the Creation and Research of Electroacoustics) tackled the music of the late Frank Zappa, they were attempting a meeting of opposites that at first blush seemed irreconcilable: the exacting approach of a group of synthesizer-toting neo-classicists and a locker-room absurdist responsible for songs like "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow," "Why Does It Hurt When I Pee?," and "Montana." Dig a bit below the surface, though, and you discover what the men and women of ACREQ already knew: that Zappa was a meticulous arranger who planned every note and rest. Their reproduction of songs from across Zappa's 25-year history was faithful but still brought new light to the material, particularly in their use of two classically-trained vocalists to deliver Zappa's oft-scatological lyrics. Their operatic deliveries underscored the voice's role as another instrument, giving the sound that words make an identity distinct from their meaning.

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