Every which way but loose

The Dallas scene flourishes beneath the chaos

Local musicians had one thing going for them this year: With the national music scene cruelly besieged by market forces, there was less difference between local and national in 1997 than ever before. Radish was the focal point of a fevered bidding war in 1996, with label execs renting cars and driving themselves out to Greenville to check out the next big thing. The result of all this expert industry speculation--Radish's debut Restraining Bolt--has only sold around 25,000 copies, New Yorker profile be damned. Tripping Daisy toured with Def Leppard this summer; total sales of I Am an Elastic Firecracker, their latest album: something over 300,000, far short of the gold many companies expect. Perhaps that's why so many bands with major ink--acts such as Pantera, Reverend Horton Heat, the Old 97's, and the Toadies--take care that they're still perceived as local heroes. As Lowell George once sang, "The same people you abuse on your way up/You might meet on your way down."

This year, two local music entities have distinguished themselves--and effectively eliminated themselves from competition by issuing so much music, of such quality, that to include all their efforts would be unfair. Yet to omit them altogether--thinking, Oh, they do such good work, they'll be fine--would be even more unjust.

Mark Elliott and Keith Foerster's Leaning House Jazz label has long specialized in representing local jazz talent--both legends and Young Turks--with the highest quality product. This year, they released phenomenal albums by saxmen Shelley Carrol (with members of the Duke Ellington Orchestra) and Marchel Ivery (with organist Joey DeFranceso) and pianist Fred Sanders (with Ivery, trumpeter Roy Hargrove, and guitarist Mark Whitfield, among others). Other towns have bigger, more renowned scenes--not to mention more influential labels--but the quality of Leaning House's output this year is stellar by any standard.

On the much less accessible side of town, experimental music group the Vas Deferens Organization has likewise had a banner year, picking up reams of national press and releasing four important--if extremely weird--albums: Transcontinental Conspiracy, with Brad Laner and members of Mercury Rev; O2 by Fort Worth's Ohm; Saturation; and the four-sided 45 RPM Zyzzybaloubah. Their work has been picked up by respected avant-garde labels such as Indianapolis' Aether Records and San Francisco's Charnel House.

Also worthy of note this year was the re-issuing of the work of two essential figures from Dallas' early rockabilly days at the Sportatorium, both on cat-music madman Rockin' Ronnie Weiser's Las Vegas-based Rolling Rock Records: Mac Curtis (Rockabilly Uprising) and Johnny Carroll (Texabilly), who remain local legends to this day. (Carroll died several years ago, but Curtis still plays around town every now and then.)

The Best Local Albums of 1997
Blacks 'n' Jews, Josh Alan (Black Cracker). Local singer-songwriter Josh Alan--who also occasionally writes about music for the Observer, when the mood and subject matter strike him--calls what he does an "atomic acoustic" guitar act. In the last few years, Alan has been taking more care, particularly in the area of his guitar playing. The discipline seems to suit him, because Blacks 'n' Jews is his most focused work so far. The title cut is hilarious.

Shimmer, Buck Jones (steve records). A saucy, satisfying slice of pop-rock that is engagingly heartfelt but still sounds, well, cool. The band uses its two lead vocalists--husband-wife team Burette and Gabrielle Douglas--to good effect for a variety of sounds.

Redo the Stacks, Centro-matic (steve records). This virtually home-produced album was Will Johnson's very promising entry into the post-Funland universe. Attaboy points to Crystal Clear/steve head Sam Paulos for going along with Johnson's decidedly lo-fi approach, which in this case works beautifully.

Lit Up, Fireworks (Last Beat Records). You know when you've been up for a couple of days and you decide to break the tension maybe by taking the Jon boat out and shooting some nutria, and while you're out there you bend over and your Zippo and a .22 Derringer that you forgot you had fall out of your top jacket pocket and into the slow-moving water? And you jump over the side, grubbing for them in the thick, almost septic-smelling black mud that oozes between tangles of roots and ends up under your fingernails for weeks? This album is that kind of dirty.

Live from the City of Hate, Homer Henderson (Honey Records). Finally, Henderson classics such as "Lee Harvey was a Friend of Mine" and "Picking Up Beer Cans on the Highway" in CD form. Homer's in rare form throughout, and Beer Belly Slim reprises his role as backup singer and bodyguard.

Joyride, Hippie Gumbo (self-released). Longtime local zydeco mainstays finally find a wider-working formula, mixing in a lot of rock and mutant R&B enthusiasm with their crawfish consciousness. Play it at parties; people dance.

My Charmed Life, Little Jack Melody and his Young Turks (Carpe Diem Records). Subtle and smart, this cabaret-style view of modern life--and human delusion--again shows what makes Denton's Little Jack Melody such an overlooked treasure. His intelligence and elegance don't interfere with his sense of humor.

Abandinallhope, Mazinga Phaser (Idol Records). One of the area's more experimental and impressionistic outfits avoids reworking the assumptions--or pretensions--of worn-out genres and hovers around straighter songcraft. So much the better.

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