By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Little Jack (his wife calls him Steve Carter) has the gift, all right. You'd be hard-pressed to find a better singer-songwriter in these parts, but his loyal following remains a cultish one. For more than eight years, the Denton-based Little Jack and his revolving-door band, the Young Turks--musicians accomplished on instruments as varied as flute and accordion and tuba and even harmonium--have been recording and performing with an unflinching stoicism that belies Jack's resignation to being the town eccentric. In between, the Steve Carter part of Jack writes scores for theater and such (you know, the kind of stuff that requires sheet music and theory). And during live shows, Jack comes off like a sober Tom Waits spliced with a smiling Glenn Miller--charismatic, cool, and utterly in control. You wanna shake the hand of the man behind the amazing music, but you don't want to invade his space.
The band's recordings present all the angles with intuitive precision; the latest, My Charmed Life (on Carpe Diem), may be the most complex and charming. From the wrenchingly melancholic "Barbie and Ken" (they fell in love at the dance) to the samba-tinged "Mr. Horizon" to the joyously frenetic "Kilroy Was Here," the album proves that Jack has no intention of boring himself with convention. But as he smilingly implies on the moody "Close, No Cigar," he knows he's destined to graceful, noble obscurity: "I coulda been a contender, I coulda been on TV/I coulda been big as Johnny Ray, I coulda been such a star/Now I'm crying another blues/Close, no cigar." Pity.
Nominated for: Avant-garde/Experimental
Just when things were getting kind of normal with the alt-space band Mazinga Phaser--they had released the surprisingly warm and reasonably (for them) directed bauble Abandinallhope (Idol Records) and were in the studio working on another--things got too normal, at least as far as band life goes. Indeed, they hit a common speed bump known as "irreconcilable differences," and suddenly, the majority of Mazinga Phaser decided they could no longer get along personally, professionally, or even musically with founder Wanz Dover, so they kicked him out.
But this is Mazinga Phaser we're talking about, so it could never be a completely normal breakup. Scuttlebutt abounds that Wanz is forming a new version of Mazinga, name intact, while singer Jessica Nelson, guitarist Eric Hermeyer, bassist Cole Wheeler, and drummer Mike Throneberry finish the new Mazinga album. Nelson reports to the contrary that Mazinga ends with these sessions. Via e-mail shorthand, she writes: "It is our wish that Mazinga Phaser is over, and [we] will see to it legally that it is. None of this 2 mazinga phaser's [sic] bullshit." Although one of the more irascible music writers here comments that only eight people really care about any of this--the band and the band's friends--you can't like seeing the end of any band that cares as much about putting on a dazzling show as putting out dazzling music. And you have to wonder: Who gets custody of the visual interpretation?
Nominated for: Rap/Hip-Hop
Mental Chaos is from Dallas, but they could be from Brooklyn, or the Bronx, or...the point is, the duo--rapper DJ Rodney "The Messiah" and producer N-Hance--may live here, but the music they make has a distinctly East Coast vibe. The beats that N-Hance lays down come from the same streets that groups like Gang Starr and A Tribe Called Quest walk on, addictive and snappy and funky. DJ Rodney's rhymes flow as easily as found money, sometimes boastful but never straying into how-to-be-a-playa territory.
His wordplay is inventive at times ("I'm on the run with more rockets than Houston/I'll be coming through your town like the civil rights revolution"); rewind-the-tape hilarious at others ("My strokes be more different that Kimberly fucking Dudley"). It's refreshing to hear a band like this, especially after being subjected to an endless parade of so-called Third Coast bands recycling the same lyrical topics (drugs, guns and, uh, hos) over the same lumbering Parliament-by-way-of-Funkadelic beats. It also makes you wonder why Dallas hip-hop is so underground that it could be used as a Mafia safe house.
Nominated for: Folk/Acoustic, Female Vocalist
Meredith Miller is three years back from Austin. Last year, Miller's fate merged with those of guitarist Reed Easterwood (POWWOW) and drummer Bryan Wakeland (Fever in the Funkhouse, Tripping Daisy), and now she's formed her first band--for recently recorded samples, check out this year's Scene, Heard CD and our Web site (www.dallasobserver.com). Miller decided she wanted more flesh in her sound, and she had grown tired of being the single woman with guitar drowned out by the conversation of crowds at bars and coffeehouses; like it or not, a bunch of guys playing instruments behind you makes more people listen. This recent metamorphosis nicely parallels Miller's two Dallas Observer Music Awards nominations: She's gone from folk/acoustic songbird to band-fronting female vocalist.
Nominated for: Funk/R&B
Mingo Fishtrap rolls through "Sitting On the Dock of the Bay" during a gig at the "N" Bar, a job that seems snazzy but in reality is probably a baby-step away from working a hotel lounge. The Fishtrap come at the vanilla-funkster genre by way of the Cajun-fried, N'awlins bullfrog front man who can belt it out when he wants, but seems more enthralled with offering stage patter in a raspy voice. But the nouveau riche, or nouveau trendy, or nouveau-whatever-they-are audience is digging it. The middle-aged divorcees wired on $5-call drinks and $50 champagne take to the floor whenever they hear a song that sounds familiar--which, they fail to realize, is all of them--to dance the white-man's lament and the Funky Chicken to funk cover tunes.