Picking the best locally made records of 1998 was easy. Who knew?

--Zac Crain

Cowboys and Indians, Big Night in Cowtown (Self-released)
Most swing revivalists jump their jive with slick style but nary a drop of heartfelt substance; the whole lot of voodoo daddies out there couldn't swing if you hung 'em from a rope. Which makes Cowboys and Indians a precious commodity indeed: Erik Swanson, Billy King, and the rest of their posse aren't only Bob Wills scholars and Louis Jordan fetishists, but they're also top-notch musicians whose love for Western swing shines through like a spotlight at midnight. Their talent transcends their blues-to-bop tastes, meaning their originals sound like covers (cf. "Red Hot Rhythm," "Blues in My Coffee"), their covers sound brand-new (Bob Wills' "Drunkard's Blues"), and the result defines what it means to be "timeless."

--Robert Wilonsky

Ronnie Dawson, Live at the Continental Club (Continental Records)
Every studio record this rockabilly hero makes is, more or less, live: recorded in a single take on equipment that hasn't been modern since the Edsel fell off the assembly line. But this in-concert throwdown, a 21-song best-of recorded over two glorious nights last January at Austin's Continental Club, is especially remarkable, because it's the first and last record to feature Dawson and his since-disbanded backup band that featured Tjarko Jeen on guitar, Kevin Smith on bass, and Lisa Pankratz on drums. That band could have lit a campfire without a match, and only the youngest "old" man alive could have kept pace. Does the once-and-future Blond Bomber ever make a bad record? Not even possible.


Kevin Deal, Lovin' Shootin' Cryin' and Dyin' (Blind Nello Records)
Kevin Deal came out of nowhere--well, Plano--armed with a crack band of hired hands to deliver an album Johnny Cash might have made in the '50s if he'd been backed by The Band instead of the Tennessee Two. Over accordions, washboards, mandolins, and dobros, Deal sings of dead men and deader love, and both are equally chilling, even when delivered in Mick Jagger's voice. It's a rare country record set in the country, telling backwoods tales of broken relationships and broken-down men, gunslingers who want one more chance, and bitter men who'll never get another one. Let's hope Deal isn't one of them.


The Dooms U.K. ,
Art Rock Explosion!
(Hot Link/Balaliscious Records)

Full of Spanish vocals, big rock moves, turntable scratching, keyboard fills and thrills...and that's just the first song. The Dooms U.K. continues to be the most confounding and astounding collective around, trying its hand at everything and then some, just because no one has told them they can't; Art Rock Explosion! contains more musical genres than most record stores. The band's second album was a long time coming, recorded in bits and pieces over four years. But it might as well have been recorded next year, because no one else has caught up with the Dooms yet, and maybe no one ever will. Proof enough John Freeman and friends are more than the joke you think they are.


Reed Easterwood, Absolute Blue (Self-released)
Until a few weeks ago, the former POWWOW and Junky Southern frontman was pressing these up at home and handing them out to curious friends and interested strangers. Easterwood didn't want to sell Absolute Blue, because it just didn't seem right: How does a guy put a price tag on something that no one was ever intended to hear in the first place? Absolute Blue is absolutely beautiful, sparse in spots as befits music made in a bedroom with instruments literally hanging on the walls, fleshed-out here and there when guests (among them Dave Monsey and Bryan Wakeland) bring the beer and stick around for the hootenanny. Hard to describe what the music sounds like: The first thing you hear is a banjo; the last, a harp. In between are lo-fi country hymns, raindrops-keep-falling reveries, and tripped-up, hip-hopped pop songs and everything else a boy needs to keep himself warm and sated through the lean months. Oh, what Easterwood could do with a budget of, like, 50 bucks.


Fury III, Poor Me
At times, Stephen Nutt makes Leonard Cohen sound like Kathie Lee Gifford, so morbidly obsessed is he with being morbid. To hear him tell it, life's a joke, and death's the ultimate punchline. For the most part, though, listening to Poor Me is like watching the on-screen violence in a Jerry Bruckheimer film, so unabashedly over-the-top you can't take it seriously for a second. Even though his lyrics are filled with comedy so black it's blue, the music is more concerned with baring its white-boy soul. By the end of the song, you'll be humming the jangly, garage-pop melodies, but you'll probably forget what Nutt was going on about. That's a good thing.


Go Metric USA, Three Chords by Two Verses (Self-released)
"File under: Pissed Off Folk, Jangle Core." So instructs the back of the CD, in case you were wondering what it might sound like if the Byrds formed in Denton in the late 1990s and not L.A. in the mid-1960s. But don't write off Go Metric USA as mere mod-not-modern power-pop revisionists, not yet; after all, theirs is a brand of jingle-jangle informed by punk as much as by folk, which is why they write odes to Robyn Hitchcock that also mention Jarvis Cocker (or Cockerspaniel, actually) and why Mitch Greer sounds like Michael Stipe doing his best Roger McGuinn. Somewhere in here's a record about making a record, though only "Saints of the Morning After" hints at the intentions: "How's your seven-inch? I hear it's pretty cool." So, they wanna be rock and roll stars? I can hear it from start to end, from the exuberant intro to "Just Because Your Garden Grows" (which contains the gee-ain't-it-great-to-be-alive? line of the year: "Miracles in heaven are just children with firecrackers") to the shiny-happy finale of "Jericho." They might be rock stars just yet.

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