By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
At least a few local labels have proved that they can compete on any level, eliminating the need to keep them in the ghetto. Last Beat Records ushered in 1999 with Captain Audio's brilliant (in every sense of the word) My ear's are ringing but my heart's ok, and put the period on the end of the sentence with Pleasant Grove's stark, startling self-titled debut. Matt Barnhart and Quality Park Records not only released two of the finer discs this year (from Centro-matic and Little Grizzly), but Barnhart also set up a mail-order site (www.qualityparkrecs.com) that brings together most of the area's best music in one convenient location. Dave Willingham and Philip Croley's Two Ohm Hop Records continued to put out some of the most interesting, challenging discs around, including recent albums by Stumptone and Ohm. And Leaning House Records just might be the best jazz label anywhere, as long as it stays in business.
Yet even though there are quality labels to be found here, that doesn't mean a group should sign with the first label that shows interest, whether it's national or local, to escape Dallas either. Almost half of the best records released this year were put out by the bands that made them, including discs by Baboon, The Adventures of Jet, Chomsky, Budapest One, The Deathray Davies, and Little Jack Melody and His Young Turks. Doing it yourself never sounded this good.
If anyone needs further proof that a band doesn't need a major label (or any, for that matter) to make a great record, look and listen to Baboon and The Adventures of Jet, who recorded the best albums of their careers after they severed their ties with big labels (Wind-Up and MCA, respectively). And Centro-matic continued to prove that Will Johnson is one of the best songwriters this area has produced, even after Austin-based Doolittle Records -- which had signed a distribution deal with PolyGram Distribution Group -- ditched the group because Johnson's songs weren't "commercially responsible." Thank God, because a label with that attitude surely would never have let Johnson and company release two albums this year, and probably (or should we say, at least) two more next year. It's frightening to think of all the unheard music that could have resulted from that abortive deal.
Tripping Daisy looked to be among the bands bravely going it alone. Earlier this year, the band was on the verge of continuing the promise they made with last year's Jesus Hits Like the Atom Bomb -- on their own, and on their own terms. Good Records, the label the group formed after being released from its contract with Island Records, had already issued its inaugural release, the Daisy's whimsical The Tops Off Our Heads, a 22-minute disc of mostly improvised material. The band was readying its first full-length for release sometime early next year when disaster struck: Guitarist Wes Berggren died of an overdose of cocaine and sleeping pills on October 28. When Berggren died, so did the band; singer Tim DeLaughter announced on KDGE-FM's Adventure Club on December 12 that it wouldn't be right to continue without Berggren, so the group's forthcoming self-titled album will be its last.
It says something that only two of the 21 discs singled out here were produced by major labels -- the Old 97's Fight Songs and The Dixie Chicks' Fly -- and the Chicks' fifth disc (for those of you keeping score at home) only barely nudged its way onto the list. Ask the Tomorrowpeople or Radish whether signing with a major label is the brass ring most bands think it is. They know now that signing your life away to a label only leaves you with wasted time and tarnished dreams. You think Interscope Records would have released a record like Budapest One's Good Night, Little Girl of My Dreams? Can you remember the last time a major label put out a disc that re-imagined Elvis Costello as a Baptist minister performing in a German cabaret? Didn't think so.
Of course, the Tomorrowpeople's Marijuana Beach was recorded on a major label's dime (Geffen Records, and it reportedly cost the company quite a few dimes), yet the fact that the disc came out on the band's own Olivia Records just proves that the majors don't know what to do with talent when they have it. The same could be said for Radish's still unreleased Sha Sha, which continues to linger on a desk at Island Def Jam Music Group with no release date in sight, even though Ben Kweller's teenage symphonies to God would sound more at home on the radio than station identifications. It only goes to show that no one can pretend to understand the music business, much less make brash predictions about it. But that doesn't mean we're going to stop anytime soon.
Part 3: Coping With Insignificance
The Adventures of Jet
You could no more keep these guys down than drown a whale; from their earliest incarnation as Bobgoblin, to Phase II as The Commercials, to their present status as The Adventures of Jet, this foursome continues its original power-pop vein while getting punchier with each new identity. Dallas would have seen a dismal year if Hop Litzwire and his wingmen had called it a day. Instead, Jet's self-released follow-up to its major-label debut (as Bobgoblin, 1997's The Twelve-Point Master Plan) is heartening proof that an act can indeed experience a rich life after death. The deal with MCA Records gone sour and Bobgoblin label-less, the guys did everything but fold. First on the agenda: ditch the fictional post-apocalyptic narrative that cloaked the band in its own modern myth, however beloved and complex, and move on to more universal agit-pop. Then, change the band's name not once, but twice -- to keep the fans sharp? Finally, unleash the best set of songs yet.