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Will this year's best local records survive the millennium?

Four albums into a career that once seemed like nothing more than yet another side project for apparent journeyman Miller, the 97's have evolved into the perfect little rock-and-roll band: The country fetishism of the early albums hasn't been excised so much as absorbed, lending a little grit to the otherwise spit-shined exterior. Miller's still writing them in-love-outta-love songs -- though I'm still not convinced he's better-looking than any woman who'd ever dump his ass -- but he's become a better writer, meaning it's possible to separate narrator from character. You just gotta believe. "Indefinitely," "Valentine," "Murder (Or a Heart Attack)" -- a trifecta on a winning little record that's just too good to be pop, or popular.


Centro-matic's Will Johnson showed off every side of his personality on two great albums this year.
Centro-matic's Will Johnson showed off every side of his personality on two great albums this year.

Pleasant Grove
Pleasant Grove
(Last Beat Records)

It's tempting to just refer you to Z. Crain's review of this disc last issue; he pretty much summed it up, referring to this long-long-long-awaited debut (by us, anyway) as Bedhead's country cousin performing songs out of the Kris Kristofferson fakebook -- sounds pretty good to me, Mr. C. I'd add only this: "Wide Open" should make a pretty good cover for the next Old 97's disc, what with all the broken-hearted harmonies (singer-guitarists Bret Egner and Marcos Striplin sound like two halves of the same tortured man) and corn-pone drone, the toward-the-end guitar breakdown (country feedback, indeed) notwithstanding. This is the inevitable path down which country music must travel -- away from tradition, toward beautiful chaos.

Haven't heard -- wait, felt -- a record this deeply in years, and that's even without listening to the words, which injure the strong and decimate the frail. It's all about beneath-the-skin delivery, the forlorn melodies ("Demonic" builds to a quiet nervous breakdown), the whispered plaints and dark spaces between the notes. "Nothing This Beautiful" is George and Tammy...wait, Gram and Emmylou...wait, John and Exene for the doomed generation; 10 minutes and 31 seconds lasts forever, and not long enough (first 13 times I listened to this record, I had no idea it was only 38 minutes long). "Nothing this beautiful could ever last," they sing, and of course they're right -- especially when the guitars explode and the song shatters like shrapnel. This is what dreams sound like for those of us who live only half our lives.


Sha Sha

Radish's missing-in-action sophomore album was supposed to be in stores last spring, until mergers and morons kept it on the shelf, where it now collects dust and back interest. That Mercury refused to release the follow-up to 1997's Restraining Bolt says less about the quality of this pop-pop-POP disc than it does about the state of the music business, which hasn't been about music for a very, very long time. From the opening shebang till the farewell kaboom, this disc gets more play than Lee Stevens at first base; like the kids say, gimmegimmegimme. And who knew young Ben Kweller, the forever teenager who sounds on the phone like he's just about to bite into a PB&J, had such magic repressed in his bag of tricks? Surely, not those who heard Restraining Bolt and found only echoes of alt-rock past, circa 1992. From "Dear Aunt Arctica" to "Launch Ramp," which kick-starts Sha Sha, in two short years -- talk about your Christmas miracles. See, kids, that's what happens when you stop listening to Weezer and Nirvana and start paying attention to your internal jukebox.

Restraining Bolt, after all, was the sound a kid makes when he's told too often he's a prodigy by old men in search of vicarious thrills; young Ben, from little ol' Greenville, wore his Nirvana fetish like a Kurt Cobain T-shirt until he all but resembled the baby pictures of the Ghost of Alternative Radio Past. Such are the mistakes made by bizzers when they think the novelty of youth will overshadow the reality of inexperience. (And the children shall lead them, right to the cutout bin.) So perhaps expectations were low when a CD-R of Sha Sha arrived in the mail, courtesy a Mercury exec who wanted to liberate the incarcerated album; anticipation disappears when trepidation wanders through the door holding a recordable disc. Not in a very long time has such cynicism been so quickly dissipated, replaced by a giddy enthusiasm -- the smirk done in by the smile. From the distorted harmonica burst that opens the disc to the title song (which wears its la-la-las like a rose in a lapel) to the ambient beauty of "Here Is Not Dissonant," here's the disc that sounds as though it were indeed made by a child -- one bereft of self-consciousness, cynicism, and guile. If only record labels were run the same way.


Marijuana Beach
The Tomorrowpeople
(Olivia Records)

Just imagine how much better this record would have been if the other nine songs the band recorded for Geffen Records appeared as well, including shiny redos of past faves such as "Mercitron" and "Youth in Orbit." But as it stands, Marijuana Beach is just fine on its own, what ambition sounds like when it straps on a guitar and doesn't pay attention to the clock. "By My Side" is the would-be-should-be hit, frontman Mike Gibson "keepin' it real" (desperate, that is) with his airy falsetto, possibly singing about a girlfriend, but more likely, a girl he's watching from outside of her bedroom window. But "Love That Yer Making" is the real deal, where the band delivers a flick-your-Bic anthem for the indie-rock set. It could have been a hit for Geffen if the someone had just held onto it. Don't make the same mistake.


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