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By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
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By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
It was likely the best three-band bill downtown has hosted in ages, in an unlikely spot. Fury III, Sorta and the Sparrows at the Liquid Lounge felt like an accidental jackpot or a secret club, and the bulk of the Thursday-night audience was other Dallas musicians. Everyone knew everyone, so drinks all around--and hey, isn't that your amp up there?
But let's get this incestuous little story straight: Sorta's keyboard player and drummer both once played bass in Fury III. And said keys player, Carter Albrecht, is the front man of the Sparrows, though he occasionally sits in with Fury III. Or does he? Nonetheless, the vintage Hammond organ, which belongs to Steve Nutt of Fury III, is much coveted by Sorta, and Albrecht can really make it sing, though he won't during his band's set because then he's playing guitar.
Welcome to Dallas, man.
Incest among the downtown rock scene is nothing new--just about every competent musician around plays for at least two bands (a primary one and a second-stringer, and that's not counting the inevitable quasi-ironic cover band). That evening at Liquid Lounge, Albrecht and whatever spiritual connection he had with the Hammond were the elements that linked the three bands on the bill, and the second band, Sorta, did more than split the difference between Fury III and the Sparrows.
The group is the first-string band of singer-guitarist Trey Johnson, bassist Danny Balis and drummer Scott Randall. Boy-genius Albrecht--a less angry, young American version of, say, Elvis Costello--plays keyboards in Sorta, when he's not fronting the Sparrows or diddling around with a half dozen other local acts. And though Sorta is new, its members play and write as fluidly and confidently as though they've been at it together for years.
Sorta's prehistory epitomizes the potential for chemistry between disconnected musicians, even in a scene as circumscribed and incestuous as Dallas. All of Sorta's members are fixtures in the Dallas music scene; all of them drink in the same bars and know the same people. Their average age is about 32, and yet, not so long ago, they didn't know each other. It was a band waiting to happen, and happen very easily, if the stars lined up or the great professor in the sky poured them all into the same test tube. In Sorta's case, the stars lined up as straight as shot glasses along the bar at the Barley House, and the professor who dropped them into one big hurricane glass was its owner, Richard Winfield.
"Richard's done so much for Dallas music," Randall says. "That whole scene that revolves around the Barley House and Muddy Waters--it's separate from the Deep Ellum thing, but all the music's excellent."
Sitting around the dining room table at Johnson's East Dallas house, the members of Sorta (minus Albrecht, who has instructed his bandmates to tell the interviewer that he "emphatically agrees with anything they say") are explaining how, in the past couple of years, Dallas' different emerging rock factions have staked out different territories. Of the Barley House/Muddy Waters faction, Johnson says, "There's definitely an upswing in Dallas music right now, and now there's this great little scene no one really knows about. No one but other musicians."
"Other musicians, plus their friends and girlfriends," Balis adds. Which is, they point out, a very encouraging audience. "If other musicians didn't show up, I think we'd be playing to tables and chairs."
But Deep Ellum, they say, is split between the power-pop indies (Chomsky, Deathray Davies--"Great, great bands," Johnson says with a sigh) and the frat-boy pleasers ("You know, all the Creed bands," Balis says), while Lower Greenville and Henderson more often host the bands that, uncharacteristically, played at Liquid Lounge that Thursday night. "But we loved playing Liquid Lounge," Balis says. "The sound system is great; it's a good room. We'd be happy to do it again."
In other words, Sorta likes downtown just fine, but home is a few blocks north of it. Johnson and Albrecht have been haunting the Barley House and Muddy Waters for several years, Johnson as half of the duo Trouser (and previously of Spam and Elscorcho), Albrecht as keyboard-player-about-town and guitarist of the Limes. Balis, once of the Bradfords, was a regular at Barley House and liked Johnson's songwriting. When the two finally got to talking last year, they decided to start their own acoustic duo.
"It was a regular Sunday night for us," Johnson says. "No real name, just Trey and Danny at the Barley House, I guess." But the new songs took shape quickly, and a few months into it, they wanted a drummer. Randall, after a long stint in Tex Edwards and the Swinging Cornflake Killers, was looking for something new, so he joined up, and then on a whim, Albrecht sat in with the trio because he'd left his keyboards on the stage from a show the night before. Winfield, or rather Winfield's bar, had made the crucial introductions.
"Since then everything has just fallen into place," Johnson says. For him, this is the best songwriting he's ever done, the best singing, the best cooperative effort of any band he's played with. Suddenly all his years of plugging and pushing and sweating it out in other bands simply melt away; after only eight months as a quartet, Sorta enjoys a bit of radio play and the backing of the Summer Break label, and is looking forward to a probable slot at this year's SXSW. One of the band's songs debuted at a Stars' game last week, and next week they're meeting with pro band manager Mike Schwedler to discuss the future.
The future is already starting, at least a little bit. An EP is out on Summer Break: The five-song Plays for Lovers is a slice of what the band dreams up in rehearsals each week--it's a sound somewhere between a low pop growl and a friendly twang. Johnson is responsible for the songs' inceptions, but "then the rest of us change them up till they're unrecognizable," Balis says, laughing.
Johnson's vocals, raspy and earnest but anchored in the land of tenor, give the band's sound some flexible cohesion, and Balis' clear harmonies evoke the nostalgia of No Depression. But song for song, Albrecht has the swing vote; his keyboard sets each song's subtle undercurrent, from an Attractions stomp to a Gainsbourgian cabaret, from sweeping grand piano to feel-good plinking.
And while the band plays with moods, it's within an American indie scope: "Alcohol Drip" is a surprisingly clean anthem to booze and forgetting, while the looser, more soulful "It's a Sign" is more resignedly Westerberg. "Bye Bye" notches things over to staccato rock guitar, and the bluegrassy "Now and Then" comes off like a lost track from Wilco's A.M. It's an impressive debut, given its spontaneity.
"Some of those songs we hadn't even really rehearsed before we recorded them," Johnson points out. "I don't think any of them are very old." And that's just this first, modest EP, a recording of what roads the band might take before it even knows where it's going. Judging by that Thursday night at the Liquid Lounge, the live set is like putting a sound in an oven and letting it bake and swell into something more epic. The musicians in the audience absorbed it with pleased familiarity; they hang out at Barley House; they know Sorta's back story. But the uninitiated walking in off the street would think they were watching old hands on home ground. Nice going for a band that hasn't celebrated its first birthday.