By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Yet unlike BR5-49 and The Derailers and the other trad-country acts that look and sound like museum exhibits in their Nudie suits and aw-shucks grins, Eleven Hundred Springs doesn't let the music gather dust in a glass case in the corner; they scoot their boots across the dance hall and buy it a longneck at the bar, each tune locating the pulse Music Row has tried to focus-group to a standstill. The band doesn't remind its listeners of other songs as much as it helps them remember why they loved those songs in the first place, using country's tradition as the frame but rarely keeping the same photo in it. There's "A Few Words to Remember Me By" (from Welcome To...), a killer-cold and flat-out funny kiss-off ("You know, in my life of love, you weren't the first/But I think it's safe to say, you were definitely the worst"), and "Thunderbird Will Do Just Fine" (off A Straighter Line), the kidney-punching toast to empty bottles and full ashtrays ("Put some ice in a Dixie cup/Pass the whiskey over here/Take that joint and fire it up/And if there ain't no whiskey pass the beer"). Or, if you're feeling reflective, "A Straighter Line," which finds Hillyer back on the path of the righteous again ("I thought whiskey and cocaine would ease my sorrow/But it only took me closer to the grave/I was living for today and not tomorrow"). And that's just a few of the better ones; with Hillyer and Eleven Hundred Springs at the wheel, it's all a trip down Hank's lost highway on a Bloody Mary morning. --Z.C.
Winner for: Folk/Acoustic
Don't quite get this one: Last time I saw the Grove live, puttin' on The Ritz during South by Southwest last month in Austin, it wasn't exactly strumming and humming like coffeehouse flunkies collecting spare change for the long bus ride home. (Far as I'm concerned, a folkie's usually someone too afraid to plug in, turn up and cut loose; didn't Dylan teach anyone anything?) The band's set--which left the crowd begging in vain for a SXSW no-no, the encore--was as inflammatory as any "rock" set. Just because they don't scream at you or make you feel small for being on that side of the stage doesn't diminish their intensity.
By the time the band got through dripping blood, sweat and fear out of "The Lovers, The Drunk, The Mother" (winner of best song title, an unofficial nod handed out over drinks after hours), even the club's walls were spent; the only thing that got us distracted was trying to figure out how Blues Traveler John Popper, in and out during the show, dropped a ton, literally. Other than that, all eyes, ears and souls were up there with Marcus Striplin, Bret Egner, Jeff Ryan, Tony Hormillosa and Joe Butcher, who make a simple sound that could complicate your life if you let it, by which I mean: They just tear your heart out.
Not that Pleasant Grove doesn't deserve an award--because making music is such the competitive sport--and I'd give them every one we got, just don't get the wrong idea. Maybe it's that "country" thing that confuses voters, now that Joe Butcher's cradling and fondling that pedal steel like an after-last-call pickup; no wonder Lost Highway's looking to put the Grove on the two-lane blacktop to major-labeldom, and good luck with all that. Butcher once called the band's 2001 release Auscultation of the Heart "Willie Nelson meets Pink Floyd," and it's an apt description--blues-tinged, soul-touched country by way of ethereal art-rock, without any of the art damage; feel-bad music played by fellers who can't withstand the damage of an evil and wicked divorce, etc. Word is the next album rocks, which ought to clear up the confusion. But by then, maybe voters will have figured out what we've known for a few years: Pleasant Grove may be the best band in town, and that's our reward. --R.W.
the pAper chAse
Winner for: Avant-Garde/Experimental
It doesn't sound like a revolution when you break it down to its simplest elements: a four-piece band, guitar, bass, drums, a little piano, vocals. Doesn't sound all that different, that is, unless you've actually heard the pAper chAse's albums or seen leader John Congelton onstage, using his shoes as percussion or something like that. And thanks to its incorporation of samples, the pAper chAse (which includes drummer Aaron Dalton, bassist Bobby Weaver and keys/tape player Matt Armstrong) creates on the fly, making each show unlike any other--its own or anyone else's. Not quite as simple as you might expect.
There are moments within the records (2000's Young Bodies Heal Quickly, You Know on Beatville and last year's cntrl-alt-delete-u EP on Divot) where one might be able to point out similarities, a little Nine Inch Nails here, a smidgen of Fugazi there. But taken as a whole--as the pAper chAse's albums always should be--there is nothing else like it. Between Congelton's yelps, the guitar screeches, the fury of percussion and the tape loops, there is a beautiful cacophony no one but the band will ever fully understand, but anyone with an open ear can appreciate. Expect more of the same--and also, not at all--when the pAper chAse releases Hide the Kitchen Knives on Beatville and Divot domestically (and Southern UK abroad) this summer. --S.S.