By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Almost 7,000 people voted in this year's Dallas Observer Music Awards, and while I have absolutely no numbers to back it up, I'll go ahead and say I'm fairly certain it's the highest turnout for this election in quite some time. At least in the five years or so I've been involved, if you buy that as a definition of "quite some time." And you should.
Now, I don't know 7,000 people, nor do I possess the time and patience required to fill out that many ballots, or even a fraction of that number. Truth be told, my attention span is barely long enough to...finish...this...sentence.
What all this means: You picked the winners, not me. I bring it up because there's been some confusion about this. During the weeks preceding the award ceremony held April 16 at the Gypsy Team Room, rumors swirled through Deep Ellum that the polls were closed before they ever opened, that the Observer (more specifically, me) had picked the winners long ago. This was little more than an excuse to pat our friends on the back, a sham, bullshit, whatever. And, to be honest, all those whispers hit us like a kick in the crotch.
Sticks and stones may break bones but words will never hurt? A freaking lie. Here are a few words that prove that theory wholly inaccurate: the 1998 Topaz Awards. Not a Band-Aid big enough for that one, a reference made by a few to the infamous local-music backslap where Cresta's Jenny Esping took home three trophies, when she just so happened to sit on the board of directors of the North Texas Music Festival, which put the now-defunct Topaz Awards together.
Mistakes that occurred during the nomination process (for one, not enough people received ballots, or not enough of the right people, apparently) have been acknowledged and apologized for. That, friends, is where it ends; if you want to continue to paint us with that brush, just make sure you have a dropcloth handy. What I'm saying is this: To dwell on it any further is a punch in the gut to the bands and musicians you'll find on the next few pages, all of whom earned their inclusion, deserved their victory. Again, you picked the winners. Do I agree with all the choices? Maybe not, but that's irrelevant. This, after all, is the one time each year when the Observer cedes the reins to the fans, the readers, the voters. Right or wrong, we respect your choices. Actually, take that back: There is no wrong, really, just a different definition of right.
If nothing else, I hope the furor surrounding this year's DOMA will serve as a conversation starter, a call to arms, a reason to go out and prove the black hats wrong. Because the truth is, you can cast your vote every weekend by going to Deep Ellum (or Lower Greenville or Denton or Fort Worth) and dropping your six bucks on a local band or three. And it doesn't matter if we disagree. Anyone who gets onstage, locks himself in a recording studio, piles into a van, does whatever it takes for what some laughingly call a dream can consider himself a winner. No matter what. Turn the page to read about a few of them. --Zac Crain
Winner for: Best Act Overall; Best Album (2001); Best Song (2001); Rock/Pop; Songwriter(s) (Sean Halleck); Male Vocalist (Sean Halleck)
For a city with such an enormous ego, Dallas doesn't exactly have a whole lot to be proud of musically. We love to laugh behind Austin's back when it crows about being the Live Music Capital of the World, and we scoff at the manufactured charm of Sundance Square and the chicken-fried tripe our shit-kickin' neighbors to the west call music. But before we puff out our chests too much, let's take a good, hard look at the cursed history of our vaunted music scene. Aside from a few exceptions--say, Erykah Badu or the Dixie Chicks or Pantera, maybe--it's littered with flameouts (New Bohemians, The Toadies), one-hit-blunders (Deep Blue Something), almost-weres (Tripping Daisy, Old 97's) and never-dids (Funland, Tomorrowpeople). It's pretty sad when one of the greatest achievements by a Dallas musician is getting impregnated by Paul Simon.
There is, however, an unlikely savior in our midst: The Polyphonic Spree may be the ones wearing angelic robes, but with all due respect, Chomsky is the band fit to lead Dallas to the promised land. Not that you'd ever know by looking at them. When you encounter Chomsky live for the first time, several questions might pop up: "Does that guitar player have Tourette's syndrome?" "Why does the drummer have the facial expression of a corpse?" "Is it just me, or is the lead singer a little chunky?" And so on. But as soon as they start to play, all those questions are blown away; Chomsky is the rare blend of showmanship and musicianship, with songs and swagger to spare. Guitarist Glen Reynolds amazes with his tendon-stretching chords and just-because scissors kicks; drummer Matt Kellum and bassist James Driscoll's rhythm section elicits instant head-bobbing and toe-tapping; Don Cento lures a smile of recognition with his Costello keys; and front man Sean Halleck astounds with his range and clarity. The fivesome's energy immediately infects listeners, whether onstage or on records, sucking in even the most skeptical of the uninitiated.
It's been a slow build for Chomsky. A Few Possible Selections for the Soundtrack of Your Lifewas released in 1999 with little fanfare, and subsequent gigs entertained more friends and fellow musicians than fans. But by the time the "00:15:00" single and full-length Onward Quirky Soldierscame out last year, the Chomsky Army had swelled to vast legions, loyal enough to consistently pack venues and stuff ballot boxes. The key to Chomsky's success is their broad, but not bland, appeal: They are cute enough for your girlfriend to like, but harmless enough for you to allow her to. They rock hard enough to engage the sweaty meathead, but not so hard that the meek intellectuals are scared away. They reference XTC and the Police enough to impress rock critics, yet they have enough in common with blink-182 to reach dumbed-down Edge listeners.
One listen to Onward Quirky Soldiers confirms Chomsky's bankabilty. The opening coos of "Straight Razor" explode into a syncopated new-wave melody that surprises with its earnestness. Ditto for the album's other uptempo numbers, "00:15:00," "Herod's Daughter" and "Laughing"--all cheeky and sincere at once. When they dial it down a notch or two--"Inside," "Light," "Destination"--the effect is hypnotic with subtle thrills and thick crawl-inside-your-head choruses. The big album closer, "Rollers," sums up Chomsky's acidic wit and charm as Halleck sings in his ode to tolerance, "I do one thing with rump rangers/I don't pay no mind what they do with their behinds." As much as Chomsky doesn't take itself too seriously, though, there's no Redd Kross wink-wink kitsch on Onward Quirky Soldiers. And it may be an homage to the '80s, but its sound is decidedly now; as comfortable in Skechers as it is in Vans. Whether or not the rest of the world ever gets Chomsky remains to be seen, but here's hoping. --Dave Lane
Winner for: Musician of the Year
Polyphonic Spree played South by Southwest last month--owned it, actually, as evidenced by the post-conference press clippings (which prove, among other things, rock journalists can't add). To wit: From the London Guardian, March 29: "Most people agree that the most likely future stars present are the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, a scuzzy rock band from New York, and the Polyphonic Spree, a remarkable 28-piece Dallas ensemble featuring a choir, a brass and string section, all clad in matching white robes." From the Chicago Sun-Times, March 18: "Led by gleefully goofy Tripping Daisy veteran Tim DeLaughter, the Polyphonic Spree was a Dallas ensemble that crossed Pet Sounds and Up With People for a genre that can only be called 'Wellbutrin-rock.' Fronting a 10-piece choir and a 13-piece band including theremin and French horn (and with everyone adorned in angelic white robes), DeLaughter sang uplifting odes about sunshine and smiles, leaving the most jaded hipsters grinning joyfully." And, last, from The New York Times, March 18, complete with color pic: Polyphonic Spree "offered a purposeful burst of optimism for an event where a dip in superstar sales, and the fear that Internet file-swapping will make recordings less profitable, could not subdue the pleasures of live music or the ambitions of do-it-yourself bands."
So, yeah. The Tim DeLaughter-fronted band--conceptual-pop army's more like it--is be-freakin'-loved, maybe more so out of town than in, but that's usually what happens to local musical vets. They're embraced by the out-of-towners who fall in love with their imported exotica, while we just take it for granted, like this big band's no big deal. What we write off as rote, as though such a thing were possible with this killing Spree, others perceive as a blessing, and correctly so; not since Lennon-McCartney tried to keep pace with Brian Wilson tried to keep pace with Phil Spector has there been so majestic and stirring a pop swell as last year's The Beginning Stages Of..., which makes you feel good by just holding the thing, never mind actually playing it.
That DeLaughter should form Polyphonic Spree from the trampled stems of Tripping Daisy--which had to deal with being misled and mishandled by its label, Island, and couldn't withstand the 1999 overdose death of guitarist Wes Berggren--was remarkable and maybe even appropriate. After all, when confronted with anger and tragedy one has two choices: to disappear into grief's long, heavy shadow or step out of its way in a defiant act of optimism. Those who know DeLaughter, now father and co-founder of Good Records, insist there was never any question; it's sunny-side up, even on a cloudy day. And so Polyphonic Spree spreads it gospel in print and in prayer (these songs will convert the pop-and-roll atheist), evincing tears of joy from critics and cynics alike who discovered there's nothing better than, well, feeling better. --Robert Wilonsky
Fred Savage Fanclub
Winner for: Female Vocalist (Sara Radle); Best New Act
Sara Radle could beam with pride that Fred Savage Fanclub--which started as a one-woman solo side project spun off from the pop-punk trio Lucy Loves Schroeder--wins Best New Act here, beating out a bunch of all-male bands (and fellow one-woman band Chao, led by erstwhile Captain Audio innovator Regina Chellew). But it's not about being female, at least not to her. To Radle, these two awards should mean that she's getting the respect she's worked for with both Fred Savage Fanclub and Lucy Loves Schroeder. (Just two months ago she told the Observer, "I think that sometimes it is hard to be taken seriously just as a female in the music scene at least initially.")
Fred Savage Fanclub began as a recording-only project, resulting in the release of Jelly Beans with Belly Buttons on Denton's She's Gone Records in December 2000. But live, it has expanded to include (at times) [DARYL]'s Dave Wilson on guitar, Jason Garner of The Deathray Davies on drums and bass players Andrew Binovi of Lucy Loves Schroeder and Chris Radle (a member of SuperSport and her brother), along with an all-male chorus. Live shows, however, have been rare, with Radle spending most of her time playing guitar and singing (along with Binovi) in Lucy Loves Schroeder, which has been stepping further into the spotlight over the last few months. Lucy Loves Schroeder has been getting booked locally and regionally more frequently (including a spot opening for Jimmy Eat World) and recently had a song ("Dragon Lady") added to KDGE-FM's playlist. Radle hopes to get back into the studio with both of her bands, which means we'll probably be hearing her voice even more in the coming year. --Shannon Sutlief
Winner for: Funk/R&B
What a true blessing it is to call her one of our own, since she's everywhere now, her "throwback" organic soul music and fascinating voice heard all over the world: While driving through Italy at 3 a.m. a couple of months back, we were pleasantly surprised to hear a Rome radio DJ segue from Guns 'N Roses into Erykah's "Bag Lady" without giving it a second thought. Channeling the spirit of Billie Holiday and wisdom of Nina Simone before her, the analog gospel of Erika Wright is still spreading like wildfire.
Competition is unusually thick up in here. Over the past few years, a handful of distinctive female vocalists from North Texas have managed to sell literally millions of records. With LeAnn Rimes, Jessica Simpson, the Dixie Chicks, Lisa Loeb, Sara Hickman, Michelle Shocked and now (like Badu and Edie Brickell before her) fellow Arts Magnet alum Norah Jones, talented Dallas-connected women are out there representing with seemingly every style imaginable. And all without ever aesthetically stepping on each other's toes. Of course, there are also a number of gifted young women (Kim Pendleton, Spyche, Regina Chellew and violinist Gail Hess come to mind) whose secret we've forever managed to keep to ourselves. Punch yourself in the face if it makes you feel any better.
Besides the ongoing fixation with our homegirl Erykah, everyone's new favorite seems to be N'Dambi, and it ain't really hard to see why. She was a backup singer with Badu's live group, shares her Camp Wisdom backing band and producers on occasion and has every club DJ in town droppin' her vinyl joints during their sets. Still, this is Ms. B's house for now. All it took was one listen to Mama's Gun to know that "Ms. Jackson" was taking this to the next level; for N'Dambi to eclipse the same artist who originally opened the stage door for her, she's going to have to reach way deep into her bag of tricks. Erykah's captivating homecoming show at the Bronco Bowl Theatre last year showed a definite maturation in poise, presentation and stage presence, and Mama's Gun (a "sister" record to D'Angelo's Voodoo joint) may not have racked up the same kind of sales numbers that Baduizm had, but E more than made up for it by accentuating her live performances as a means to raise money and awareness for a number of issues that she happens to feel strongly about. Musicians get in this game for one of two reasons: to feed their plus-sized egos, or to hopefully make this world a better place in which to live. Erykah Badu is doing this for all the right reasons. --Jeff Liles
Eleven Hundred Springs
Winner for: Country & Western
They've been called "Long-Haired, Tattooed Hippie Freaks" so often it became the title of one of their songs, and if you didn't know any better, you might scoff at this sort of scruff sifting through and riffing on decades of love-God-murder music. But doubting the intentions and reinventions of the five members of Eleven Hundred Springs (singer-guitarist Matt Hillyer, bassist Steve Berg, guitarist Chris Claridy, drummer Bruce Alford and Aaron Wynne on pedal steel and piano), booking them for trespassing in the honky-tonks, misses the point. While most of them are vets of local rock bands (Strap, Vibrolux, Sixty-Six, among others), the group has Lone Star chugging through its veins and "Johnny Paycheck...Willie, Waylon and the late and great Doug Sahm"--as Hillyer name-checks on "Long-Haired, Tattooed Hippie Freaks"--on its mind, walking the line that connects Nashville to Austin to Bakersfield to your heart. The other bands, it seems, were the real put-ons.
Hillyer, for one, has never sounded more at ease than he does fronting a C&W outfit, mourning the "Queen of Canton Street," banging and twanging his way through another "Sad and Lonesome Song." It's textbook stuff, all about love and liquor and the occasional lack thereof, and Hillyer plays his part well; he's the "King of Tears" who's "No Stranger to the Blues," just looking for "One More Chance." The band's four albums--1999's Welcome To... and Live at Adair's, 2000's No Stranger to the Blues and last year's mostly acoustic A Straighter Line--are tickets to the Country Music Hall of Fame, even including country songs about country songs ("Hey Jukebox," "Steel Guitar and Fiddle"). It's a hands-on history lesson, show-and-tell on the back porch.
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.Pleasant Grove
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 ourreward. --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.
Reverend Horton Heat
Winner for: Rockabilly/Roots
Back when these awards were first handed out, rule was you couldn't win in the same category more than five years running; after that, you were taken out of consideration, handed a cursory lifetime achievement nod, encased in Plexiglas and hauled off to the Hall of Fame, which answers the question, Whatever happened to Edie Brickell? So maybe this will be the last year Jim Heath, Jimbo Wallace and Scott Churilla take home this doorstop, though we doubt it; might as well just name it for the Rev and be done with it.
Which--no, seriously--is no knock against Heath and his bonzai bassist and drill-team drummer, but the fact remains theirs has become a style all their own: a self-contained subgenre of music as American as a Sergio Leone western or as Italian as a Dick Dale beach blanket of riffs. Hence, the spaghetti-western ambience and surf-rock strains that permeate Lucky 7, the band's latest and greatest since its sounds were full-custom and full-on. At long last, it's nice to embrace a band that's kept us at arm's length since it decided to dress up like lounge lizards and slow it down for the ladies, which may be why we never got it to begin with.
If the songs remain the same--from subject (loose women, fast cars, yo-Jimbo) to style (rockabilly by way of CBGB's, hillbilly by way of the Pacific Coast Highway)--for once that's a good thing. Nearly two decades since Heath was living upstairs at the Prophet Bar and goosing acoustic audiences with unplugged fury, he sounds reborn--baptized in gin again, without the hangover that's lingered ever since Liquor in the Frontand Space Heaterand all those other albums we never haul off the shelf when the mood strikes. (Sorry, fellas, but when you make a record as feverish and majestic as Full Custom Gospel Sounds, we're not gonna let you sneak under the bar you helped raise; you set a standard, and forgive the hell out of us for holding you to it.) So, apologies are in full effect after years of blaspheming the Rev; for this sermon, we're wide awake. --R.W.
Hydroponic Sound System
Winner for: Rap/Hip-Hop
The gospel according to Jeff Wade, a.k.a. Skinny Fresh: "It seems that hip-hop has lost its 'no rules' mentality," he says in the liner notes of his group Hydroponic Sound System's 2000 debut, Routine Insanity. Can't we all agree that if someone released a song outside of the 'verse-chorus then repeat twice' format the world would come to a grinding halt? I would like to thank the current crop of rappers for numbing our senses and lowering our expectations for something original. Who needs innovation when you're getting paid, biiiiiiatch!"
Who needs innovation? Wade and his partner Ruben Ayala, as well as the stable of thoroughbreds they enlisted for Routine Insanity, among them rhymers Headkrack, Massive, Kwasar, MYK, Iphlomatix, Soule and Cold Cris, dancehall toaster Grand Supreem, DJ Furious, singer Pat Peterson, keys player Ted Cruz, guitarist Reed Easterwood and multi-instrumentalist Randy Lee. The result is a record that brings back hip-hop's lost lawlessness, beginning and ending with beats and rhymes but allowing for plenty of side trips and head trips to be made before Wade and Ayala pull the car back into the garage. Wade and Ayala break beats over Latin jazz and silky soul, battering-ram rhymes and barely there ambience, freestyle fellowships and Steely Dan slickness. And at some point, a flute enters the picture. For Wade and Ayala, it's not just a job; it's an adventure.
Makes sense that Hydro would produce a hip-hop record that is and isn't one. There's Wade, the 30-year-old former DJ from Richardson who grew up hanging out at hip-hop shows Tropical Exodus with the MCs and DJs who'd go on to form Mad Flava, Shabazz 3 and Skwod X, among others, before manning the ones and twos with Sons of Soul. And there's Ayala, the fortysomething engineer best known (if at all) for recording a pair of Stevies (Nicks and Ray Vaughan) until he lured Wade into the studio full time. It's an unlikely combo, but one that works, and word is, you can expect something new from the dynamic duo later this year. Knowing Wade and Ayala, it will sound nothing like Routine Insanity. That's what "no rules" means. --Z.C.
Winner for: Reggae
This aural petri dish has been festering for more than five years now, the seemingly random addition/subtraction of noodling melodic figures and fragmented abstract noise panning east-west over skeletal dub-style arrangements, introverted "songs" titled later for our benefit. Let's call it omni-directional mood music. Waves and layers of sound rise and fall accordingly, tones come and go as they please, washing over us as they see fit, all somehow connecting textural dots and dashes of quieter traditional instrumentation. I know: ewwww. Sounds way complicated and pretentious as shit on paper, but the end result is both warmly engaging and tastefully minimalist. Best of all, Sub Oslo's stuff is sexy as hell.
It's not very hard to decipher all the references and influences here: Mexico's Nortec Collective and Plastilina Mosh, geezer UK splotch-artists Tricky and Mark Stewart's Maffia, Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, Tackhead/Gary Clail bartender Adrian Sherwood, among other knob-and-dial-twistin' Huxleyites. There's obviously something here for everyone, given you don't mind dispensing with the idea of having a lead vocalist bleating on about God knows what. What's really hard is trying to figure out where this unpredictable group of musicians may be headed next. Your guess is as good as mine.
On one hand, they could continue down the path they've already beaten, breaking dub elements down to their most spacious and textural in the typical nightclub setting, found sounds usually open to interpretation. Nice for a zootie on a head full o' hydro, but no way to make a real living in the music biz. Godawful Truth: no hooks or gimmicky chorus, hello day job. On the other hand, they could start doing remixes for rap artists, dance tracks, abstract film scores, incidental music for TV commercials and the occasional 5 a.m. gig playing in the "chill out" rooms at local rave gatherings. Sure, they'd feel like total prostitutes and would probably never be able to look at themselves in the mirror ever again, but at least they'd probably be able to afford to tour and interface with other musicians bearing a shared perspective. And so what if they have to travel halfway around the world to find an audience that doesn't totally take them for granted? Recording artists from North Texas have always had to do that. Just tell 'em Ornette said, "What's up?" --J.L.
Earl Harvin Trio
Winner for: Jazz
Strange that, had someone mislabeled this category, called it Avant-Garde/Experimental instead of Jazz, almost all the nominees could have remained; Wayne Delano, usually relegated to a backing track for the pasta special at Terilli's, is, no offense, the only standard-issue sore thumb standing out in this bunch. Flipside, Ghostcar and Quartet Out--all card carriers in the Dallas Creative Music Alliance--are tethered to the genre by little more than instrumentation and appreciation, and Earl Harvin Trio is a tease, inviting jazz back to its room only to fuck with it a little bit before kicking it out in a hurry.
Was a time when that wasn't the case for the Trio: 1995's Trio/Quartet and 1997's Strange Happy were just this side of straight-ahead jazz and, in retrospect, served as little more than an elaborate setup for what was to come next. The group--drummer Harvin, bassist-guitarist Fred Hamilton and Dave Palmer on various keys--delivered the punch line on 1999's Live at the Gypsy Tea Room, a double-disc effort that made Trio/Quartet and Strange Happy come off like nursery rhymes in comparison, an hour-plus of jazz that was anything but, 63 minutes of controlled chaos that beat Radiohead to the spot a couple of years ahead of time and would make Ken Burns' head explode if he had the guts to take off his Louis Armstrong records and pay attention. Live at the Gypsy Tea Room was "jazz" at the end of the century or the end of the world; hard to tell which.
Last year's Unincorporated finds the group walking on a tightrope that's actually a lit fuse, banjo licks and electronic tics joining in the fun because no one ever told them they couldn't. The trio of improvisations scattered among the disc's 10 tracks don't stand out because it all feels made up on the spot, the sound of three musicians in a room looking at each other for the changes, not knowing what comes next or caring much. Drums skitter and splinter, scurrying underneath Wurlitzer whirls and Hindustani slide guitar (huh?) swirls until it's a beautiful mess that recalls David Holmes' soundtrack work, punk, country, blues, funk, rock, roll and--oh yeah--jazz. And at times, it's close enough to a Squarepusher record that, next year, maybe these fellas will take home the Industrial/Dance award instead. Or maybe we should just cut out all the bullshit and give them Best Act Overall. --Z.C.
Winner for: Record Label
After Idol Records' second sold-out showcase in a row at South by Southwest in March, we said the label "may not be the Sub Pop of the South, but it's closer than just about anything else, only lacking name recognition, not talent." At home, at least, Idol is finally receiving that identification. And by "finally" we mean that the label has been operating for quite some time, which probably comes as much of a shock to some as the admission that Chomsky has released more than two albums. (Really, it's true.) Seven years ago, Idol released a 10-inch split single with Funland and The Old 97's, with each band playing the former's "Garage Sale" and the latter's "Stoned," and owner Erv Karwelis spent the next several years releasing albums by old-school punk bands such as Billy Club and The Feisty Cadavers, followed by space-rock releases by Mazinga Phaser and The Falcon Project.
Then came Centro-matic's Navigational in 1999, the label's redheaded stepchild that Karwelis liked so much he decided to keep adopting. Since then, there have been two more original Centro-matic releases and reissues of a pair of discs originally released on Quality Park Records, a fellow nominee and the Denton label that Centro-matic has been splitting time with. Over the past few years, Idol has also recruited Clumsy, Chomsky, The Deathray Davies and Macavity, assembling a lineup that packs Austin clubs each March. (The latest addition, [DARYL], just released its self-titled debut for the label.) All this has transformed Idol from a sub-pop outlet to a label recognized all along Interstate 35 for putting out albums as packed with good songs as its showcases are with fans. --S.S.
Winner for: Producer
Matt Pence's particular genius as a producer is his ability to disappear; you never notice he's there, never see the studio instead of the songs. He does more than just sit in the booth and hit record, sure, but you don't feel his hand guiding you along, leading listeners through his vision of the songs instead of whatever band he happens to be recording. Unlike some other producers, Pence doesn't have a readily identifiable sound, unless you count his habit for bringing out the best in the groups that head out to The Echo Lab, the studio he runs with fellow nominee Matt Barnhart in Argyle.
It's no coincidence, then, that his work with Centro-matic (who he also drums for), Pleasant Grove, The Deathray Davies and Legendary Crystal Chandelier--to name just a few--has resulted in some of the best local releases in the past few years. And his résumé is as varied as it is full, from blues (a forthcoming disc by 70-and-change picker CeDell Davis, backed by R.E.M.'s Peter Buck and The Minus 5's Scott McCaughey, among others) to roots-rock (early work with Slobberbone) to wide-screen pop (a new one coming from Lewis) to whatever else he has time for. You hope John Congleton will finally get some notice for his skills behind the boards, but you can't fault the voters for picking Pence again. --Z.C.
The Havana Boys
Winner for: Latin/Tejano
Every year naysayers claim the perimeters of this category are too broad, that the nominees span too many types of music--jazz, soul, salsa, big band, even rock--to be grouped together. We dare them to find another category in which all the nominees fit the label given them. Tell Rockabilly/Roots nominees Slobberbone and Reverend Horton Heat they're basically the same. Explain how the dub-heavy Sub Oslo is exactly like fellow Reggae nominee One Love Uprising. If each band was given its own tailor-made label, there'd only be one nominee per category and everyone would be a winner--wait, forget we said anything. But the whining only diminishes the stature of the category they're trying to protect; slight the category and insult not just the winner, but the entire diverse pool of nominees.
For the second year, The Havana Boys, the seven-person, all-Cuban dance orchestra, take home this award, and it's hard to disregard a band that plays more times per week than most nominated musicians shower. The Boys (Jorge Antonelli, Armando Antonelli, Frankie Antonelli, Ernesto Velez, Maiquel Romero and Ivan Martinez, plus "The Lady of The Boys" Mariel Suarez) have four weekly gigs (Wednesdays at Sipango, Thursdays at Hard Rock Café, Fridays at the Cartegena Latin Salsa Club and Sundays at Carson's Palace's Club Havana) and slots at festivals nearly every weekend March through September, getting passers-by to work off those corny dogs and funnel cakes with a little salsa dancing. So they're almost omnipresent and omnipotent, knowing exactly what it takes to get people of all ages, sizes and races on their feet. In other words, The Havana Boys are as broad as this category. --S.S.
Winner for: Metal
Here's what I don't understand, and probably never will: Drowning Pool gets the record contract (with Creed conspirator Wind-Up Records), the hit single ("Bodies"), the platinum plaques, Jack Osbourne's seal of approval, all of it and then some, and Slow Roosevelt gets nothing, except another one of these. And let's not kid ourselves: That matches up about as well as Shaquille O'Neal backing down Mark Cuban in the paint. (Well, at least the awards look better than they used to.) It's no consolation, but here's something else Slow Roosevelt has that Drowning Pool doesn't: songs. ("Mouth Wide Shut," from last year's Weightless, could almost pass for a Toadies tune.) The band--singer Pete Thomas, guitarist Scott Minyard, drummer Aaron Lyons and bassist Mark Sodders--knows that melody and malady don't have to stay on opposite ends of the court; you just have to hit the right notes as hard as you can.
On Weightless, the group softens its blows (occasionally) without pulling punches, even turning it down every once in a while (the acoustic breather in "From Laughing Comes Crying," for instance). That said, there's plenty of precious metal in the mine; Slow Roosevelt is just as comfortable nicking a bit of Metallica ("Boys Lie Girls Steal," which is "Sad But True") and getting Thomas' back when he finds something to scream about ("Where's my medication?!" he howls on "Comfort From a Bomb," and you immediately start searching for his prescription). It's everything Drowning Pool and the rest of the nü-ckleheads fall short of: aggressive, assertive, abusive, abrasive, alive. When their fans grow up, maybe they'll be ready for Slow Roosevelt. --Z.C.
MC 900 Ft. Jesus
Winner for: Industrial/Dance
Didn't anybody ever tell Mark Griffin white industrial rap is obsolete? It had been so long since MC 900 Ft. Jesus reared his cockeyed head, it almost seemed like a practical joke when his name showed up again. When he announced a pair of comeback shows at Trees and Dan's Bar in Denton, there were probably a few snickers and bemused grins and a whole lot of head-scratching.
Then again, Griffin was a wildly popular local figure for quite a while, so, in certain circles, there was an electric anticipation surrounding MC 900 Ft. Jesus' first live appearance in seven years. Ah, yes, that's right, Griffin is a real musician, not just a white rapper. He's a classically trained trumpet player, ex-member of the Telefones and Lithium X-mas and member of lounge-jazz combos the Enablers and Young Millionaires. But, wait, isn't he also that cartoonish chrome-dome who was packed up in a box and thrown in a truck in the "If I Only Had a Brain" video? The eccentric misfit who released "Truth Is Out of Style" along with DJ Zero?
Well, yes, but it's this bizarre mix of credibility and absurdity that defines MC 900 Ft. Jesus. It's doubtful seasoned pros like Earl Harvin and Dave Palmer, who joined Griffin for both his last album (1994's One Step Ahead of the Spider) and his recent pair of live outings, have spent much time playing karaoke machine for juvenile raps about fast-food drive-thrus. Then again, working with Griffin also means an opportunity to saturate the air with the sublime darkness that seeps from the heart of the pathological arsonist in "The City Sleeps." Or to conjure the dangerous, sexy funk haze of the crash-worship sketch "New Moon."
Griffin draws the lines, and his backing band of Harvin, Palmer, sax player Chris McGuire, bassist Dave Monsey and guitarist Phil Bush filled them expertly at the recent shows, Harvin's almost inhuman groove serving as a base for Palmer's delicate tonal shadings. It's true--this year's Industrial/Dance winner is a jazz band, at least in the live arena. A jazz-funk fusion, anyway, augmented by the trumpet-playing of Griffin, who claims Miles Davis and the Mahavishnu Orchestra as partial inspiration for 900 Ft. Jesus' shift from an electro-industrial act to a well-oiled live machine. Griffin claims to be mining more electronic terrain as he develops new material, but anyone who saw the 2001 resurrection of MC 900 Ft. Jesus witnessed a rare intersection of groove, atmosphere and inspired character sketch. --Michael Chamy
Winner for: Cover Band
Weener co-front man Glen Reynolds told me awhile back that he kinda hoped Weener wouldn't take home this award again, no offense. Give it to Hard Night's Day or someone else, he said. Maybe he was just frustrated, given that the last few Weener shows in the 214 haven't gone so well, attendance figures cliff-diving from the near-sell-out, scream-along shows when the group (Chomsky's Reynolds, singer-guitarist Jason Weisenburg, Baboon bassist Mark Hughes and Pinkston drummer Ben Burt) first started. Now that the real thing's back after a long hiatus (the self-titled, so-called "green album" last year, and Maladroit on the way in a month or so), apparently, the appeal of the carbon copy has waned somewhat. Fairweather friends, all of 'em. Fact is, the band's never been better; it has a firmer grasp of Weezer's catalog than Weezer does, plays more of it and--there, I said it--delivers the goods better than Rivers Cuomo and company. (Hey, if you wanna watch four guys nailed down in front of their microphones, looking as though they're in the middle of a colonoscopy, have at it.)
Lately, Weener has been playing more often (and to a much better reception) in Austin, where audiences are still in the passionate throes of the honeymoon that ended in Dallas shortly after Weezer came out of hiding. Still, as far as I'm concerned, the allure remains, especially if you want to hear live versions of anything off 1996's Pinkerton, the disc Cuomo has all but turned his back on, spitting and shitting on it anytime a microphone is near enough to catch his mumbles. Currently, Weener is in the process of learning the songs off Maladroit; Reynolds scored a copy of the unreleased album a few weeks ago from a friend at Weezer's label. So the band continues, for now, and like it or not, it takes home another one of these. If there's justice in this world, the next time Weezer comes to Dallas, Weener will open. A battle of the "band," if you will. Doubt that Cuomo has the stones for that, though. --Z.C.
Gypsy Tea Room
Winner for: Live Music Venue
Only one thing makes for a "best" live music venue: the, ahem, live music, if you didn't already know (and some of you didn't, apparently, which is probably why you weren't nominated, so shuddup already). Everything else is a moot point--save, perhaps, such trivial things as acoustics, sightlines and the generosity of bartenders kind enough to double a single of Maker's Mark. That's it--that's fucking it, end of story. I don't care how many autographed drum heads you got up on the wall, how many local comers you're booking (gee, nice of you to do so, but this is a voters'-choice award, not some kinda charity), how many ads you're taking out in the Observer, what kind of cold-meat platter you put out for the talent or how so-effin'-cool your front-door people are. If you're booking crap, you arecrap on that given night. And, please, don't tell me taste is subjective: When the Gypsy's booking Norah Jones and Wilco and Antipop Consortium, in addition to such varied locals as Chomsky and Earl Harvin, that, my friends, is called stuffing the ballot box. No one else even stood a chance.
There's a reason bands like playing the Gypsy Tea Room: It's as homey as your grandmother's on Christmas morning and as roomy as your pants before Thanksgiving dinner. Like a red-wine sauce left for just the right amount of time on the burner, it all boils down to good taste, and the Gypsy bookers have the best in town. You think otherwise? Fine enough, you're welcome to spend your cash where you want--owners and audience alike. (Maybe we just don't jibe with Jibe, but neither should you.) Just compare the GTR's list of recent and forthcoming shows with everyone else's--Spiritualized, Jon Spencer Blue Explosion, Neil Halstead, Mark Eitzel, Luna, Jim White...and Mr. Show's David Cross--and do you really have to wonder why this venerable venue keeps skipping home with this doorstop? Didn't think so. --R.W.
Winner for: Blues
Not that you'd notice, Dallas and blues music go way back, from its role in Robert Johnson's limited recorded legacy and Leadbelly and Blind Lemon Jefferson's street-corner serenades in Deep Ellum to Steve Miller's apprenticeship with Aaron "T-Bone" Walker and Stevie Ray Vaughan's start. Unless you count a dance club called Blind Lemon (and you really shouldn't) and the SRV acolytes that pop up now and again, trying to start their own Texas flood, not much of that history is evident. But there's more there if you look for it: The nominees in this category--Josh Alan Band, Pops Carter & the Funkmonsters, Big Al Dupree, Jim Suhler and Monkey Beat--along with Anson Funderburgh and the Rockets, the Smokin' Joe Kubek Band, Mike Morgan and the Crawl, Lucky Peterson and Brian "Hash Brown" Calway, extend the timeline until the past meets the present.
For the second year in a row, the Silvertones are kings of this particular mountain, winning over crowds with their mix of souped-up standards ("Sneakin' Round Town"), hang-ten hip-shakers ("I Don't Care") and hot-sauce instrumentals ("Cruisin'," the title cut from the group's debut). The band--drummer-vocalist Randy Ball, guitarists Leo De La Vega and Walter Delesandri and bassist Brian Wicker--doesn't really challenge or change anyone's idea of what blues music should sound like, but it might make you pay attention to it again. --Z.C.
The Adventure Club
Winner for: Radio Program That Plays Local Music
There's enough music being made in Dallas right now (and some of it doesn't rhyme with Pompsky) to fill a dozen multi-hour radio shows per week, let alone the five nominated, only two of which (Live and Local on KYNG-FM and The Local Show on KEGL-FM) actually dedicate all their minutes to local bands. The other three (Tom Urquhart and Chris Bellomy's The Good Show on KTCU-FM, Russell Lyday's The Show That Fell to Earth on KNTU-FM and statue-winner Josh Venable's The Adventure Club on KDGE-FM) are run by guys who see local music on equal footing with all their other aural fixations, placing Centro-matic, Legendary Crystal Chandelier and Pleasant Grove alongside Oasis, Elvis Costello and XTC on their playlists. And pitting a block of Eniac against a marathon of Billy Bragg (as Venable did recently) is a greater compliment than a two-hour journey through the likes of Pushmonkey and Edgewater (which sounds more like a hostage situation to us).
Venable's been a local-music advocate away from the microphone as well, getting local bands added to The Edge's regular playlists and setting up an every-Thursday concert series, Edge Sessions at Club Clearview, which books established acts such as Slobberbone and The Deathray Davies, but also gives slots to bands like The Mona Jane and My Spacecoaster. In the end, however, this category is about the radio. And you, the voters, have shown you'll listen to The Bluetones and Ash just to hear an in-studio recording of Will Johnson playing acoustic. Even if it's the other way around, you're still getting a weekly dose of local music. And that's the point. --S.S.