Stripped Down

Sometimes too much is way too much

In the month or so since I've been in Dallas, I've heard repeated reports on how dysfunctional the music scene is here. How everyone's mean, and there's infighting and backstabbing and cynicism. How bands claw at each other with the spastic, fang-bared verve of a bunch of male baboons. Could be--I haven't been around long enough to gather the appropriate evidence, though I've heard a primate-like grunt here and there in the shadows.

But, knowing that, at least anecdotally, such musical karma chaos is the norm, I can't help but wonder how Smile Smile--aka Ryan Hamilton and Jencey Hirunrusme--gets away with being so sincere, so sweet, in the midst of all the bloodlust.

The duo's CD release show at the Cavern was suitable for a rainy Saturday night, low-key but tight with a low hum of energy, sultry and harmony-drenched. Smile Smile is the type of band you need to experience live to appreciate. The new disc, Blue Roses, is solid enough, a sort of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah/Mazzy Star hybrid of sing-along folk, buzzy country-leaning tunes and uptempo/downtempo swings, with brilliantly unconventional songwriting and smart harmonies anchoring the whole deal.

But live, Smile Smile, with its introspective and moody songs, borders on cheese; the tension is created when you stand there wondering if they are going to cross over into the horrible netherworld of too much sincerity. With Hirunrusme holding down the synth and Fender Rhodes, co-vocalizing with Hamilton as he mans the acoustic guitar and occasional harmonica, they never quite do, and the delicate balance they strike is a joy. Ethereal yet grounded, minimalist yet full, smart but not smarmy, Smile Smile is a hidden, comforting, melancholy secret.

Those are not, however, adjectives I would use to describe the drunken beehive that is Greenville Avenue.

Walking down Greenville is no simple stroll; Saturday night it felt like running a neon gauntlet, flanked by aging Highland Park types and cologne-saturated, pleated-Dockers-wearing folks who wished they were from Highland Park, parking attendants barking like carnival hustlers, and Girls Two Tequilas Away From Going Wild. With the garish lights aflicker, parking hassles and the constant buzz of jacked-up energy, it felt a bit like what I imagined the Sunset Strip felt like in the mid-'80s.

Only the energy of that time and place had a point and a focus: the burgeoning metal scene that eventually spawned Mötley Crüe and Guns N' Roses, among others. Like all great scenes, the vibe there revolved around drinking booze, getting laid and catching some great bands, riding a wave of something happening. From what I've read about it, there was a dangerous crackle in the air. But the focus on Greenville on Saturday revolved around drinking booze and...drinking booze. There didn't appear to be any particular interest in the catching-great-bands part, and--wow--it seemed the booze even usurped the getting-laid impulse. Oh, sure, there was a danger in the air, but it was not the scary edge of rock 'n' roll, the "I might have sex with Nikki Sixx tonight and get chlamydia" kind of danger; it was one more along the lines of the "If I walk down this street, I will definitely get raped" type of danger.

Which is to say, some sort of dysfunction is at work, but, like so many of the reports I've heard of the rough Dallas music scene, it's difficult to quantify or even name. Maybe it's a matter of overstimulation. Maybe a band like Smile Smile, with its lack of amplitude, gets lost in the shuffle of the thump-thump of cheap house music oozing out of Greenville mini-clubs, or the bad alt-country tumbling out the doors of those fake Irish pubs. Maybe Smile Smile is a case study in a fish trying to survive in a very loud pond. Maybe. All I know is that among the cacophony of that night, if you had walked by the Cavern at the right time, you would have been treated to some of the sweetest songs you've ever heard lazing out the front door. And, I hope, it would have appealed to you, and you would have walked in. And if something like that doesn't entice you, well, there are always body shots to be had at Whisky Bar.


Handstamps: Trek to the Fort that is Worth for the Modern 'til Midnight madness October 20 if you're looking for a little electro-brain stimulation. Presented in conjunction with the Hiroshi Sugimoto: End of Time exhibit, MTM features unpredictable indie rock from Stumptone, Southern rock from Dove Hunter and kooky experimental post-rock from Octopus Project. At the Modern, of course...Or the next day take a different highway and end up in Denton for Teenage Symphony's free show, 8 p.m., at J&J's Pizza.

 
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