By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
What with the Dallas Observer Music Awards taking up the bulk of our time here at the offices of late, we've been focusing a little too much on the best that area musicians had to offer us last year and, admittedly, not paying enough mind to the releases sent our way this summer.
Well, consider this our mea culpa. Below, you'll find our music staff's takes on nine area albums that we'd been eyeing in the ever-growing stacks of discs sent our way for review. Turns out some of them were worth the wait; others, not so much. But, either way, if an album appears on the list below, there's a reason behind it—either it's an act we've been especially eager to check out or one we've been curious about because we've heard a lot of chatter with their names involved.
So, at the very least, these nine acts have that much going for them. Which is nice—and will be even nicer and no doubt come in handy come the nomination process for next year's DOMAs. —Pete Freedman
Dallas' great rap hope, Dorrough, walks a line somewhere between Northeastern hipster MC and snap rapper on his debut, Dorrough Music, but for the most part, veers closer to the latter.
He repeats catch phrases ad nauseam, especially on his Southern-rap-like breakout hits, "Walk That Walk" and "Ice Cream Paint Job," both of which employ simple, hypnotizing dance hooks and lyrics a 4-year-old could easily keep up with. ("Walk That Walk" even includes a Soulja Boy-style "Yoooouuuuu!")
But what keeps the album from descending into cliché is the 22-year-old's surprisingly meaty, already mature flow. Rhyming in a deep voice and varying his cadence with ease, he absolutely demolishes elder Houston statesman Slim Thug on "Peace & Chain Swangin'," and is otherwise equally comfortable playing the hyperactive fool on up-tempo tracks such as "Wired to the T" and the sensitive father on album highlight "Feel This Way," which concerns his struggles to stay positive while caring for his sickly daughter.
A wide array of producers fill the disc with sing-songy, nursery-rhyming beats, including the rousing second-to-last track, "A Whole Lotta," which features children singing backup. While they probably aren't much younger than Dorrough, compared to his self-assured, confident flow, their voices sound positively infantile. —Ben Westhoff
RTB2 played it remarkably straight on its 2007 debut The Both of It, with guitarist/vocalist Ryan Thomas Becker and drummer Grady Sandlin eschewing overdubs and extraneous instrumentation for the bare-bones simplicity of thumping drums and raw electric guitar. "When Hammer Hits Stone," the first track on the band's new EP, In the Fleshed, sticks to this same formula, even if the song's structure shows a massive growth in ambition. A sprawling, Led Zeppelin-esque stomp, "Hammer" lets Sandlin unleash his inner John Bonham as Becker drives its insistent, Eastern-tinged melody into your brain, pausing intermittently to throw off squealing, pyrotechnic leads between verses of quiet, mounting tension.
The real revelation here comes on the other three songs, however, where RTB2 workshops its way through 40 years of classic rock experimentation, exploring the sonic possibilities of its home studio to re-record a couple old tunes and offer up the breezy, Thin Lizzy-ish "Letters to a Young Danny Kennedy." "Beta Crush (Fleshed)" is an aurally interesting revision of the Both of It tune (it's spooky vibe enhanced by slowly shaken maraca, droning organ and bells) but "Yer Fool's Suite II," another re-worked track, just might be the band's prettiest recording to date. —Noah W. Bailey
They Were Stars sounds like it comes from a suburban mall rock background—but, thankfully, the band doesn't sound like it's trying to play only to a crowd that wears neon colors.
There are no screaming or guttural vocals, silly synths, pop-punk beats or faux hip-hop grooves here. Rather, the 10 songs on Own Your Atoms have a sensible, easy rock vibe with catchy choruses. These guys don't sound like they're reaching for mass popularity like, say, Green River Ordinance, but they don't sound like they want to stay in small venues, either.
You have to give credit to a band like this that isn't trying to sound like a dated joke in a few years, but by the same token, there are some flaws: Frontman Collin Cable's singing sometimes sounds really off—especially in the chorus for "Baltimore." As a whole, though, Own Your Atoms comes across as something that wasn't made as a simple demo, and the band has a sound primed for a nice sonic polish upgrade down the line.
Or at least one hopes. —Eric Grubbs
Dallas-based rapper B-Hamp is looking to capitalize on the momentum created by his conspicuous dance craze "Do the Ricky Bobby," this time in the form of his full-length debut, B Dash. With 2009 proving to be the city's most influential time, thanks to other D-Town Boogie smash hits such as "My Dougie" and "My Swag," B Dash is a representative sample of a local sound that has surprisingly taken the nation by storm.
But it's obvious here that Brandon Hampton, as the rapper was born, is trying to prove that his repertoire goes beyond the club-rocking instructional shimmies his hometown gets credit for creating. Fueled by the slow-stepping grooves, 808 bass bounce and other old-school hip-hop production staples meant to prove the superiority of your car's audio, the album predictably gives ample space to the party jams. Hampton has also incorporated a couple songs in the "slow jam" and "cool out" iterations of the genre. In the end, though, B Dash does little to break new ground. The question to be asked though is this: Why would it want to?
With MTV's Sway decreeing that Dallas is the "next city to blow [up]," B-Hamp may be exactly where he wants. And B Dash may just be that type of moment-in-time snapshot of a culture and a city that far outlasts its perceived initial impact. —Nic Hernandez
Instrument wrangler Jeff Ryan has a hefty rock résumé, having played with Sarah Jaffe, St. Vincent, The New Year, Pleasant Grove, Crushed Stars and plenty of others. Dallasites recognize him most often as the skilled drummer who seems to drift from stage to stage, fervently exorcising demons from his tom or hi-hat.
Ryan's solo, instrumental project, Myopic, born of ideas surrounding a commissioned theatrical score, slays those same beasts...but with more instruments. The seven-song release, Plays in Pieces, feels familiar, warm and plays like a soundtrack to a movie you know you've seen but just can't place—and that's such a good thing. "As Much As You Can III" is Ira Glass' dream transition music with its tinkling bells that morph into something intense and dreamy, sensitive and bombastic at the same time. "Things I Saw" showcases Ryan's restraint—beautifully simple piano contrasts with Rebecca Howard's dramatic violin resulting in a track that feels like it should play over the close of a tear-stained film—perhaps the same film that opened on better times with the driving, poppy "Fixture."
Because it's layered, dramatic and emotive, it might be tempting to just lump the impressive project in with no-vox bands like Explosions in the Sky, but, as Myopic's name implies, that would just be shortsighted. —Merritt Martin
Listening to At Sea is like watching a teen drama on CW. The songs are pretty good, but, man, they're sure filled with a lot of melodrama. As such, pretty much any song off the new album by The Felons would be able to fill any heart-wrenching scene on Gossip Girl or 90210.
It's not that melodrama is a bad thing—it's something to be expected for a band that churns out power-pop of this emotive variety—but, when your album clocks in at just less than 40 minutes, it can get a little monotonous. At first, that's not the case; the first notes of album opener "Cathedral" are easily embraced. But, just like a Jack Johnson album, as it goes on, it's just more of the same thing. The only break from the feeling of the album is the rocker "Sugar and Gas," which sticks out like a sore thumb on an album that tries too hard to create anthems.
At Sea is a decent album, best taken in the right mood. Because frankly, it feels like a mood record—best listened to on a cool night while sitting by a fire. Or with your girlfriend. —Lance Lester
It seems telling that the first sound you hear from This Knowledge is a loop of crazed noise so distorted that you can scarcely tell what instruments are making it.
Maybe it's not an intentional way for former Mount Righteous guitarist Justin Spike to distance from the all-acoustic indie-pop marching band, but it certainly does the job nonetheless. The track, "Of Time and Space," quickly settles down into a melancholy Beatles-esque waltz, with Spike's vocals and acoustic strumming front and center and subtly backed by electric lead guitar and hushed drums that build into a full-out rock song, complete with a guitar solo. By the end of the song, though, it's clear why he left the band: Not only does Spike boast a definite melancholy streak that wouldn't jibe with the relentlessly cheerful Mount Righteous, but his songs shine on their own, without the bells and slide whistles. Other highlights include "Jaywalker" (another waltz) and the seven-minute, multipart "What We Need Is Now."
If the opening track selection was unintentional, though, the album closer certainly wasn't: On the slow, contemplative folk rendition of "Living to Succeed," a song Mount Righteous performs and he penned, Spike claims, "I'm not living to succeed/I'm here to understand." Seems Har Herrar has already managed the latter, as far as understanding how to record good lo-fi folk-rock songs. Here's hoping these songs help him out with the former. —Jesse Hughey
Iris Leu plays a style of piano-based soft rock that neither bores nor strongly grabs. She has a nice, clear voice, hitting in the vocal range that Sarah McLachlan and Paula Cole hit, and she plays the piano quite well too—assured, tastefully, and never too busy or too simple.
At 10 songs long, Hushaboo is pleasant on the ears, like the kind of music you'd hear at a coffee shop. And like many of the music you hear in one, her music can either inspire or be passed over as musical wallpaper; instrumentally, save for a couple of tracks, nothing takes center stage over the basic groundwork of piano, bass and drums. Thing is, that's perfectly fine, especially with the closing track, "After All Is Done," which features a guest appearance by a bowed xylophone. "Ipso Factor" and "The Red Bird," meanwhile, feature straightforward, upbeat grooves, and "Manifesto" features a stilted feel along with electronic programming.
Hushaboo does make for a compelling listen, but it might seem too safe and sound to reach an audience beyond the core of what's already out there. —Eric Grubbs
On Go On & Do Your Thing, Scott McCurry & The Mercenaries sounds like a great cover band flowing seamlessly through funk, R&B, pop and soul. And that's not necessarily a complete knock; the album features tremendous musicianship—particularly on the part of McCurry, whose guitar-playing is top-notch. Also on display is McCurry's ear for production. Musically, the album is flawless meandering through its different styles of music.
On songs like "Mercenary" and title track "Go On & Do Your Thing," however, the album gets a little bogged down; McCurry's voice can't quite handle the blue-eyed funk and faux-Prince wails, sounding forced and contrived. It's not all a struggle, though: In the middle of all the Prince aping is "What So...," the highlight of the album, perfectly blending pop and funk to create an authentic party jam.
Unfortunately for McCurry, though, his version of funk fusion seems a little too copied. No matter how great the musicianship and production are, the disc sounds like something your mom and dad would force you to listen to on a long drive in the car, rather than something you'd eagerly want to throw in the player yourself. —Lance Lester
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