OK, So We'll Never do this again.
It seemed like a swell idea at first: Do away with the so-called "local music-industry insiders" (i.e., guys who work for Sam Paulos) who have traditionally selected the Dallas Observer Music Awards nominees, and simply let the voters fill in the blanks. That's right: No top five hopefuls to choose from, just an empty line--the mark of a true readers' poll.
But by the time we counted all the thousands of ballots, we discovered that there are folks in this town who think Beck deserves the Local Musician of the Year award and at least one voter who'd like to hand over the Female Vocalist award to Ani DiFranco. And that was the easiest thing about tallying this year's Dallas Observer Music Awards. Like, what the hell do you do with the ballots that read, "That guy from that band that put out that record last year on that label run by the really tall guy"? Well, we threw those out. Those, and the ballots containing votes for Edie Brickell, Steve Miller, and Meat Loaf (yet, oddly enough, not those containing votes for Mike Nesmith--hang in there, buddy!).
Honestly, the experiment was far from failed--we prefer to think of it as one with mixed results. That is, for every obvious accolade handed out (Tripping Daisy's near-sweep reminds us of 1993, and when will the Old 97's stop winning the Country & Western statue?), there were myriad new faces to make this whole endeavor worthwhile. Nice to see Lewis, Rob G and the Latin Pimps, Sub Oslo, producer Matt Pence, Jump Rope Girls, and The Eagle's Local Show standing tall in the winner's circle. For a community to thrive--or merely exist, in Dallas' case--it must happily welcome new blood. This may not be a revolution, but it smells a bit like a bloodless coup.
These awards, now in their 142nd year, have never quite reflected the tastes of those who write for the Observer. (How you say in English: duh?) After all, we wonder year after year whether anyone in this town has ever heard of Bedhead, whether Peter Schmidt's singing in a register only dogs and rock critics can hear, and whether Ronnie Dawson's just too cool to win an award. And we're not fooling anyone here. Rock and roll's not a competition, unless you're being booked by Doug Simmons. Winning one of these awards--the Blind Lemons, or something--does not validate an artist's work any more than getting signed to Geffen or getting dropped from Geffen does.
But in the end, an Observer Music Award does mean that at least 74 people like you, which is comforting enough when you're playing to 13 folks at Trees on a Tuesday night. Mazel tov to the winners, and remember: There are no losers. Seriously.
Winner for: Best Act Overall, Musician of the Year (Tim DeLaughter), Songwriter of the Year (Tim DeLaughter), Album of the Year (Jesus Hits Like the Atom Bomb), Single of the Year ("Sonic Bloom"), Rock/Pop
Imagine the look on Island Records chairman Davitt Sigerson's face after he listened to Jesus Hits Like the Atom Bomb for the first time. Imagine a shit-eating grin creeping across his face as he heard the sound of his troubled label being rescued from the Seagrams chopping block. Imagine his eyes lighting up, knowing the band had given him a record he could sell to everyone.
Then picture him a minute later, after the members of Tripping Daisy outlined their plan for the album: Oh, you want another "I Got a Girl," huh? Sure, here's half a dozen that are even better...but you have to release this six-minute art-rock explosion first. Daring him to blink. Wanting him to. Saviors one minute, traitors the next. In that split second, Sigerson must have realized that by giving the band more control over its own career, he had somehow lost it all. Tim DeLaughter might as well have reached across the desk and ripped Sigerson's heart out of his chest. And grabbed his wallet while he was at it.
Tripping Daisy had given Sigerson a new red convertible and swallowed the key. To be fair, Sigerson and Island did give Jesus Hits Like the Atom Bomb a chance. When the album was released last July, the Island Records honcho brashly predicted in the Dallas Observer that it would sell at least 500,000 copies, maybe even more. He called the band's bluff by releasing the six-minute "Waited a Light Year" as the first single. Except the group wasn't bluffing, and the song hit like a water balloon, even after the label trimmed away almost a third of it. The band may call it something else--"artistic freedom," perhaps--but hiding a shiny package like Jesus Hits Like the Atom Bomb under that much wrapping paper smells a lot like sabotage.
Even though Sigerson kept up a brave front, the memo announcing Jesus Hits Like the Atom Bomb's release was likely stapled to the one announcing the termination of Tripping Daisy's relationship with the label, and it's a shame. Not that Island wasn't the most qualified applicant for the band's screw-job; the label was so hands-on during the making of 1995's I Am an Elastic Firecracker, you can still see A&R reps James Dowdall and Rose Noone's fingerprints four years later. No, it's a shame that Tripping Daisy wasted the best album of its career wriggling out of its contract. It's unfortunate that the band didn't give songs as frequently startling as the ones on Jesus Hits Like the Atom Bomb the chance to astonish more people.
The songs would have--could have--done just that. Never has a contract-killer sounded quite as good as Jesus Hits Like the Atom Bomb, and neither has Tripping Daisy. The band's Island finale is a parting shot that feels like a summer kiss, a singles compilation that rides the new wave all the way to the Beach Boys. "Sonic Bloom" wins here for Single of the Year, but almost any other song on the album would have fit the bill, especially the pop-popping of "New Plains Medicine" and "Field Day Jitters." "Mechanical Breakdown"--propelled by Wes Berggren's ice-cream-truck keyboards--may be the best song UFOFU never wrote, and "Geeareohdoubleyou" finally finds the sound the band was searching for on 1993's Bill and I Am an Elastic Firecracker. Radio single followed radio single, but none of them ever ended up there. KDGE-FM (94.5) eventually added "Sonic Bloom," though it was too late to matter much. Everyone else had given up months earlier.
So, whether it wanted it or not, Tripping Daisy--Berggren (who also plays guitar), singer-guitarist Tim DeLaughter, drummer Ben Curtis, guitarist Phil Karnats, and bassist Mark Pirro--is out on its own now, and it seems as though that's exactly where it needs to be. The band has started its own label, Good Records, and it has a new album already in the can, the aptly titled We're Not Signed. Less than a year after Jesus Hits Like the Atom Bomb was released, Island Records is a memory. A good one, a bad one.
Tripping Daisy is now knee-deep in the future. Good Records--and its subsidiaries, Good Booking, Good Film, and Good Management--is being run on the Internet through Tripping Daisy's Web site, www.trippingdaisy.com, where the label's first release, The Tops Off Our Heads, is already available. The Tops Off Our Heads is really just one 22-minute song--loosely organized improvisations, really--divided into seven sections, including two songs by The Association: a blink-and-it's-gone snippet of "Cherish" and the band's impossibly slow rendering of "Never My Love." The EP is not without its endearing moments (such as DeLaughter calling out chord changes on Section 2), just without many actual songs.
Those can be found on We're Not Signed, the eight-song album the band recorded in February. It will likely be released by the band on Good Records later this year, and its title is not an appeal to record-label executives, but a badge of honor. All that's missing is the exclamation point at the end. The album is much subtler than Jesus Hits Like the Atom Bomb, detonating in small pops rather than three-guitar explosions. The band explores the five-part harmonies it only toyed with previously. "You First" sounds like the Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne holding hands with Brian Wilson, with DeLaughter's affected vocals wrapping around Berggren and Karnats' guitar effects. And "Kids Are Calling" could be the summer song of 1999, all la-la choruses and driving backbeat. We're Not Signed is the Sunday-morning hangover after Jesus Hits Like the Atom Bomb's Saturday-night party, the second half of the beginning of Tripping Daisy's career.
Next year's Music Awards should look a lot like this year's edition, which is strangely similar to the 1993 version, another Tripping Daisy landslide. In fact, the band is almost in the exact same position as it was then, beginning the next phase of its career loaded down with local praise. The only difference is that now, the band deserves everything it gets. Maybe more.
Winner for: Male Vocalist (Peter Thomas), Metal
If these parts ever had a rock-and-roll old school, Slow Roosevelt frontman Peter Thomas was Deep Ellum's original ambassador of West Coast throttle. Injecting his own brand of tongue-in-cheek "skinny" and "white" into the late-'80s/early-'90s funk-rock genre, Thomas made Last Rites the Texas-bred spawn of Soundgarden and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. "You're So Fucking Great (But I Suck)" became the fist-in-the-air, singalong anthem of every kid who ever sneaked out of mom's house to see the band at Club Clearview. Thomas left Last Rites in late 1990, not too long before drummer Mike Malinin saw his future as a real West Coaster (after quitting Caulk in 1993, he joined the Goo Goo Dolls shortly before the release of '95's A Boy Named Goo), and bassist Mike Daane turned his attention to producing local acts and playing in Ugly Mus-tard.
The bespectacled, forever-a-grad-student Thomas kicked around with some other bands--among them Green Engine and Jack, the latter with ageless punk brat Barry Kooda--before starting up Slow Roosevelt about three years ago. Odd that such violence and bile ("It's my friends I'd like to kill!") comes from a guy who's so personable. Odder still that Thomas' longtime stage antics--reverbed bullhorn, seizures, and all--match the blood-spitting tension of the music. At first glance, he comes off like your best friend's articulate and bookish little brother. But as the screaming Peter of Slow Roosevelt, he's about one step removed from the Charlie Manson of Helter Skelter. For music this relentlessly dark, noisy, and abusive, the distance between performer and persona creates the necessary breathing room.
Slow Roosevelt draws an ever-growing crowd--the therapeutic catharsis that apparently works so well for Thomas (we don't think he's actually killed or raped anyone, anyway) works for his audience too. The band's two albums, 1996's Starving St. Nick and last year's throwawayyourstereo, are case studies in what happens when real smart guys grow up listening to Bad Brains and watching porn; these fellers are more concerned with gut-eating content than musical subtlety. Yet the progression between the two albums is worth noting: Where St. Nick came off like a scattered and still-smoking train wreck, throwaway boasts a cohesion and roll-with-it depth that comes only with age and experience.
Thomas' longtime bandmates--Scott Minyard on guitar, Mark Sodders on bass, and Aaron Lyons on drums--provide the menacing, airtight vehicle for Thomas' kamikaze mission. Slow Roosevelt ("Slow-Ro," to all you voters) not only makes its camp at the harder-is-better One Ton label; it's practically the label mascot. And once you've seen the band live, seen Thomas arson his way through the set with the ire of an A/V nerd on a psychotic binge, you'll do well to get outta the way and let him burn, baby, burn.
Gabrielle Douglas (Buck Jones)
Winner for: Female Vocalist
So Buck Jones' Gabrielle Douglas--Gabby, to those in the know--is the towering new siren in Dallas. You'll get no argument here. Blithe and lithe behind a bass that almost obscures her, she's a pretty, seductive rock-pop princess who makes pretty, seductive rock pop. She's hardly the calculated ingenue, but more a natural shining star. Gabby is only half the vocal ingredient of Buck Jones: Mr. Gabrielle Douglas, a.k.a. Burette, is the other. The two equally share the lead on songs as though that were written into their marriage vows, so you can't talk about Gabrielle's wiles without balancing against her the rest of the band's wares. Swirling, ethereal, and moody one moment, hubby-on-a-mission-to-rock the next, Buck Jones--which also features Cody Lee on drums and Tommy Meador on guitar--is a dichotomy in slow bloom. Has been since the beginning.
Buck Jones is a band everyone near and dear to the local music biz--its fellow artists, scenesters, even the media--has loved and predicted grand things for as far back as 1996, when its self-done debut Shoegazer got a brief salute in Billboard. (The Observer has been writing about the band since 1994, when there were two female singers.) But neither the crowds nor the label offers ever came. The 1997 follow-up for steve records, Shimmer, was heralded across the board as an outstanding local effort, but it seems in retrospect like a Polaroid of a band still tottering, unable to find the perfect equilibrium. The post-Shimmer live show grew more stable, slowly attracting slightly bigger crowds as the band honed its dizzying combination of bombastic wandering rock and down-the-middle power pop. Still, Buck Jones remained a band that many praise, but far fewer actually clamor to see.
So how do you solve a problem like Buck Jones? It's a worthwhile question, rock-and-roll truthseeking brought on by a critically praised band that appears to be a walking contradiction. Can you capture the hearts of the masses while giving them two disparate sounds at the same time? The band signed with One Ton last year, so it's Aden Holt's knot to unravel now. Buck Jones is generally considered One Ton's not-so-secret commercial weapon, a potential motherlode that counters One Ton's two tons of metal, but the act has teetered on the verge of being The Next Big Whatever before. And from the previews of the forthcoming Buck Jones album gleaned from the One Ton sampler Big & Bothered Vol. 2, the knot just gets tighter. One track, "Decide," features Burette doing his Everyman John Lennon, churning guitars washing over a stomping beat. But singing between "Imaginary Lines," Gabrielle's voice bounces upon a field of sweet, spacey pop; suddenly, everything feels so up. Both tracks are perfect paradigms of the two faces of Buck Jones; they're both first-rate, it's just that they sound as though they were recorded by two different good bands. Every band should have such problems.
--Scott Kelton Jones
Winner for: Best New Act
Lewis is the very definition of "new act." These self-proclaimed "white, middle-class" suburban-raised guys, who got together in December 1997 when they were all attending Texas A&M, have yet to release a CD at a time when doing so is as difficult as booting up a computer, and the new drummer replaced an original drummer whose last name wasn't even known by the rest of the band. (And to be honest, when the band was proclaimed the winner, the Observer music staff said in unison, "Lewis who?") Yet when the readers' votes in this category were tallied, Lewis easily won, besting second-place finisher Captain Audio by a substantial number of votes--this, despite the fact that Captain Audio consists of respected vets (Brandon Curtis of UFOFU, Josh Garza of Comet, and Regina Chellew of myriad bands) whose ambitious, enthralling debut disc ranks among the finest ever released by a Dallas band. Perhaps the readers didn't consider Captain Audio a "new" band at all; maybe it's a matter of semantics when it comes down to it. Old-timers.
Not that Lewis isn't deserving of this award, not at all. Hey, the kids have spoken, and that's all that matters. Besides, Lewis is very much a new band in the sense that it only now has begun to find its voice, only now has begun sifting through its disparate, if sometimes conspicuous, influences: R.E.M. and Tripping Daisy, pop poppins and Pearl Jam (oh, they'll learn). They're a new band, all right--novices just beginning to figure out what it takes to make a record, what it takes to turn a passion into a hobby into a career. Brett Tohlen (24, singer-guitarist), Matt Beaton (23, and ditto), and 24-year-old bassist Jeff Truly formed Lewis (so named for author C.S. Lewis) during their days spent working as DJs at the A&M radio station; 20-year-old drummer John Owen Parish joined after what's-his-name left. And from its inception, the band has "never had to play to 10 people," as Beaton asserts with no small amount of pride. "We expected it to be harder than it was," Tohlen adds. "I think we were fortunate at the beginning, because we had a lot of help."
Indeed, it has been years since such novices have been embraced and assisted by the local rock cognoscenti. Among those Tohlen refers to with affection are One Ton Records chief Aden Holt and former Theatre Gallery honcho Russell Hobbs, the latter of whom booked the band at his Christian club, The Door, to play the venue's grand opening last May. A gig at the Curtain Club, opening for Caulk's farewell show, followed; soon enough, Lewis became a regular fixture at the club. And the band's current cheerleader is producer Patrick Keel (Tripping Daisy, Hagfish), who can't express enough how much he "just loves this band." In fact, Keel approached Lewis with the offer to record a song--for free--to be included on Jeff Liles and Perla Doherty's 31-band compilation, Static Orange, which is being given away at local high schools and at area record stores. (Beaton concedes that the album is heavy on "male aggressive rock," but doesn't consider Lewis part of this genre.) On top of that, Lewis is currently at work on its first full-length CD. The band wanted Keel to produce it because during high school, they were such big fans of the Keel-produced Tripping Daisy debut Bill. The album will be released this summer on Deep Ellum Records, the resurrected label run by Keel and Hobbs--and, so very long ago, home to Three on a Hill and Feet First.
When these Dallas boys talk about their influences, they do not stray too far from home. They talk about Broose Dickinson's pop poppins with the devotion of the truly faithful. After all, Tohlen insists, "pop poppins made me want to be in a band--the energy they had and how passionate they were. I like music that's a dialogue, not just this band up here playing music and doing their own stuff, which is sort of vain. I like bands that make you feel like you're carrying on a conversation in some way and there's a connection out there." To that end, Lewis is most concerned with translating its live sparkle to tape without sounding canned or overproduced. Songs from its forthcoming CD, such as "Fitful Fire" or "Up for Air" (the jaunty, full-throttle track that also appears on Static Orange), certainly demonstrate the band's ability to play loud and hard without sinking in the mushy middle. That, all by itself, is worthy of commendation.
Winner for: Country & Western
It should be noted up front that the very week the Old 97's take home this award, the band is releasing a record that wouldn't know Country or Western if either one bought Rhett Miller a Pearl at Adair's. Granted, most of the readers who bestowed this accolade upon the 97's have not yet heard the released-this-week Fight Songs--unless they hang out at the Barley House. They know the 97's only from the band's three previous outings: Hitchhike to Rhome, Wreck Your Life, and Too Far to Care--discs that made Miller, Murry Hammond, Philip Peeples, and Ken Bethea the pull-out centerfolds in many an issue of No Depression, that bi-semi-annual-monthly magazine devoted to former pop musicians who discovered Johnny Cash in a box of Cracker Jack. They know the 97's as the band that filtered pop through a pilfered twang, that played "country" only by default, that put the honky in honky-tonk. How else to explain the Old 97's walking away with an award that was sure to go to odds-on fave the Dixie Chicks, who owned this thing well before they sold out their country souls for multiplatinum records and Grammy bookends? Say what you will about the Chicks--and God knows we've said plenty of late--but they're a lot closer to country than the 97's these days, even if that's just Nashville's idea of country...or music so slick, you can't even hold it in your hands.
Fight Songs is easily the best of the Old 97's records, if only because it feels the least forced, the most honest--especially compared with, say, Wreck Your Life, which sounds just like a "country" record released on a Chicago-based label. (In other words: tries too hard.) The new disc is a step backward for Miller and Hammond--I loved this thing the first time around, when it was released in 1990 and titled Under a Radio Sun by Sleepy Heroes--accompanied by a thousand leaps forward. No more hiding behind irony; no more substituting twang for substance; no more sad songs played at a thousand miles an hour. From Neil Young start to Seals & Croft finish (but in a good way, and there is such a thing), Fight Songs finally offers proof that when Rhett Miller and the boys put their minds and hearts to it, they can make a Pure Pop Record full of delightful songs, sad songs, jubilant songs, poignant songs. In other words: real songs.
Finally, the hiccup is gone from Miller's voice, replaced by a deepfelt clarity. After years of wondering whether it was the many mood of Rhett Miller, we find the boy's no longer afraid of the high notes or the low points or the ground in between. Listen only to "Jagged," a song that could easily have been buried beneath its borrowed godfather-of-grunge crunch. Once upon a time, Miller and Hammond would have played the song for kicks, laying down vocals like a construction worker building with brick and mortar: Hey, man, it's a job. But "Jagged," like the rest of the record, plays up the vocals and plays down the y'allternative cornpone. Never has Miller sounded straighter or sweeter in his entire life. Here's a guy you wanna root for, even if he's still the prettiest guy in all the land singing about how women break his little ol' heart. Top it off with Hammond's fuzzbox drawl and Bethea's distorto-drone on "Crash on the Barrelhead," and here's a record Elektra can finally work with. Never mind the embarrassment of riches elsewhere: "19," "Murder (Or a Heart Attack)," "Oppenheimer," and so forth.
As documented in this paper three weeks ago--and, let's face it, for the past decade--it's been an uphill battle for Rhett Miller ever since he grew his hair long and sauntered around the St. Mark's campus with an acoustic guitar slung across his slight frame. A decade ago, he was just a boy in his late teens trying to emulate his Brit-pop idols, singing his fancy-lad poetry in a fey British accent; listen now to Mythologies and marvel at how illusory it sounds. It was all so charming, yes, but nothing beyond that--though that was enough to make the girls at Dada go ga-ga for that boy with the teardrops in his voice. Yet to watch Miller go through transformation after transformation was utterly captivating for those who knew he was just talented enough to appear lost, confused. It seems forever ago that Rhett's Exploding imploded on Chumley's one night, making a godawful noise that sounded as if someone left the melodies in the van. Back then, people wondered how he'd pick up the pieces. Nothing's worse than being a guy who lived down to his potential.
Now, Miller's part of a real band with real purpose, just one element surrounded by three other essential components. Though he's spent a little too much time on an Old 97's Internet mailing list trying to back-pedal, Murry Hammond was exactly right when he told the Observer a few weeks ago that "no one would give a shit about Rhett Miller if it wasn't for the Old 97's." It's a Band Thing, and the new record is the product of four men who finally figured out it's OK to pop instead of bang. Maybe next year they'll take home the Rock/Pop award. And probably a lot more.
Winner for: Folk/Acoustic
Heads up, kids: Meredith Louise Miller hasn't been folk or acoustic for a while. In her evolution from a lone chanteuse of twang to her current role as frontperson of a veteran-laden alternacountry band, Miller has plugged in and turned up, with impressive results. Her bandmates--Dave Monsey on bass, Bryan Wakeland on drums, and songwriting partner Reed Easterwood on guitar (and banjo and lap steel...)--give the ever-humble Miller her spotlight, and she does a damned gracious job of giving them theirs. But the real star of the show, as ever, is Miller's astounding voice: deep, warm, honest-to-God codeine for your worn-out heart and brain.
The Meredith Miller Band has just self-released a full-lengther, madami'madam, with all kinds of wonderful things happening throughout. While her collaborations with Easterwood push toward the full-on slide-and-pop end of the spectrum, Miller's self-penned tunes remain consistent with her earlier haunting melody work. Easterwood produced this gem with the same inventiveness and insight he brings to his own recordings, and the results make for a sort of indie-country hybrid. It doesn't sound like a Dallas thing, and anyone who listens would agree that the record deserves to be heard way beyond this town.
We critic types can breathe a sigh of relief that this Dallas talent is getting the voter recognition she deserves. (Of course, show me another local female worth her weight in songwriting talent, and I'll show you a grading curve.) And though she's transcended this category, we'll happily present her the Folk/Acoustic nod, but only with the understanding that she's earned far more than this award can offer.
Tie: Hellafied Funk
Crew/Professor D & the Playschool
Winners for: Funk/R&B
R&B is irrelevant here, as both winners have precious little to do with either letter. For that matter, Hellafied Funk Crew and Professor D & the Playschool don't have much to do with funk either, unless you're talking about the rank quality of their music. The only direction these bands make our ass move is out the door and as far away from where they're playing as possible. Or back to the record store to get our $12 back. And the fact that the winners are this dissimilar to each other and the genres they won for--Hellafied Funk Crew sounds like Korn, and Professor D & the Playschool just sound corny--shows just how little people care about this category. Or music in general. Of course, when the other nominated bands include only one artist worthy of consideration (Erykah Badu) and two others who are just as odious as the winners (Pimpadelic and Beef Jerkey), it's not exactly easy to separate the wheat from the chaff. It's all chaff. (Hey, c'mon, they won the awards already--what more do you want?)
But you wanted the worst, so here they are. It's hard to decide which band is more offensive to good taste. At first blush, we'd like to say it's Professor D & the Playschool, a band that was a bad idea back when it was called KC & the Sunshine Band. Vocalists Michele Broussard and Dorie Love tie for the least amount of soul possessed by a soul singer, but even that is almost forgivable. The problem is the music, which is so lifeless, singer-guitarist Donnie "Professor D" Heyden should have hired a cardiologist to produce his albums, which include 1996's Certified Funky, 1997's Certified Funky 2...and, sweet Jesus, the band is in the studio hard at work on volume 3. Certified Funky 2 wasn't much of a sequel, and not just because it was as bad as the original. It's the same damned album: Eight of the album's 12 tracks appeared on the first Certified Funky. And as all of the songs sound essentially the same anyway, Heyden has managed to come up with only one marginally workable idea over the course of the albums' 20 or so tracks. Pure genius. Maybe on the third edition, he'll use only seven of the same songs.
In fact, Professor D & the Playschool are so unoriginal, they make Hellafied Funk Crew seem like part of the Brill Building stable by comparison. Well, that's stretching it a bit, especially if you happened to go to Fort Worth when the Family Values Tour (featuring Korn, Ice Cube, Limp Bizkit, and Rammstein) stopped through last year. Hellafied Funk Crew offers a condensed version of that lineup--both in concert and on its 1998 self-titled debut--conveniently cramming the entire concert into one band. HFC nabs Limp Bizkit's hard-rock-with-a-DJ idea, Korn's atonal guitars, Ice Cube's gangsterisms, and every band's vocals. The result is songs not unlike what passes for music these days on KDGE or KEGL, industrial-strength riffs set to a hip-hop beat with unintelligible and unintelligent lyrics rapped on top. I've tried for two years in a row to find something worthwhile about this band and have yet to come up with anything. I think I'll stop trying now. And please stop voting for it.
Winner for: Jazz
At first, it seemed relatively easy to classify Earl Harvin--jazzer first, punk second, sideman-for-hire only when his schedule allowed it. For a time, he was this close to achieving some sort of national fame as the drummer in Seal's band; at least twice he could be seen on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, caught in fleeting glimpses behind the kit as Seal sang his flyweight top-of-the-pops soul to Leno and the home viewing audience. But something was never quite right with the picture: Harvin looked out of place, a dreadlocked and landlocked prop whose own particular genius was lost beneath so much big-money spit and polish. It's one thing to cheer the hometown boy made good, sitting pretty with a Warner Bros. paycheck in his pocket. It's something else entirely to wish him all the best on his own terms. If only Warners had been wise enough to listen to Harvin's first two records he cut for Leaning House: Earl Harvin Trio/Quartet in 1995, and Strange Happy (credited to Harvin and pianist Dave Palmer) in 1997. Perhaps then the label's executives would have known what a true waste it was that Harvin was just playing with Seal. It was like a typhoon playing second fiddle to a slight breeze.
Harvin has long been Dallas' most enigmatic performer--a jazzer once photographed for a Music Awards issue wearing a Hole T-shirt, a genius who so often lends his talents to albums by musicians whose gifts should be returned. That he managed to balance his passion for avant-punk in rubberbullet and his devotion to post-bop on his own jazz records is testament not only to his abilities but to his faculty to see beyond genre limitations. He does not discriminate, does not find it necessary to satisfy one appetite while ignoring any other. He gorges himself at the buffet and keeps coming back for more. Now, single discs full of six- or seven-minute songs no longer fulfill his cravings; he needs to keep going, out to where the air is thin and clouds become stars and pale blue becomes pitch-black. His is the sound made when restlessness does battle with prowess, when the end is only the prelude to the beginning. Dallas' finest musician--its smartest, its most savvy and dexterous, its most benevolent and profound player--doesn't make records anymore. He goes on journeys.
To refer to the forthcoming Earl Harvin Trio at the Gypsy Tea Room, to be released at the beginning of May on Leaning House Records, as Harvin's third record as bandleader somehow diminishes its results. The two-disc collection--all 137 minutes of it, by God, spread over a mere nine tracks--sounds as though it were made by a different band, even though keyboardist Dave Palmer and bassist Fred Hamilton once more appear. It's a sprawling, exhilarating, dazzling, jocular, and utterly out record--"free jazz," but only because what the hell else do you call it? A dozen listens later, the record still resists classification. It's not the easiest thing to get inside of, not the most inviting of Harvin and his band's trio of releases, but that's because it's the most challenging, the most provocative, the most in-your-face daring even when it calms to a whisper and slows to a crawl. Or when it exhibits a rare moment of humor, breaking the accumulated tension that throbs and pulses beneath Palmer's organ-playing (which often sounds like fuzzed-out guitar) and Hamilton's heart-attack bass. And especially when it lets fly, breaks free of the earth's gravity and soars to a place jazz hasn't visited since the early 1970s--when old-timers began lamenting the death of their music.
Not long into the 24-plus minutes of "What I Want to Do to You" (originally the bop lead-off track on Strange Happy, rendered unrecognizable in its current incarnation), Palmer suddenly, inexplicably, breaks into a few bars of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." But it's a momentary respite: Palmer cuts loose again, absconds deep into the final funk frontier while Harvin keeps him grounded, laying down a beat like landing lights. Finally, the track dissolves into ambient beats and trance-like rhythms, until you half expect Tricky to come out from behind the curtains and gravel-growl over the track. Every song on the new record's like this, sort of: intimate and whispered one second, consuming and enormous the next. This ain't just a record; it's a lifestyle.
When the disc is written about in rock magazines--and surely Leaning House owners Mark Elliott and Keith Foerster will make sure to get such an epic collection into the hands of the Important Tastemakers--there will no doubt be comparisons to early Weather Report, Live-Evil-era Miles Davis, and Keith Jarrett, not to mention Spiritualized and its prog-rock progenitors. They're all fair game; At the Gypsy Tea Room is what happens when jazzers raised on rock decide to cut loose from history, kiss tradition goodbye, and move directly into a dazzling, unknown future.
Winner for: Blues
There's no musician in town more worthy of courtesy than Brian "Hash Brown" Calway, if only because this Yankee transplant has spent so long paying the bills by playing host to some of the rottenest "blues" musicians you've ever been smart enough to stay the hell away from. Recording with ZuZu Bollin, Marchel Ivery, and Henry Qualls or mentoring Todd Deatherage and preteen wonder Andrew Baxter Jr.--all that good stuff is out of love and respect, the benevolent pursuits of the blues scholar who knows deep down it don't get any better than yesterday but who doesn't shy away from taking the competition under his broad wings. But how on earth Calway can stand hosting blues jams (the scariest two-word combo in the English language, save perhaps "open mike" and "rock opera") is beyond the most rational mind. There's got to be nothing worse than setting up shop at The Bone or Hole in the Wall and inviting every two-bit liquored-up Skynyrd fan with a Stevie Ray fetish up on stage for a little rudimentary A-A-B guitar-slinging. Calway has the constitution of a combat surgeon: He's seen it all, till finally he has become inured to the blood and guts his blues too often get reduced to during Tuesday-night throwdowns. Fact is, the guy could beat the hell out of Kenny Wayne Shepherd, but Calway's such a nice guy, he'd probably give him lessons instead.
Here's a guy who lends his talent and his band (the righteous rhythm section of bassist Terry Montgomery and drummer Bobby Baranowski, beloved ever since his days keeping Reverend Horton Heat on a leash) to the most workaday of projects, yet never loses the faith. Not that Mitch Palmer's 1997 debut She's Lookin' Good--co-credited to the H.B.'s and released on their Browntone label--was dreadful. It was simply so obvious, R&B standards (among them "Can Your Monkey Do the Dog" and "Three Time Loser") and lesser-knowns rehashed one more time, till the music became an echo of a genre that has evolved as much as a corpse. God bless the bluesman who infuses his term paper with a little soul, but there comes a point when blues bands are just swing bands without the wardrobes. Sorry, but it all sounds like that Deep Ellum theme park to me.
It's a shame Calway and his boys haven't released their own record since 1994's Rollin' Blues. That disc, which is now a little hard to find, offers proof enough that Hash Brown's a smart player who knows when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em--meaning, he stays the hell out of the way long enough to let the sidemen and guest stars take center stage more often than not. You'd have thought Hammond B-3 player Nick Connelly was part of the band on Rollin'; he gets more solos than Calway, who proves himself time and again the most generous player this side of assists leader Jason Kidd. Wish we could give him more than this lousy statue.
Winner for: Best Rap/Hip-Hop
It must be frustrating for the members of Shabazz 3 to visit the house on Lower Greenville that their manager, Ron Guerra, shares with former Deep Blue Something guitarist Kirk Tatom. There, hanging on the dining-room wall, is a shining example of how inexplicable the music industry can be: the gold record Tatom was awarded for Deep Blue Something's 1995 major-label debut, Home. Seeing Tatom's gold disc has to be almost as frustrating as being forced to open up for Pimpadelic or Hellafied Funk Crew just because it's the only way to get gigs. Or seeing the list of nominees in the Best Rap/Hip-Hop category and not seeing another real hip-hop band mentioned, after working for years to get the Dallas hip-hop community some attention. It must be difficult for Shabazz 3 to ignore all the flashing signs blocking its path, the ones that say, "Sorry, fellas. Talent doesn't matter."
In the past year, however, the band has begun to slip by some of the roadblocks, mainly because it realized no one else was going to move them. And by helping itself, the band helped everyone else as well. Shabazz 3's Fatz told the Observer last November that Dallas hip-hop is under construction and Shabazz 3 is the architect. As true as that statement is, it misses the point a bit. Fatz and his bandmates, Bobby Dee and Ty Macklin, haven't just drawn up the blueprints; they've helped build the thing from the ground up. Bobby Dee spotlights local acts on his weekly Internet radio show, Rap 3000. Fatz, along with Mental Chaos' DJ Rodney, hosts a hip-hop night at Liquid Lounge every Saturday. Macklin has produced almost every hip-hop artist--or former hip-hop artist, in the case of Erykah Badu--to come out of Dallas in the last decade. They aren't just the architects of Dallas hip-hop; they're the bolts that keep it together.
But as much as Shabazz 3 has done for itself and the rest of the Dallas hip-hop community, it's still waiting for a record label to come along and do the rest. That's why Live or Die, the EP the group released last year, was more than a little misleading. Of the five versions of the title track included on the disc, one is listed as the "LP version." However, the track isn't included on any of Shabazz 3's full-lengths, because, well, there aren't any. Better to wait to record an album until a label is willing to release one, the band figures. So its discography is small enough to fit on a price tag, numbering just one EP and a couple of compilation appearances--including "Latitude/Longitude" on 1998's Down by Sound, the local hip-hop collection assembled by KNON-FM (89.3)--giving us only a glimpse of its talent.
It's enough of a glimpse to know that Shabazz 3 is one of the finest hip-hop bands this city has ever produced. The members have the easy chemistry that comes from being together for so long; Shabazz 3 formed in 1993, and all three were in the Phlomatics (responsible for the underground hit "Jack the Blue, Don't Back the Blue") before that. Every song sounds like the East Coast-West Coast feud ending in a tie, neither side getting the upper hand for very long. Macklin, who also goes by the handle XL7, delivers his verses in a voice so high and airy that his words seem to drift like clouds, tethered to the ground only by Fatz's commanding delivery. Live or Die is A Tribe Called Quest as produced by Dr. Dre, jazz hitting the street running. Or maybe it's N.W.A. onstage at Birdland, Roy Ayers' vibes melting Ice Cube's glare. Either way, Shabazz 3 has been in the future for the past five years, and no one's caught up yet.
You can't blame the band for waiting to record an album, or at least you couldn't a couple of years ago. In 1996, Musician magazine named Shabazz 3 one of the best unsigned bands in the country, which for many bands usually means they won't stay unsigned very long. Plus, Macklin's work on Badu's 1997 debut Baduizm--he produced "Drama"--should have netted him more than just the handful of courtesy calls he got from a few record labels, more a case of labels covering their asses than of any real interest. In the end, all Shabazz 3 got was a few sentences to add to its press bio and another disc to file in its record collection instead of a gold one to hang on the wall. A long-overdue Dallas Observer Music Award isn't much of a consolation prize in the major-label game, but maybe the band should stop playing it. Let the labels have Pimpadelic or Hellafied Funk Crew. They don't deserve Shabazz 3 anyway.
Winner for: Reggae
Percussion so terse it explodes like machine-gun fire in the air; beats that skitter across the room like a thousand mice; a relentless, pulsating bass line--this is dub music as performed by Sub Oslo, reggae at the end of the century. Of course, theirs isn't a revolutionary sound, merely an evolutionary one, where music stretches so far out there, it sometimes doesn't snap back. This music's been around for decades--dub was originally credited to King Tubby and Lee "Scratch" Perry, the progenitors of Jamaican reggae in the late 1960s and '70s--but when done right, it still sounds brand-new, unheard, ultra. There's a reason the Clash went dub when punk became too limiting; there's a reason the Beastie Boys revere Lee Perry as if he were some voodoo priest. No other music allows for so much space; dance this mess around, even if it means standing in place.
The members of Sub Oslo are dub fanatics for the post-punk crowd: They splice tape, lay on heavy echo and reverb, pour on the unorthodox sound effects that Perry and others created during continual ganja excursions. The only difference is that Sub Oslo has better studio equipment (and maybe more pedal effects than Stereolab). They're space-rock, but only if you're talking about the space in between inhaling and exhaling.
The ensemble, together since the winter of 1996, has come out with only one self-titled 12-inch EP, produced and released last year by Dave Willingham on his local indie label, Two Ohm Hop (also home to Light Bright Highway and Stumptone). The all-instrumental EP contains only three songs, but each track clocks in at more than 10 minutes. As Sub Oslo plays live, the music is fed to John Nuckels, who uses the mixing board to tweak the sound and throw samples into the mix. The result is a stew of sounds and textures bumping against one another and dispersing like asteroids that collide and pulverize in outer space. You can hear the fallout as beats erupt and shatter. But what keeps this potentially cluttered mix from degrading into a bong-resin mess is the ever-present see-saw melody and insistent bass line. There's a reason Sub Oslo entitled one of its songs "Dubaliscious." The stew just tastes good.
Winner for: Rockabilly/Roots
At the risk of looking into a crystal ball and ending up with a bunch of broken glass, the recent parting of ways between Interscope Records and Jim Heath will likely be the best thing that's ever happened to the Reverend Horton Heat. Heath's association with the label seemed to change his songwriting trajectory from ascendant arc to depressing parabola. By the end of it all, he'd succumbed to lounge shtick, cute fag jokes, and, finally, production that made his band sound like Slow Roosevelt on a bad night--which is to say unlistenable. The worst part of it all was that, for a time, Heath seemed like the man you could count on to avoid all that shit. He began, of course, as Deep Ellum's virgin in a whorehouse--all smiles and suits and rockabilly when the thing was ripped jeans and tuneless rawk. It seemed like novelty--such early songs as "Eat Steak" and "Marijuana" didn't exactly help--until you noticed that Heath could play that guitar, and that his melodies were generally dead-on.
Then he went and put out his second record, The Full-Custom Gospel Sounds of the Reverend Horton Heat, in 1993. More than anything before or since, that album proved Heath was for real. His songwriting had grown to the point that it no longer merely served his style, but rose above it. You could listen to the peerless "Lonesome Train Whistle" and imagine it sounding equally great played by a country yodeler or a garage-rock band; you could listen to "Wiggle Stick" and forget about the easy puns; you could marvel at the verses of "Bales of Cocaine," even if you thought the joke wasn't funny. Heath had figured out the trick: Force people to look beyond the superficial stylism. The only way to do that was with songs as good as these.
He then promptly set about screwing everything up. He jumped from Sub Pop to Interscope, and each successive album seemed to have its very own bad concept: Liquor in the Front teamed the Rev with uber-fan Al Jourgensen, a pairing that looked interesting on paper but sounded misguided on disc; It's Martini Time seemed like little more than a marketing scheme to lure the smoking-jacket lounge crowd, as if they hadn't all been previously cross-enrolled in the rockabilly revivalist problem; and Space Heater tried to reduce the band's country and rockabilly leanings into a slick alt-rock record. Those whispers you hear are an A&R guy telling the group to choose between a radio hit and a pink slip. As Heath wasn't able to come up with something as transcendent as Semisonic's "Closing Time," the pink slip it was, though Heath insists the split was a mutual decision.
Had he insisted on such mood swings alone, those albums might have been worthwhile. Problem was, his songwriting started suffering at around the same time. About a third of Liquor upheld the standard of Gospel; Martini lowered the ratio to something like one-fifth; and by the time Space Heater rolled around, Heath's songwriting skills had gone so far south, they started running into penguins.
Now he's back where he started: a Dallas institution, a winner of Dallas Observer music awards, and a cult figure with something to prove, which is no doubt why he's releasing his next single on his own start-up indie, Fun Boy Records. And Jim Heath again has a small label to back him up, with Sub Pop's brand-new Holy Roller, a 24-song best-of that includes material from the Interscope years in addition to a cover of Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues." Such returns to reality have a way of inspiring the good ones; witness Royal Trux's recent indie "comeback," Accelerator. (And was it Nelson Algren who said that revenge should be the primary motive behind all great writing?)
Heath's next move will determine whether Gospel was indeed the truth, or merely an aberration, whether he'll find himself on a more confident second lap or sitting in the back of Sol's Taco Lounge sipping Tanqueray. And those tacos ain't that good.
Rob G and the Latin Pimps
Winner for: Latin/Tejano
"The mambo was a dance, it was a pulse, oh, hell, it was sex to a '50s nation busy hiding its libido between contraband pages of The Tropic of Cancer." So read the liner notes from Capitol Records' Mambo Fever: Volume 2 collection. "And a hot wind loaded with pheromones was what the white mainstream caught from our neighbors to the south." All that means is that Desi Arnaz had no 'splainin' to do when the wacky comedy of I Love Lucy took a breather and Arnaz and his orchestra swung into a brass-blaring workout of pepper-shaker maracas and thumping bongos. It was reverse ethnic imperialism, multicultural education of a most winning kind, and if it wasn't exactly true of cha-chas and cumbias that if you shook your ass hard enough your prejudice would follow, you'd be hard-pressed to underplay the importance of the Anglo Eisenhower years' getting a weekly dose of this stuff on one of the most popular series in the history of TV.
Twenty-three-year-old bandleader and guitarist Robert Gomez didn't grow up watching I Love Lucy reruns. But he insists, "I dug the show and still do. I consider Arnaz a role model as much for his style as for his music. He was an entertainer, one of the smoothest guys around. He was in the public eye, and he kept to his roots. And then there was Perez Prado, who had a lot of commercial success with mambo. They produced an old-school sound with the horns, more of a human sound, that really attracted my ear."
The fresh results of those attractions are Rob G and the Latin Pimps, formed in 1997 while Corpus Christi native Gomez and his pals--some of whom have come from Colombia and Venezuela--were messing around in the music program at the University of North Texas. The local press has only begun wetting itself with ecstatic raves about these nine hipsters who specialize in Cuban sounds. Broadly speaking, they are part of an increasingly familiar (and, in some cases, grating) retro trend that includes everybody from BR5-49 to the Cherry Poppin' Daddies. But in the case of the Latin Pimps, the recipe is starting to overshadow the final concoction: handsome young men--in spiffy attire that's only slightly period--who wear their rhythmic chops self-effacingly. They don't try to show off so much as ingratiate you with their effortless stage presence.
One listen to El Borracho, the Latin Pimps' brand-new debut, bears out Gomez's assertion that his orchestra is more about a reaction to trend than a surrender to it. "The salsa coming out of New York these days is so overproduced. I don't want to be produced like that," he insists. "There comes a point when contemporary music gets to be too much, and you're forced to go back to the traditions." To that end, Rob G and the Latin Pimps seem to be seducing more and more listeners (not to mention dancers) as they play to packed houses once or twice a month at the Groovy Mule in Denton (those interested in the latest gigs can check out their Web site at latinpimps.com).
El Borracho is full of supple, swinging original compositions (or, rather, unbounded combinations of traditional Afro-Cuban styles) that can make a white person feel, well, utterly devoid of flash and culture. Rob G and the Latin Pimps lean hard on the jazz influences they got while studying at UNT; listen to the tumbling, slightly awry plunks of Carlos Cuevas' piano near the opening of "Club Fantasia," followed by Gomez's nimble, pinpoint guitar notes fluttering all over the percussion, and you know these guys have spent as much time listening to Miles' albums as they have Tito's. Then, it's a lot safer for a listener unfamiliar with Cuban styles to cling to the jazz touches. When speaking to someone who's completely clueless as to the difference between danzon and son, Gomez is game to get a little technical about music that has all the blood drained out of it when you approach it that way. "All Cuban styles are based in clave," he says. "It's a rhythmic device that ties in everything musically--the horns, the percussion, the bass. It's this two-bar tension and resolution; one bar is on the beat, one bar is a little off the beat."
In the end, though, the different variations on this structure are clarified for those who familiarize themselves with Latin dance moves. "We try to give dance lessons before all of our shows," Gomez says. "People who take them usually pick up on the different styles. If you can dance it, then you can hear it. And if you hear it, you can dance it."
Winner for: Industrial/Dance
Who would have thought Dallas still wanted to dance? Apparently a bunch of people who are too old, too tired, or just too lazy to realize that a pale ale at the Rock Bottom Brewery in Addison on a Thursday evening is a pale comparison to a head full of X at an all-night downtown rave, that's who. If electronica is passe, Triprocket proves Dallas hasn't been passed by; hey, nobody ever accused this town of being too forward-looking. In a category in which the other nominees--Stink!#bug, Terror Couple, Jump Rope Girls, and the gone but not forgotten Course of Empire--range from heavy to hop and trippy to rock but don't exactly make you want to cut a rug, Triprocket's catchy-as-flu, mall-safe, and franchise-ready beats may actually be the right choice, at least if your tastes lean more toward suburban (e.g., Starck Club) than industrial.
The quartet is an outgrowth of !DANCeReGINA!, a band so old-school '80s, so much tight and shiny pants, it may get its own Gap ad: Khakis suck! But Triprocket is an honest-to-goodness artistic leap forward for all involved, if only because the sound is a decade newer. It's as though !DANCeReGINA! founders Bobby R. (keyboards) and Kaila Brasell (vocals) tripped over something mechanical, maybe percussionist Matt Tinonga's drum machine; found a guitar player in Cotton Weatherston who's not afraid of distortion; then accidentally remixed themselves smack into the decade the rest of us have been enjoying for damned near 10 years. At this rate, if the Y2K bug doesn't get them, they may actually go through the millennium with the rest of us. Maybe.
Triprocket's 1997 eponymous release sounds like Madonna's Ray of Light waiting for the Garbage 2.0 update--which is sort of ahead of its time, if you forget about the fact that Garbage's first record sounded just like its second. But, hey, there are worse female vocalists that Brasell could strive to imitate. If you're going to play the role of a post-disco disco diva, you can't go too wrong dressing down Shirley Manson like a virgin--unless, of course, you want to get the attention of adults.
Therein lies the biggest drawback of Triprocket. While the tin clank and crisp guitar recycling beneath Brasell's tawny vocals on a track like "Resuscitate" could pass for any of the not-at-home-in-a-house-mix pop that skips through commercial radio, the lyrics are all bubble gum that lost its flavor. Even a band as twee and teenybop as 'N Sync would have trouble lip-syncing lines like "My lips, under your kiss / Sensation, under your touch / My will, under your control / Yeah, down to the soul / Don't you know, you're too much." Then there's the staticky Suzanne Vega leftover "En Route," on which Brasell rasps, "I can't drown the thought of you / When I smell you in the wind." Um, gross? Isn't dance music supposed to make you get hot and sweaty and want to rub up against people of the opposite--or, hell, we're not bashful, the same--sex? This makes us want to dab on a little Right Guard.
Jump Rope Girls
Winner for: Avant-Garde/Experimental
"We really weren't expecting a lot of eyes to be on us," says Casey Hess--the singer, songwriter, and utility-infielder for Jump Rope Girls. He punctuates his comments with brash laughter, insisting, "We were just fucking around." Well, damn, that's pretty much the working definition of "experimental." But in the vernacular of the record industry, where most releases are reserved for not only well-proven but well-calculated bands, even that's a little too glib. Usually "experimental" simply means something a little too fringe for normal folk. Experimental records go wood. Of course, Jump Rope Girls is a One Ton Records band, which means it's already renting land in the margins, sharing an apartment with Hess' other band, the locally adored Doosu. Hess says that when he, keyboardist Bobby Maloney, and artist-programmer Don Relyea wanted to create a "casual art project" based on ideas they got while "hanging out at the Green Room drinking," One Ton honcho Aden Holt let them plug into a computer and discover what came out. It's not as if they had much to lose. This isn't Doosu here. Or Buck Jones, for God's sake.
As side projects go, the Jump Ropers aren't the most, ah, avant kids on the block. (Maloney and Relyea's Jump Rope Girls offshoot Rope Lab fits that bill better.) There's a reason this band did well with readers in two other categories, Industrial/Dance and New Band, with Hess also garnering a place-show nod in the Musician of the Year balloting. People like the Jump Rope Girls because the band's recently released debut (eight track demos) is as "pop" as "experimental" gets--it's got a beat, you can dance to it, blah blah blah. The opening track, "Forgetting How," could even sneak its way onto a Doosu record if it weren't for the chirping of Maloney's Moog-music giving its techno self away. No matter how far out the songs get, no matter how many roboto bleeps and bips and loops and samples get tossed into the mix, Hess' tunes, full of singsong melodies, keep it all from straying too far from home. Something like "Looking for Monsters" is equally beautiful and haunting, a warm and painful embrace played out on acoustic guitar. Yet by record's end, Hess slips almost completely into Relyea and Maloney's mechanical ambience. The vocals give way to vibrations, until eight track demos doesn't just end; it melts.
Perhaps the biggest problem the Jump Rope Girls face is success; Hess has Doosu duty now that its latest, Aqua Vita, is out. "This was not ever intended to intrude on anything," Hess says, insisting Jump Rope Girls will take a back seat to his full-time band's schedule. "Don and Bobby and I just wanted to do something unorthodox, just see what would happen when we played some music, turned some knobs, ran it through a computer. Well, I guess using a computer is not that unorthodox anymore." But not to worry--we won't take the Avant-Garde/Experimental award away from the band this time around.
Winner for: Cover Band
So you don't have to be an old band, a dead band, a revolutionary band, or a hugely famous and long-lived band to have some guys get together and exclusively cover your songs. You'd think that with the way musicians in this town rehash the warmed-over catalogs of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the Grateful Dead, there's some unspoken rule about only covering bands that wrote a shitload of tunes and then either broke up or started sucking. But a cover band that picks as its patron saint an act less than a decade old and not so prolific? Hell, if it sounds good, why not?
The band Weezer has released only two real albums, but it has spawned a zealous following and a true musical distinctiveness, the sort that prompts countless indie-rock fans to quip about countless indie-rock bands, "Um, sounds kinda like Weezer." That bright and poppy singalong sound, fortified by massive (albeit noodly) guitars and drum throttle, has eked its way into the brain of just about everyone who's bought a rock record since 1994. Pervasive is too tepid a description for the unwitting and unpretentious band's tentacles. Insidious--that's more like it. And Weezer's sonics are ripe for playing live: cheerfully loose but not too sloppy, thick and rounded as shotgun barrels, and as harmonious as a multi-singer band can get.
So it's with a mix of surprise and knowing amusement that a handful of Dallas' finest spend their off-off time as Weener, playing the most uncanny replicas of Weezer tunes--even the obscure soundtrack and B-side stuff. In fact, as a group--Mark Hughes (Baboon) on bass, Ben Burt (Pinkston) on drums, and Jason Weisenberg (The Commercials) and the endearingly spastic Glen Reynolds (Chomsky) on guitar--these guys put on one of the most satisfying live shows ever to stumble across a Dallas stage. Explosive yet instinctively nuanced, it's so instrumentally and vocally dead-on that if you close your eyes during the set, you'd swear it was the real deal. These are songs performed by guys who learned to tune their instruments to them, guys who know Weezer's sound as well as they know their own moms.
If the songs were by Reynolds or Weisenberg instead of by a guy named Rivers Cuomo, Weener would be the best real band ever to come from these parts. But they aren't, and there's the splendid irony (a must when it comes to bands like Weezer/Weener): Despite all that talent, you just can't get too serious about it. Like Weezer, Weener doesn't invite intense scrutiny. Occasional injections of lyrical angst aside, everyone who's heard Weezer's 1994 self-titled debut and their 1996 follow-up Pinkerton can't help but bounce around to all the hook-laden, ballsy junior anthems. It's just that these four Dallas-Denton lads will actually play them for you, out loud and with love.
The Local Show,
Winner for: Radio Program That Plays Local Music
Lift up your heads, Forlorn Androgynous Shoegazers, and face the music. This isn't really an upset. Sure, Josh Venable's The Adventure Club (KDGE-FM, 94.5) wins this category so often we've considered renaming it the Best Morrissey Radio Program That Also Plays Local Music Award. But when hundreds of write-in voters give the overwhelming nod to a program called The Local Show that--get this--plays nothing but local music, maybe some justice has been served.
Long gone are the days when Edge music director George Gimarc would spin the latest homegrown acts, among them The Spin and the Bat Mastersons, alongside their nationally touring peers during the heat of drive-time. (And it's probably for the best. Nobody really wants to listen to "I Like Love" at all, especially not when facing the hell of Central Expressway construction at five in the afternoon.) There's something to be said for spending a little time--even if it's merely an hour on a Sunday night--to root, root, root for just the home teams, even when you know they're a shame.
The Zone (KKZN-FM, 93.3) can have all the "Old 97's Weekends" it wants, but the station has to play the band's record more often than just once a week on Abby Goldstein's Lone Star Radio for it to mean anything. Hell, National Public Radio's World Cafe plays Rhett Miller and the boys more often than The Zone, and that show's based out of Philly. And, sorry, KDGE, but playing the Toadies' "Possum Kingdom" hardly counts as hometown cheerleading these days. The band doesn't even like to play that one anymore. KNON-FM (89.3), community radio in every sense of the word, gets an "EZ" for effort: EZ Eddie D's hip-hop hour, Knowledge Dropped, Lessons Taught, and Dave Chaos' hardcore Twisted Kicks both ended up on the best-show short list. But those programs, buried deep at the left of the dial, are too far-flung to reach the masses.
The fact is, now that Redbeard and his long-nurtured Texas Tapes have been put out to pasture along with the rest of Q102, The Eagle is the only station in town willing to give some undivided attention to local music. In reality, every Local Show is really nothing but an on-air advertisement for a cheapie $1.97-cover-charge showcase at the Curtain Club--just, in fact, what every local band needs most. For 99 percent of them, their bread and butter is never going to come from a couple of turns on the radio. Their success or failure will hinge on whether they can get folks to their gigs, and no one will ever come if they don't know who or what they are. If nothing else, The Local Show is a good way for homers to find out if they're shit and should just get off the pot. If you promote it and they don't come, well, tough.
This, one might think, is a tall order for a station like The Eagle. Surprisingly, The Local Show, these days under the tutelage of (just) Chaz, isn't the 100 percent testicle-rock format you'd expect from a station that still promotes Sammy Hagar as "The Red Rocker" with a straight face. The show still skews to the heavy side of the road, and every edition could still use less talkin' and more rockin'. (Is it really that interesting to anyone other than the FCC to hear members of Hellafied Funk Crew cursing up a blue streak?) But as a quick glance at the recent schedule proves, Chaz is willing to give a wide variety of talents a shot in the spotlight. Party-with-your-pants-down bands such as Beef Jerkey and Bowling for Soup, newer acts such as Floor 13 and Bicycle Thief, conceptual experiments like The Falcon Project, and adored faves Centro-matic either have been or will be the featured acts for a couple of dozen minutes on a Sunday night. If the program director is secure enough to throw in a little twang or some hip-hop, The Local Show could easily become a true populist melting pot of the Dallas scene, the place where audiences could vote every week on who has it and who doesn't.
The Curtain Club
Winner for: Live Music Venue
Bands have enjoyed playing at The Curtain Club from the moment it opened, partly because co-owner Doug Simmons knows how they should be treated. He's been on both sides of the equation, from managing 4 Reasons Unknown (God bless him) to running clubs such as the now-defunct Rhythm Room and Trees. Fans flock to The Curtain Club because it's one of the most consistent venues in town, always featuring local bands and almost as frequently good ones. And Simmons' business partners like The Curtain Club because Simmons knows how to make a buck. When The Toadies played two overflowing shows at Trees in February, Simmons was scalping tickets out on the sidewalk, not letting a slow night at his bar keep him from turning a profit.
So The Curtain Club's win in the Best Live Music Venue category shouldn't have surprised anyone, least of all the other nominees. After all, The Curtain Club got the nod last year when many complained (OK, just other club owners) that it wasn't even eligible, having opened for business only a shade more than three months before the winners were announced. Hey, if your club can't defeat a venue that was barely finished when the final vote was cast, well, that's not our problem. So after last year's results, it was almost a foregone conclusion that The Curtain Club would take top honors again this year--that is, if it was still around.
That hasn't always been a sure thing. After all, it's hard to make a living hosting only shows by local bands. It's a lofty and honorable goal, but the fact is, there aren't enough good bands to go around, and crowds don't exactly support the ones that are good. The club's once-stellar local bills have slipped as of late--this weekend, it presents two shows by Pimpadelic--but The Curtain Club is still hanging around, doing better than ever. And it still puts on better shows than most: For every two Pimpadelic shows, the club puts together one fantastic show, such as the bill that featured The Commercials, Chomsky, Centro-matic, and Post from Vermont. Besides, it's not all Curtain Club's fault; you try finding enough good bands in this city to fill 20-plus shows every month.
Sure, the Gypsy Tea Room is prettier, Deep Ellum Live brings in better touring bands, Trees has more history, and the Galaxy Club has...well, what exactly does the Galaxy have these days? But when it comes down to it, the only thing that matters is what you hear, and The Curtain Club has the best sound system in town, the same one that used to be in Trees. It has the best sound man as well, James McWilliams, another Trees refugee. In fact, most of what makes The Curtain Club the best club in town used to make Trees the best club in town, including Simmons, and Craig, the amiable upstairs bartender who can make even a bad band sound good if you have enough cash. For that reason alone, The Curtain Club deserves to win this award as long as he's still working there.
One Ton Records
Winner for: Local Label
Aden Holt began One Ton Records five years ago solely because he didn't see any need to give away his own money. His now-defunct band Caulk--which broke up in 1998, shortly after the release of the band's third and final disc, Imaginary Enemy--was all set to release its debut on another local indie. But at the last moment, Holt wised up and figured it was better to pocket the change than divvy it up with someone whose only interest in his band was its suggested retail price. In short order, One Ton went from pragmatic creation to brilliant endeavor, releasing in quick succession Caulk's Learn to Take, selling out of all 1,000 copies initially manufactured; Welcome to Hell's Lobby, a Denton-rock collection featuring the likes of Slobberbone, Record Player, and Wayward Girl--and still among the most transcendent of local rock comps; Jeff Liles' debut as cottonmouth, texas, White Trash Receptacle; and Doosu's debut, ...so called the cupboard's bare. Holt, then working for a local graphic-design firm, suddenly and rather inexplicably found himself acting as label boss, a role he's rather comfortably grown into over time.
Indeed, only Leaning House Records' co-founders Mark Elliott and Keith Foerster compete with Holt in terms of adhering to a "vision" for their label. Where the Leaning House boys have resigned themselves to making millions (of pennies, quite unfortunately) by sticking to their bebop guns, Holt has turned One Ton into the gone-and-lamented Fraternity of Noise's last stand. His is the home of rock-hard hard rock, the place where metal and punk dance on the head of the pin they're jamming into your ear. For the most part, One Ton's roster is chest hair and sweat: Slow Roosevelt (winners in the Metal category, in addition to Peter Thomas' nod for Male Vocalist), Doosu (metal with a heart, no pun intended), Caulk, and even Fixture, the last being Oklahoma kids who must own an extensive collection of Pearl Jam and Soundgarden bootlegs. The exception to the rule is Buck Jones, the most commercially viable of One Ton's bands, or so the local media keep insisting every time the band releases a record (and a new one's due shortly). Never let it be said that Aden Holt's too closed-minded to sign a band that can bring in a few bucks. Now, if only Buck Jones can decide what kind of band it wants to be--heartbreaker or lovemaker, as Pat Benatar used to say. Last time we heard the Jones perform they were doin' it acoustic-style, not a bad move at all.
But in the end, the way to judge a label is not by the bands on its roster but by the way the label treats its stable, and there's no label in town that promotes and coddles its artists with more vehemence than One Ton. (Take note, steve records. The folks at Sam Paulos' label must like Legendary Crystal Chandelier's Love or the Decimal Equivalent so much they want to keep every copy for themselves, because damned if I've ever seen any promotion for that record.) One Ton sends out more e-mail newsletters than free-porn Web sites do, and when Doosu's Casey Hess wanted to do a techno side project, Jump Rope Girls, Holt gave him free rein. (The result: Dallas Observer Music Award.) And One Ton has managed to create its own self-sustained scene--it's not every band for itself. On the forthcoming Big & Bothered, Volume 2, Casey Hess and Eric Shutt of Doosu and Pete Thomas can be heard all over a Caulk farewell, "Birthday No. 5." A label that slays together stays together.
A few weeks ago, Holt spoke of a few upcoming projects--some about to happen, others still distant daydreams. He asked that the discussion remain private, so suffice it to say that at least one of the discs bears some vague resemblance to One Ton's 1996 compilation Sandy Does Dallas, which featured a cast of local all-stars (among them UFOFU, Dooms U.K., the Toadies, and Course of Empire) recasting the Grease soundtrack in punk-mock tones. The disc Holt has in mind is equally ambitious, and a step in the right direction toward bringing together a disparate collection of bands beneath the "community" umbrella. Nothing reprobate about that, not at all.
Winner for: Producer
Denton's Matt Pence, the all-arms-and-glasses drummer who looks like David Hockney and plays like Keith Moon on a bright sober day, seemed an unlikely candidate for a speedy ascension to best producer in town. But he is, God bless the boy--his ear is as honed and discriminating as his own playing. He has single-handedly made North Texas lo-fi something to write home about, while turning around and producing some of the fullest, most daunting projects--in addition to keeping the beat for Centro-matic. (Which is fitting, since, after all, Pence is the only other drummer in town who's as entertaining to watch as Will Johnson was when he was drumming for Funland--no small compliment.)
When the alterna-country-pop Adam's Farm broke up back in 1996, drummer Pence and bassist Mark Hedman joined Johnson in his nascent stab at Life After Funland. Johnson had been writing and recording scads of songs on his own, but with Pence along for the ride, Johnson suddenly had a recording partner, someone who could help him find that solitary sound. Turns out Pence, who'd been noodling around various studios for years, was a born engineer. Among his first official full-lengths as producer was Centro-matic's debut long-player, 1997's Redo the Stacks, and that album's impressive range of sounds and textures and sonic experimentation brought all kinds of young bands sniffing at Pence's door. Finally, a guy in these parts who didn't think the word "produce" meant "suck the life outta the song."
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Since then, Pence and the Denton rock scene have matured together. No longer satisfied with mere lo-fi aesthetics, Pence began pushing his own envelope and taking on a wealth of acts and styles: Little Grizzly, Budapest One, Wiring Prank, the Baptist Generals. His association with Matt Barnhart, founder of Transcontinental-cum-Quality Park Records, has given many of his recording forays a label home. Last year, Pence's production work on ex-Funlander Peter Schmidt's project, Legendary Crystal Chandelier, solidified his status as the Man With the Golden Ears. LCC's debut, Love or the Decimal Equivalent (released on steve records), packs some of the most viscerally satisfying studio work around some of the most haunting and challenging songs a producer could ever hope to handle, making the record one of the best offerings of 1998, here or anywhere else.
Meanwhile, Pence and Barnhart had moved out to Missouri, hoping to cultivate Pence's role as producer out of his St. Louis house. Centro-matic recorded dozens of songs in Son Volt's studio outside that city, again with Pence at the boards, and Centro's next three albums (the first, Navigational, was recently released on Idol Records) will all list Pence as producer. The work is so gorgeous, so subtle and knowing, that you'd swear Pence slept with every song before recording it. Only instead of him doing the song, the song does him, and he lets it emerge and settle the way it was meant to.
And just as we all feared we'd lost Pence to the Midwest forever (despite the fact that local bands were making regular pilgrimages to St. Louis to work with him), he announced he was moving back to Denton---to his friends, his band, his musical ground zero. These days, Pence is setting up shop with another of Denton's beloved engineers, Dave Willingham of 70 Hurtz studios; these two are a booked-in-advance duo to be reckoned with. The bands are lining up.