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Dis and demos

As the year draws to a close, dozens of unlistened-to demos and CDs sent by local bands over the past months choke the file cabinets. Some are unpolished gems of genius; more often, they're the frightening proof that the gene pool's starting to mix a little too closely.

The most interesting of the demo cassettes received here recently comes from Ethyl Merman, the joke-core band fronted by Turner Scott Van Blarcum (former "vocalist" for Sedition, though he's known best as Kurt Cobain's sparring partner of a few years ago). They resemble Japanimation--or a Drew Friedman cartoon--sprung to life, two decades worth of punk and parody squeezed into "four piles of dead brain cells" (their words) with one member looking like Swedish wrestler Tor Johnson (the hulking zombie in Ed Wood's Plan Nine from Outer Space) and another like an underground comix hero--Tattoo Man, or something.

The joke, though, is only found in the presentation; the execution's pretty straightfaced and a damned sight better than it ought to be. The Go-Go's cover is a note-for-note send-up (though I can't say I recall the line, "Smell a juicy pussy in her pants" in the original version of "We Got the Beat," but I never listened that closely) with a guitar solo lifted from "My Sharona"; "Barbie Doll" (as in "I'm in love with a...") owes as much to the Nervebreakers as to the Ramones; and "Love American Style" extols the virtues of free sex. Good for a laugh, and maybe much more.

Which isn't the case with the Caffiends, a band that lives and more often dies on the premise that it drinks too much coffee (yes, you'd wonder how someone could go so terribly wrong with such a hilarious concept). Song titles on the eight-song demo: "Java Junkie," "Decaf Sucks," "Will Work for Coffee," and so on. Perhaps there's some great revelation to be found in life's coffee grinds, but the music's as thick as sludge found in the bottom of a pot that's been sitting around for two weeks, and once you have that first cup or four, it all starts to taste like shit.

A rockabilly band's got to be able to do more than just pull it off to get by in a town that claims Ronnie Dawson, Reverend Horton Heat, Lone Star Trio, and 66--and The Rockin' Honky-Tonk Fools don't even come close. Ralph Williams' inability to sing in key for longer than four seconds, their inability to play anything but routine solos, or come across as anything other than pantomime revivalists among practicing revisionists makes this a difficult experience. I could be missing the point--David Lynch and the novice might like them just fine--but this ain't novel, it ain't authentic, and it ain't particularly bearable for too long.

Here's a band that at least got the name right: The Unknown. It's one thing to strive for commercial success; ultimately, it's what all musicians (except the already-wealthy or the stupid) want. But the Unknown come off like a desperate plea for help and a record deal: they are too busy trying to imitate a million other bands--from Smashing Pumpkins to REO Speedwagon to the Moody Blues--to figure out exactly what they are; and nothing worse than boys from Texas singing with English accents (ask Rhett Miller--he got over it quick) and using piano and cello. Inspirational album title: Empty Promises. Inspirational song title: "Wannabe." At the very least, a band you can trust.

For years, David Wayne has been one of this town's most intriguing musicians, both with Lesson Seven and Audio Assault, but he's also one of the most problematic. He's never been able to decide if he was a rocker or a technogeek, and he's always tried to straddle two musical worlds instead of finding his niche in one. With Stain, he's made the decision, for better or worse: playing guitar and singing, Wayne comes off as the epitome of alternative circa 1988--it reeks of familiarity, and smart craftsmanship is used to build a product that's already been replaced four times over. Still, the opener ("Nothing") and closer ("Why") hint at songwriting skill that boasts more promise than threat.

To be enjoyed properly, Spyche needs to be heard solo and acoustic; her take on Cheap Trick's "The Flame" from the 1992 cassette Heaven on a Stick elevates it from cheesy pop hit to wrenching heartbreaker. In front of a rock band, one as good as 39 Powers, her beautiful voice is less noticeable; it's stuck somewhere in between the dual guitar playing of Mike Daane and Gregg Prickett and Spyche's own bass, a deceiving whisper buried underneath the roar of instruments. Which doesn't diminish the returns on their five-song cassette: whether it's an overpowering rocker like "Love Not Wrong" or a wandering ballad like "The Tears You Hide," Spyche's got something to say--about love and why it never did her much good--and it's not easy to turn away, especially when you have to strain closer to hear.

Why Dah-Veed--David Garza, that is--hasn't hit the long-expected Big Time isn't a difficult question to answer: boy's got too much ambition, and still in his early 20s, he's searching for a suit he'll be able to let out as he suffers a few more growth spurts. Conmigo, the latest CD from Garza and his always dependable band (including Clay Pendergrass, Michael Hale, Jim Cocke, and guest Brandon Aly), kicks off with the most promising cut of his surprisingly protracted career: his voice distorted (a la Suzanne Vega on 99.9F) and deeper, he assumes the swaggering pose of a young lover and dancer whose exploits are revered from Harlingen to San Marcos. When he keeps the Latin vibe going or experiments with studio effects, the album swings; but when he slips back into sensitive folkie mode, he sends me scrambling for old Poi Dog Pondering records.

In their accompanying bio, Quazi and the Motos boast having opened shows for Firefall, Mountain, Foghat, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer--presumably in the past 20 years. Born into this world as a country band that changed its tune once they noticed the track was about to run out, these guys call their brand of rock "groove blues," which is just an excuse to write and perform songs that meander aimlessly without hook or crook. Quazi and the Motos are indeed caught in some time-warped musical past, riding a genre that crested in the mid-'70s, when musicians were too lazy to trim the fat off their performances and thought people actually enjoyed songs that had no end. It's no more blues than the Grateful Dead or the Allman Brothers, but every bit as excessive.

Clearly, much money was thrown into Maylee Thomas' debut CD, Rhythm of the Blues, with guest appearances from ex-E Street Band sax player Clarence Clemmons, gospel choir leader-producer Edwin Hawkins, slide hero Roy Rogers, and local all-stars like Andy Timmons and Bobby Chitwood. And it shows: given the huge playground, Thomas can't decide whether she's a gospel singer, a soul sistah, or a blues mama and so she's a little bit of all--and a whole lot of none. If there's two things the blues won't stand it's generic schlock and grandiose overproduction: a horn section pulses out short, weak bursts over metal guitar solos better suited for Pat Travers records, and Thomas wails a brand of soul music for which the Greenville Avenue Bar and Grill was built. She possesses a nice enough voice--appropriately showy, big enough but not overpowering--but when she sings, "I want the real thing, baby," so should you.


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