Grading on a curve

Every band is a local band somewhere.
So with that in mind, as we look back at 1995 and pat ourselves on the back for making the Toadies gold, launching Deep Blue Something to top-of-the-pops domination, and landing Tripping Daisy on MTV and Reverend Horton Heat on every sound track and tribute album, understand this: The best local music is still being made in obscurity. Yeah, it's the year local music broke, awright--the year it broke wind.

Don't judge your local music scene by the bands signed to the majors; don't buy into bullshit myth that mass-market appeal is a signature of quality or a recognition of talent. The Toadies were a great band long before a radio station in Florida started playing "Possum Kingdom" and forced Interscope to give Rubberneck another try. And likewise, Deep Blue Something is terrible no matter how popular they become--bland and generic, as catchy as the flu. If you want Deep Blue Something to represent Your Local Scene, I have an Edie Brickell solo album I'd like to give you.

Certainly, Dallas bands are more prevalent on the pop charts than ever before: As of this writing, Deep Blue Something's "Breakfast at Tiffany's" stands at No. 11 on Billboard's Hot 100 singles chart; their album Home is No. 97 on Billboard's chart. The Toadies' Rubberneck, which has sold more than 500,000 copies and achieved gold status, is No. 73. Tripping Daisy's I am an Elastic Firecracker made it onto the Billboard Top-200 chart earlier this fall, breaking into the Top 100 for a brief moment before slipping off the chart in recent weeks.

And this year, the number of Dallas bands attached to major labels grew even larger with the signing of Vibrolux to Atlas/Polydor, Jack Ingram (now in San Antonio) to Warner Western, Tablet to Mercury, and Deep Blue Something to Interscope. Add to that the sudden support for homegrown music at local rock radio--three stations (KEGL, KDGE, and KTXQ) claim supremacy on that front, each claiming to have "made" the bands and "scene" they virtually ignored just a year ago--and there's a certain palpable excitement surrounding Dallas music that hasn't existed since New Bohemians hit No. 1 with "What I Am" five years ago. Of course, back then KVIL played the New Bos more than Q102, but no matter because Ron Chapman and Redbeard are actually the same person.

The excitement is justified, but it's aimed in the wrong direction. With the exception of Brutal Juice's Mutilation Makes Identification Difficult--released under the auspices of Interscope, though the label is dumfounded by what to do with the band and the over-the-top noise--the best local records of the year were released by independent labels or artists themselves. They're the kind of albums that receive no press outside these parts, that compete for pocket change instead of big dollars.

They're records that redefine our perceptions of rock and roll (Dooms U.K.'s Greasy Listening), revive long-lost art forms (the soul-searching R&B of Ernie Johnson's In the Mood, Cowboys and Indians' Western swing-styled The Western Life, Big Al Dupree's jump-blues extravaganza Swings the Blues), and transcend easy labels (Cafe Noir's The Waltz King, the Japanese-only Brave Combo-Lauren Agnelli release Allumettes).

Some are records that stick to a tradition but never mimic it--Funland's The Funland Band, Slobberbone's eponymous debut, Earl Harvin's masterful jazz debut Trio/Quartet, Caulk's Love American Style, even the Old 97's Wreck Your Life. Then there's the oddball exception, that one-off surprise that catches you off-guard; this year, that honor would go to Jeff Liles' White Trash Receptacle, released under his spoken-word nom de homey cottonmouth, texas. (More-than-honorable mention also goes to the Live at the Barley House compilation, which exposes the roots-rock scene--Cowboys and Indians, Tex Edwards, Homer Henderson, Lone Star Trio, and others--with terrific success.)

These are the artists that make up the so-called Dallas music scene as much as Deep Blue Something, the Toadies, Tripping Daisy, Hagfish, Spot, and the Nixons. The latter have profiles--some looming larger than others, some possessing tremendous talent while others are the answers to future trivia questions--but musicians like Cowboys and Indians' Erik Swanson, Slobberbone's Brent Best, Funland's Peter Schmidt, Caf Noir's Norbert Gerl, and Dooms U.K.'s John Freeman are the ones who tend to the shop while they're away.

These are the musicians I trust--not their tastes, not even their judgment, but their commitment to this tenuous craft called music. Their instincts remain untainted even as others around town long for recording contracts after only few gigs. They play music for music's sake, never losing sight of why they first picked up instruments in the first place--to express themselves, to give something of themselves without asking much in return from their audience.

Modern-rock radio has killed rock and roll, turned every artist into a one-hit wonder even if they score two or three hits. It's just a little harder to flush the crap down the commode these days, so determined is it to float to the top. Deep Blue Something isn't evil, just a product of an industry that now thrives on disposability; "Breakfast at Tiffany's" says and means little and gives nothing in return to its audience. It's a piffle of a love song about a boy and a girl who are together because they like the same movie--nothing more, nothing less, except a chorus that's harder to get out your head than brain cancer.

Look at the bands with whom they share the pop charts--Hootie and the Blowfish, Live, Silverchair, Better Than Ezra, Alanis Morissette. Each has an unflinching conviction about nothing at all, singing and playing so passionately to obscure their lack of emotion. It's music made from expired formulas, the sound of a copy machine whirring.

Deep Blue Something and the Nixons reveal no insights and yet insist they have something to say. They're hollow cliches set to vacant melodies. At least audiences weren't fooled by the Nixons, who have sold only about 24,000 copies for MCA and have two albums left to go on their contract.

Give a band like Tripping Daisy this much: If "I Got a Girl" was the annoying first single that wouldn't disappear, then "Piranha" was the unexpected follow-up that challenged its audience to follow along with the dramatic highs and lows. It's hardly the ubiquitous song on local rock radio--"Blown Away" from their 1993 album Bill seems to get more play these days--but such is life, and death, on modern-rock radio.

And pity poor Hagfish: Their London Records debut ...Rocks Your Lame Ass was a better-produced version of their 1994 Dragon Street debut Buick Men, loaded with the sort of quick-hit hit singles modern-rock radio loves to love. But before "Happiness" had a chance, the Presidents of the United States of America came along and beat the 'Fish to their own gimmick--the suits and ties that bind, that punchy pop audiences keep mistaking for punk.

Redbeard keeps swearing Spot's going to be big, and he even helped land their tiny Memphis-based Ardent Records label a distribution deal with the mammoth CEMA to prove the point. But we've been down this road with the Rueffer Bros. since their days in Mildred: They've got talent, ambition, and smarts to spare, and "Moon June Spoon" sounds great on the radio, but the new wave isn't the same as the old wave. It still sounds like XTC to me, only faster and louder, and while that's a bonus on this end, Redbeard just likes it because it sounds so 1987.

Much has and will be made (in these very pages, of course) of the fact this is the year Dallas music broke out of its Deep Ellum shell; each week, it seems, the rumors circulate about how this new young band or those veterans are being courted by some major label. Relative newcomers like Comet, Earl, Girl, American Analog Set, Buck Jones, Shabazz 3, and Mazinga Phaser harbor much promise, raising their young voices among the din.

Here, then, are the highlights of this year--those records that aren't just good "local records," to be judged against some grading curve that takes into account locale. They're listed in no particular order because this isn't a contest.

Greasy Listening, Dooms U.K. (Direct Hit Records). The word "genius" is an overused one, possessing so little power these days, but it's one often applied to John Freeman with good enough reason. By perverting the rock and roll form, turning Black Sabbath's "Paranoid" into a ska number and using heavy metal's ridiculous clichs to overcome his own perverse fixation with bombastic rock, Freeman and his sidekicks have come up with a concoction that defies the easy description because it doesn't look for the easy way out. They're no gimmick or novelty band, though, bridging the gap between metal and art-rock with nothing less than a school kid's smirk and a showman's flash. Songs like "The Dark Messiah" and "Sweet Home Atlantis" are hilarious and affectionate parodies that don't spoil the joke by ever giving up the punch line; when Freeman sings, "I am the dark messiah, spawn of crimson fire" or tells of the lost city under the sea, it makes no difference if he's serious or silly because he's probably a little of both.

Slobberbone, Slobberbone (Independent). A disciple of the Uncle Tupelo school of music, where they teach rock and roll through a country twang, Brent Best is the real deal--no Midwesterner posing as a good ol' boy. Slobberbone, the band and the album, came out of nowhere (Denton, actually), splitting the difference between rock and country and leaning a little heavier on the electric side of things. And it's an epic record, desolate tales spun to a melancholy sound that gets louder every time you hear it. "16 Days" is the mood-setter Jay Farrar has yet to write, the lonely musings of a man who barely has enough energy to just "lay here and sweat" in a decrepit old house.

The Waltz King, Cafe Noir (Carpe Diem). There is no more lovely sound than Gale Hess' violin or clarinet and Norbert Gerl's viola in tandem with Jason Bucklin's guitar and Lyles West's stand-up bass. It evokes something lost, desperate, sad, foreign, intangible--like a dream half-remembered two days after the fact. Caf Noir's third album is their finest yet, a gorgeous and ethereal amalgam of their classical and jazz tendencies (one need only hear their interpretation of Stravinsky's "Andante and Galop"). Randy Erwin, the once and future yodel king, no longer sounds out of place in the mix, his voice now an instrument as suitable to the arrangements as the accordion or the mandolin. Nowhere is that more evident than on "In Love Alone," on which Erwin sings about the "worst kind of lonely" like a man who knows about such things.

The Funland Band, Funland (Steve Records). After almost four years, Funland's full-length album hit stores and landed three separate songs on the radio--"Bleed Like Anyone," "Die Like a Satellite," and "Angry Girl." And they're not even the best songs on the record. This band's finest moments are the subtle and dramatic ones that take the listener to a dozen different places in the span of a few minutes--a song like "Sparkloser," which begins with a droning whisper then explodes into a surprising scream; a song like "Down Stage," in which a musician pits the internal songwriter against the external performer; or "Parallel Lines," on which Peter Schmidt wonders, "If there's a moment of truth, then what's it for?" Funland may well sound like a Rock Band--the new addition to the live set, Cheap Trick's "Surrender," is more than appropriate--but they keep the faith and fan the flame like no other rock band in town.

The Western Life, Cowboys and Indians (Independent). Bob Wills would be proud, and so would Louis Jordan: These guys don't just get a kick out of reviving the Western swing and jump-blues sound; they embody the tradition, from the little big-band arrangements of new songs that sound old but always fresh to the hats and ties they wear on stage. They're no novelty, their sound doesn't even approach gimmick, and their marksman musicianship never gets in the way of the genuine joy they get when Swanson's singing about how he's "got an inch on old Big Tex."

Trio/Quartet, Earl Harvin (Leaning House). Harvin plays like a man possessed--by Thelonious Monk, by Max Roach, by the spirits of jazz past who haunt this record from start to finish. A drummer who fronts his bands, rock or jazz, from behind the kit, Harvin explores the place where jazz stops being bop and becomes something else--where melodies melt into rhythms melt into one wrenching beast that consumes the player and overwhelms the listener. And Harvin's band--pianist Dave Palmer, bassist Fred Hamilton, and sax player Shelley Carroll--is the best this side of Impulse Records circa 1962.

Allumettes, Brave Combo featuring Lauren Agnelli (Blues Interactions, Japan). This hard-to-find disc showcases the Brave Combo seldom heard on their albums (including this year's terrific Polkas for a Gloomy World) or on stage--the moody, ambient, jazz band hiding behind the rock and world-beat facade. Ex-Washington Square Lauren Agnelli doesn't steal the show, she just brings out the grown men inside the boys who are still trying to figure out how to merge "The Hustle" with "Walk on the Wild Side" for their next album. God bless 'em.

Swings the Blues, Big Al Dupree (Dallas Blues Society). Fed the big-band sound since he was a young boy growing up in the State-Thomas area, Dupree's brand of blues is closer to Louis Jordan's than T-Bone Walker's; it's brasher, bigger, bolder, more for gettin' down than feeling down. There's nothing nostalgic about this record, which sounds like it could have been recorded yesterday or 50 years ago.

White Trash Receptacle, cottonmouth, texas (One Ton Records). Jeff Liles makes the life story of one simple man more interesting than it ever should have been. Somehow, he manages to make stories about how he got on and off drugs, how he spends his last four bucks, and how he gets his girlfriends to fuck him intriguing. The samples might be one reason why this is so good. Either that, or my life's incredibly dull.

Wreck Your Life, Old 97's (Bloodshot Records). They're calling these boys country in Chicago, but it takes more than the occasional Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard cover to warrant such a label. And besides, it misses the point: Rhett Miller and Murry Hammond are folkies at heart who write pop songs before they add the twang. Nothing "insurgent" about it, despite the press bio, only old-fashioned she-done-me-wrong songs sung by a guy who makes them believeable enough even though they're the stuff of fiction.


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