It was a strange year, no doubt about it. Think about it: 2001 began with word of the first Toadies release in some seven years. By August, the album was here (March's Hell Below/Stars Above), but the band wasn't anymore. At the end of December, word began spreading that the Old 97's were going the way of the Toadies (apparently not true, though front man Rhett Miller is going it alone for a bit). At any rate, there's more room at the top than there used to be.
As it turns out, there are plenty of contenders for that territory. While we have, from time to time, hammered on the nails in the local music scene that seem to be the easiest and, well, most fun to hit--God bless you, Drowning Pool--we can't deny that 2001 saw one of the best crops of local releases in quite some time. Below, to refresh your memory, is a rundown of some of the best local records of last year, along with a few words about each. But they need not be judged on a curve. They'd be good if they were released in Dallas, Denton, Fort Worth...or anywhere else.
Centro-matic, Distance and Clime (Idol): Every song on Distance and Clime has a tear in its eye and a smile on its face, a combination Will Johnson has perfected over the years. Yet even though this is its sixth album in just more than five years, Centro-matic still doesn't repeat itself, as each new song is a surprise, a new direction. It's obvious that writing is a muscle, and Johnson only gets stronger the more he uses it. ("Go the Distance," August 9) --Z.C.
Chao, Hitsthemiss (Last Beat): Hitsthemiss certainly sounds like it could be a Captain Audio record, which just shows how much Regina Chellew (a.k.a. Chao) brought to the group. Like Captain Audio, the songs have a simple complexity, an ability to play by the rules and ignore them at the same time. Chellew glides from genre to genre with the ease of a CD changer, each step as logical and unexpected as the one before it. Yet even with their eclectic nature, the songs on Hitsthemiss manage to cohere into a seamless whole, not unlike Legendary Crystal Chandelier's similarly diverse Beyond Indifference. The disc may flirt with other styles of music, but they remain true to Chellew's personal vision, a trick that manages to make even the cover songs sound like Chellew originals. ("Greatest Hits," November 29) --Z.C.
Chomsky, Onward Quirky Soldiers (Idol): Onward Quirky Soldiers is where Chomsky fine-tunes its fetishes and makes its lasting mark; if the debut (1999's A Few Possible Selections for the Soundtrack of Your Life) was catchy, the new disc's contagious. Still present are the XTC echoes ("Herod's Daughter" and "Laughing," especially, resound with guitar lines so angular they could have been designed by Frank Lloyd Wright) and the Police flourishes (everything pops, yet never without purpose), but two years have added depth to the band's infatuation with the deceptively shallow rock of the early 1980s. The 11 songs on Onward are less claustrophobic than the earlier offerings; they let you all the way in, which is often what happens when a band stops mimicking others and creates its own unique language (even if, or especially when, the lyrics seem like an afterthought). (Hear, There, August 16) --Robert Wilonsky
[DARYL], The Technology (Beatville): The Technology borrows guitars from The Police and recipes from The Moog Cookbook, yet [DARYL] comes up with something completely its own, music that uses old sounds as a jumping-off point, never a base of operations. The songs on The Technology don't take the easy way out, but they don't make it too hard for you to follow them to where they're going. More than anything else on the disc, you can hear how much the five members of the group love playing these songs, love playing them together. ("Switched On," July 12) --Z.C.
Todd Deatherage, Dream Upon a Fallen Star (Summer Break): Todd Deatherage credits Slowride's Dan Phillips for gently forcing him to make an album that included every single aspect of his songwriting, from country to rock to jazz to blues to whatever else happened when he picked up a guitar and began playing. "The Calways was a little more rock, the Tom Petty sort of rock and roll, that sort of thing," Deatherage explains. "But when we started recording with Dan, he was like, 'You know, we just need to record Todd music--like, everything.' Because I write in all different styles of music--jazz and blues and country, rock. 'Just do all your songs, and put them on one record.' Just make it an eclectic mix of something...I feel comfortable with what I'm writing because I don't have to be worried if it's in the right genre, or if it doesn't fit in some category." ("Dream On," June 14) --Z.C.
Earl Harvin Trio, Unincorporated (Two Ohm Hop): After 1995's Trio/Quartet and 1997's Strange Happy, two commendably straight-ahead jazz albums, and 1999's sprawling epic Live at the Gypsy Tea Room, all on the sorely missed Leaning House Records label, the trio is trying something a little bit new. It moves into the genre-defying realm that it's flirted with live, especially in the past year. The band's hallmarks are still there--a fancy for midtempo, organic melodies and rhythmic diversity--but there's a couple of curveballs present as well. The Indian timbre floating through "Debashish" recalls the Sun City Girls' recent Carnival Folklore series and features Fred Hamilton playing a multistring slide guitar he had built in Calcutta, made by Debashish Bhattacharya, who appears on John McLaughlin's Shakti Live in Bombay. For "Lily," Hamilton finger-picks a five-string banjo. And on the three improvisations--named one to three, respectively--the group (Hamilton, keys player Dave Palmer, drummer Earl Harvin) dabbles in layered electronics and ambient percussion that have it dancing closer to Squarepusher and Spring Heel Jack than anything in the jazz pantheon, even the electric compositions of '70s Miles Davis. ("Pazz and Jop," September 6) --Bret McCabe
Eleven Hundred Springs, A Straighter Line (Self-released): "Does anyone remember Johnny Paycheck?/Or Willie, Waylon and the late and great Doug Sahm?" Matt Hillyer asks in "Long-Haired, Tattooed Hippie Freaks," naming just a few of the band's idols. "Hey, a lot of them clean-cut boys they got in Nashville/Don't know a damn thing about where we're coming from." If it sounds like Hillyer and the band--drummer Bruce Alford, guitarist Chris Claridy, bassist Steve Berg and pedal steel-banjo-piano player Aaron Wynne--are preaching, that they are pounding the pulpit in an attempt to get those clean-cut boys in Nashville to change their ways, they aren't. Not really. They're just explaining themselves and their music: why a bunch of long-haired, tattooed hippie freaks play decades-old music and how they make it sound as new and fresh as tomorrow morning. Why? Easy, because they all genuinely love it. How? Who knows or cares. They just do and don't waste much time thinking about it. ("Walk the Line," August 23) --Z.C.
Legendary Crystal Chandelier, Beyond Indifference (Quality Park): Beyond Indifference is the fourth album of Peter Schmidt's career, but it's so far better and beyond anything else he's ever done--be it with Three on a Hill, gone and long forgotten; or Funland, which never caught a break until it broke up; or even with his solo-but-not project Legendary Crystal Chandelier--that it possesses the ability to startle and delight even those who've known Schmidt a long, long time. To brand his latest as a masterwork is meaningless--such celebratory adjectives have lost their impact in an era that celebrates Eminem's "genius" and Creed's "talent"--but it's one of those rare albums that elicits a grin with every spin. You'll never tire of it, if only because it brings something for everyone--and without pandering, all the more rare a feat. It's the album that celebrates without condescending, meaning it sounds familiar but never like a rip-off; it's the sound of a man who's absorbed and appropriated the entirety of rock without sacrificing his own identity in the process of transforming himself from fan to fabricator. He aims to please, but no one more than himself, and the result is insistent and infectious--the smile that turns into a long, roiling laugh. (Hear, There, February 22) --R.W.
The Legendary Fritz, Greatest Hits (Self-released): Greatest Hits is the kind of hip-hop album you don't hear very often. Meaning: It's the total package, with beats that defy easy classification ("Every Man for His Self" lifts a string sample from Star Wars: The Phantom Menace and makes you forget where it came from) and rhymes that don't get caught up in easy jokes and shock politics. (Eminem, I'm looking in your direction.) What makes Greatest Hits work--and part of why Fritz lives up to his name--is that he's aware of what hip-hop was, what it is and what it could be. ("Talent Show," July 19) --Z.C.
Lift to Experience, The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads (Bella Union): Darkly violent rawk forays into the stratosphere--most songs clock in at more than six minutes--are held aloft by long passages of throbbing, sustained fretboard glissandos, sometimes accompanied by singer-guitarist Josh T. Pearson repeating key lyric lines over and over. His elaborate vocal operatics lend songs an unnatural desperation and brutal heft, so much so that even the less bone-rattling numbers ("These Are the Days," a jogging, melodic, offbeat rocker; "Down With the Prophets," with modal-cum-Delta twang and serpentine fiddle) seem to creak from the weight of foreordination. But most tunes don't even pretend to offer any concessions to pop niceties; "Into the Storm" is 10 minutes' worth of aggression, bridled only at points for dynamic contrast and tension. Think again: release. Lift To Experience? More like Close Cover Before Striking--this package is explosive. (Hear, There, September 13) --Fred Mills
Little Grizzly, I'd Be Lying If I Said I Wasn't Scared (Quality Park): Little Grizzly plays music it (correctly) describes as "The Band meets Hüsker Dü," sped-up folk tunes smashing into a wall of sound or punk songs played on a backwoods back porch, depending on its mood and what's next on the set list. I'd Be Lying If I Said I Wasn't Scared plays both sides of the fence. George Neal's sepia-toned lyrics (sample: "Every soul's afeard," the opening line from "I Thought I Knew Ya Better Than That") come down the mountain hand in hand with a guitar sound rescued from SST Records' late-'80s roster ("Today is the Day," "She's Away"). They're songs that know their history yet seem determined to repeat and revise it. I'd Be Lying is thoroughly American music, incorporating everything from gentle acoustic ballads to amplifier-tipping guitar heroics, sometimes on the same song ("Peel Back the Sun"). A record made by record collectors for record collectors. ("The Who?," October 4) --Z.C.
N'Dambi, Tunin' Up & Cosignin' (Cheeky-I): In Dallas, N'Dambi's hometown, this beautiful, talented, independent woman is virtually anonymous; the only "Independent Women" you're likely to hear on local R&B radio is the song by Destiny's Child. You won't hear the singer with a voice floating like smoke over the nightclub where soul, jazz and gospel get together after hours, singing blue notes above the choir, putting the sultry rhythm and been-there blues back into R&B. Which is a shame. The double-disc Tunin' Up & Cosignin' is a late-night jam session with Nina Simone at the microphone and Stevie Wonder behind the keyboards (see: "Lonely Woman/Eva's Song," which opens up disc two); it contains 18 examples of a young woman finding her own way down a very old path. It deserves, demands, to be heard by everyone with ears and a soul. ("Soul Alone," October 11) --Z.C.
The New Year, Newness Ends (Touch and Go): While the 10-song disc contains many of the Kadanes' trademarks, such as the music-box guitars and hush-little-baby vocals that graced all three Bedhead records, it's not just a new name for an old group. Newness Ends goes down the same path as Bedhead records, but it jogs instead of walks; imagine Transaction de Novo on a new diet-and-exercise regimen. You can hear it best on a left-right combination that comes just before Newness Ends ends: The band gives the drummer some on "The Block That Doesn't Exist," leaning on Brokaw's snare like a greedy loan shark, which is followed by "Carne Lavare," the most foot-on-the-monitor rawk song the brothers Kadane have ever attempted. ("What Fun Life Is," February 15) --Z.C.
the pAper chAse, cntrl-alt-delete-u (Divot): "As it says in the album notes," singer-guitarist John Congleton says, "'This record is a commentary on the average human's reliance on technology and the division it has drawn between nature and such. It's an A to B conversation, if you will. As to who A and B are, is at your personal digression...By the by, this is not a suggestion on how we can do better; it is only to point out how bad we are, in fact, doing. Sleep well.'" (Scene, Heard, May 10) --Z.C.
Pleasant Grove, Auscultation of the Heart (Glitterhouse): Though the group puts on one of the better live shows around, given the right circumstances (say, playing in another town, perhaps), Auscultation of the Heart is the best place to hear what Pleasant Grove is all about. It's a rock record that doesn't, a country album that isn't, a soul disc just because. Joe Butcher says it's "Willie Nelson meets Pink Floyd," and it is that, in a way, and so much more. "I wish you were better/So when we're together/The magic that happened/Happens again," Bret Egner sings on "Albatross," and it's a sentiment that permeates the entire album, the kind of happy-to-be-sad feeling Marcus Striplin refers to when talking about the songs he and Egner write. "It's all the good what-ifs," he says. "I look at you; I look at everybody. We're all fucking sad, and it's OK." ("Heart to Heart," December 27) --Z.C.
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The Polyphonic Spree, The Beginning Stages of... (Good): The Beginning Stages of... is nearly as good as a live performance, highlighting singalong vocals, pretty strings and trumpet and flute flourishes not unlike Spiritualized, without being pretentious or depressive. In fact, that's always been Tim DeLaughter's strength as a musician: He's happy and exudes joy in his music. Polyphonic is definitely a more serious affair than Tripping Daisy but still exciting and playful. (Dallas Observer Music Awards 2001, April 19) --Jessica Parker
Red Animal War, Breaking in an Angel (Deep Elm): The songs you hear on Breaking in an Angel--think of a Texan version of Jawbox; complicated time signatures and complicated feelings, with razor-wire guitars and a rhythm section that kicks a hole in your chest--don't necessarily reflect the current incarnation of Red Animal War. Meaning: The songs are good, but the band is even better now. ("War Stories," June 21) --Z.C.
Sorta, Plays for Lovers (Summer Break): Trey Johnson's vocals, raspy and earnest but anchored in the land of tenor, give the band's sound some flexible cohesion, and Danny Balis' clear harmonies evoke the nostalgia of No Depression. But song for song, Carter Albrecht has the swing vote; his keyboard sets each song's subtle undercurrent, from an Attractions stomp to a Gainsbourgian cabaret, from sweeping grand piano to feel-good plinking. And while the band plays with moods, it's within an American indie scope: "Alcohol Drip" is a surprisingly clean anthem to booze and forgetting, while the looser, more soulful "It's a Sign" is more resignedly Westerberg. "Bye Bye" notches things over to staccato rock guitar, and the bluegrassy "Now and Then" comes off like a lost track from Wilco's A.M. It's an impressive debut, given its spontaneity. ("Kinda Sorta," December 20) --Christina Rees
The Toadies, Hell Below/Stars Above (Interscope): Hell Below/Stars Above is a kick--anthemic but never bludgeoning, chaotic but never shapeless. You can almost hear guitarist Clark Vogeler standing with one foot on the monitors; you can almost hear the audience shouting along to every word ("We're coming into your living room/We're crawling into your bed--yeeeeaaaah"). It's the sound of a band let loose after years of being restrained, by a manager or a label or perhaps even itself. ("Dallas Stars," March 15) --R.W.