Centro-matic's Will Johnson showed off every side of his personality on two great albums this year.
Centro-matic's Will Johnson showed off every side of his personality on two great albums this year.

Home groans

In these pages last year, Robert Wilonsky wrote, "I can't remember a year when so many local bands released so many albums that I'll play well into next year and beyond." And, at the time, I agreed with him wholeheartedly. Looking at the 20 albums we had singled out, it seemed like the best year in local music in a long time, the good outweighing the bad like a sumo wrestler and an infant. Almost every record on that list looked as if it would stand the test of time. At the very least, they appeared as though they'd make it past January.

Apparently, however, last year's notable releases were so good that we didn't want to go back and listen to them, in case they overwhelmed us with their goodness. The last time I listened to any of the discs on last year's local best-of -- save for Legendary Crystal Chandelier's Love or the Decimal Equivalent, which finds its way back into rotation every few weeks -- was when Robert and I were compiling the list. Nothing against The Calways, Cowboys and Indians, Kevin Deal, The Lucky Pierres, Spyche, Transona Five, or any of the others. Fact is, as brilliantly twisted as The Dooms U.K.'s sophomore album, Art Rock Explosion!, seemed at the time, I haven't been compelled to pop that disc into my CD player anytime recently, and the same goes for the rest of the bunch. Maybe we were wrong.

Or maybe there were just too many good locally produced albums released this year for last year's honor graduates to contend with. In fact, there were so many fine releases issued in the past 12 months, I'm tempted to repeat last year's boast, especially since -- for the most part -- it's a new crop of bands that appears here. Budapest One, Captain Audio, N'Dambi, Little Grizzly, Chomsky, Pleasant Grove, The Baptist Generals, Eleven Hundred Springs, and The Deathray Davies all made their marks with their debut discs, which is, if nothing else, the promise of a better tomorrow. It's too soon to tell whether the 20 albums we've chosen (well, 21, since Centro-matic hits the chart with two discs) are equipped to survive the new year, but here's hoping. Assuming there is a new year.

And guess what? Contrary to popular opinion, I do hope that at least a few of these discs survive long into next year and the years to come. Nothing would please me more than if one or all of these albums lives on as long after its initial release as the Toadies' Rubberneck, or holds up to as many repeated listenings as Funland's The Funland Band or Bedhead's WhatFunLifeWas or The Full-Custom Gospel Sounds of the Reverend Horton Heat. Maybe in five years, Chomsky's A Few Possible Selections for the Soundtrack of Your Life will still make its way into our CD player for no reason in particular. Or Pleasant Grove's debut will continue to sound like the masterpiece it does today. I can't say I'm scared by that prospect.

Too often, we're asked to play the unwieldy part of cheerleader, blind and deaf homers who think that everything homemade is great! Those who criticize our alleged lack of support fail to realize that unconditional love is the cheapest kind of all, fit for mothers and little else. (Among the many things we've been called, mother is not one of them, unless it's being paired with "fucker.") If, say, we should give Pimpadelic's Southern Devils a generous review simply because they are local and popular, then what happens to the albums that are actually worthwhile? Taking the approach that every local band deserves not only our attention but our praise wouldn't just devalue legitimate acclaim; it would decimate it.

Besides, it's only an opinion, delivered with no malice aforethought. (Well, not much anyway.) As Necro Tonz singer Colleen Bradford wrote in an e-mail blasting us for what she deemed gratuitous cheap shots against her band and the "scene" as a whole, "Music is art. Art is subjective." Somehow, Bradford hit upon the point even while she spent the rest of her missive doing her best to avoid it, including "don't shit where you eat" among her many admonitions. We may not like every record that comes out around here, but at least we're honest about it. And if you're a musician who desperately needs validation from us, then you're probably in the wrong business.

That said, obviously local music is destined to be graded on a curve, but that curve should be flat; after all, every group's a local band somewhere. If bands from the Dallas-Denton-Fort Worth area want to succeed anywhere else but here, then they have to be judged alongside everyone else. As Ric Flair says, "To be the man, you have to beat the man." Of course, Flair is also in his 50s and continues to run around in little more than his underwear as an employee of World Championship Wrestling. So maybe everything he says shouldn't be taken as gospel. The point is, if you think only in terms of local success, that's all you'll ever have.

At least a few local labels have proved that they can compete on any level, eliminating the need to keep them in the ghetto. Last Beat Records ushered in 1999 with Captain Audio's brilliant (in every sense of the word) My ear's are ringing but my heart's ok, and put the period on the end of the sentence with Pleasant Grove's stark, startling self-titled debut. Matt Barnhart and Quality Park Records not only released two of the finer discs this year (from Centro-matic and Little Grizzly), but Barnhart also set up a mail-order site (www.qualityparkrecs.com) that brings together most of the area's best music in one convenient location. Dave Willingham and Philip Croley's Two Ohm Hop Records continued to put out some of the most interesting, challenging discs around, including recent albums by Stumptone and Ohm. And Leaning House Records just might be the best jazz label anywhere, as long as it stays in business.

Yet even though there are quality labels to be found here, that doesn't mean a group should sign with the first label that shows interest, whether it's national or local, to escape Dallas either. Almost half of the best records released this year were put out by the bands that made them, including discs by Baboon, The Adventures of Jet, Chomsky, Budapest One, The Deathray Davies, and Little Jack Melody and His Young Turks. Doing it yourself never sounded this good.

If anyone needs further proof that a band doesn't need a major label (or any, for that matter) to make a great record, look and listen to Baboon and The Adventures of Jet, who recorded the best albums of their careers after they severed their ties with big labels (Wind-Up and MCA, respectively). And Centro-matic continued to prove that Will Johnson is one of the best songwriters this area has produced, even after Austin-based Doolittle Records -- which had signed a distribution deal with PolyGram Distribution Group -- ditched the group because Johnson's songs weren't "commercially responsible." Thank God, because a label with that attitude surely would never have let Johnson and company release two albums this year, and probably (or should we say, at least) two more next year. It's frightening to think of all the unheard music that could have resulted from that abortive deal.

Tripping Daisy looked to be among the bands bravely going it alone. Earlier this year, the band was on the verge of continuing the promise they made with last year's Jesus Hits Like the Atom Bomb -- on their own, and on their own terms. Good Records, the label the group formed after being released from its contract with Island Records, had already issued its inaugural release, the Daisy's whimsical The Tops Off Our Heads, a 22-minute disc of mostly improvised material. The band was readying its first full-length for release sometime early next year when disaster struck: Guitarist Wes Berggren died of an overdose of cocaine and sleeping pills on October 28. When Berggren died, so did the band; singer Tim DeLaughter announced on KDGE-FM's Adventure Club on December 12 that it wouldn't be right to continue without Berggren, so the group's forthcoming self-titled album will be its last.

It says something that only two of the 21 discs singled out here were produced by major labels -- the Old 97's Fight Songs and The Dixie Chicks' Fly -- and the Chicks' fifth disc (for those of you keeping score at home) only barely nudged its way onto the list. Ask the Tomorrowpeople or Radish whether signing with a major label is the brass ring most bands think it is. They know now that signing your life away to a label only leaves you with wasted time and tarnished dreams. You think Interscope Records would have released a record like Budapest One's Good Night, Little Girl of My Dreams? Can you remember the last time a major label put out a disc that re-imagined Elvis Costello as a Baptist minister performing in a German cabaret? Didn't think so.

Of course, the Tomorrowpeople's Marijuana Beach was recorded on a major label's dime (Geffen Records, and it reportedly cost the company quite a few dimes), yet the fact that the disc came out on the band's own Olivia Records just proves that the majors don't know what to do with talent when they have it. The same could be said for Radish's still unreleased Sha Sha, which continues to linger on a desk at Island Def Jam Music Group with no release date in sight, even though Ben Kweller's teenage symphonies to God would sound more at home on the radio than station identifications. It only goes to show that no one can pretend to understand the music business, much less make brash predictions about it. But that doesn't mean we're going to stop anytime soon.

Part 3: Coping With Insignificance
The Adventures of Jet

You could no more keep these guys down than drown a whale; from their earliest incarnation as Bobgoblin, to Phase II as The Commercials, to their present status as The Adventures of Jet, this foursome continues its original power-pop vein while getting punchier with each new identity. Dallas would have seen a dismal year if Hop Litzwire and his wingmen had called it a day. Instead, Jet's self-released follow-up to its major-label debut (as Bobgoblin, 1997's The Twelve-Point Master Plan) is heartening proof that an act can indeed experience a rich life after death. The deal with MCA Records gone sour and Bobgoblin label-less, the guys did everything but fold. First on the agenda: ditch the fictional post-apocalyptic narrative that cloaked the band in its own modern myth, however beloved and complex, and move on to more universal agit-pop. Then, change the band's name not once, but twice -- to keep the fans sharp? Finally, unleash the best set of songs yet.

In fact, Part 3: Coping With Insignificance delivers on all the promises the band has always implied. Tales of alienation in a decaying society trade blows with grab-your-face power chords, punctuating keyboards, and a dead-on rhythm section. "The bad brains in the boardrooms just might win," Litzwire croons in the album's opener, "End of the Planet," before ripping into a plea: "Can anybody rescue me?" The melodies throughout are thicker and rounder than anything the band's done prior, shaving off The Twelve-Point Master Plan's sharp angles without dulling the edges. The harmonies are full-blown, and the songs unspool like a set of modern parables about technology, moral responsibility, and all the other high-minded stuff that lesser bands can't tackle without coming off as ridiculous. Jet pulls it off with aggression and grace; this is the musical equivalent of angry young white man syndrome -- smart guys overwhelmed by terribly conflicting expectations. Picture a suit-and-tied-up rat-racer experiencing either a beautiful epiphany of Ultimate Truth or a horrid moment of Gone Nuts. Think Michael Douglas falling down with thick horn rims and a semi-automatic. Or better yet, a guitar.

Christina Rees

We Sing and Play

God bless John Congleton for making it his mission to finally produce a Baboon recording that did the group justice, that captured the storm and stress of the quartet's live shows for the first time on disc. Damned if he didn't succeed, pushing the levels so high that every song sounds as if the tape is disintegrating, along with all the equipment in the studio, crying under the weight of Mike Rudnicki's guitar tremors and Andrew Huffstetler's tense screams. Which is exactly the way Baboon should be heard -- felt, really -- whether it's smacking you in the face ("Rise," "Lushlife") or stroking your back (the tender "Endlessly"). Not that 1994's Face Down in Turpentine or 1997's Secret Robot Control didn't contain their fair share of quality material; they just paled in comparison with the sweaty confidence the band displayed onstage. We Sing and Play closes the gap, with help from guest shots by Jon "Corn Mo" Cunningham, Toadies drummer Mark Reznicek, Gospel Swingers organist Kari Luna, and Dooms U.K. and Legendary Crystal Chandelier guitarist James Henderson. We Sing and Play is as close as you can get to a Baboon show without involving silver body paint, ascots, or pig masks. You'll just have to trust me on this one.


The Baptist Generals
(Hot Link Records)

Pair this gutbucket five-song EP with the cassette-only excretio: the difficult years (sold at shows, when Chris Flemmons' outfit was called Poor Bastard Sons), and you've got a demo for Music from Big Pink -- OK, 31 years after the fact. Like the Gourds and the Bad Livers -- and, yes, The Band -- before him, Flemmons finds truth and beauty in the trad-rock form, meaning he performs and records like a man who's never heard of the Beatles...or, for that matter, electricity. Funny how the backward-glancers have become the most "visionary" among us in these most desperate times; we revere those for whom there's a past beyond tomorrow, and Flemmons is nothing if not the most backward among the Denton rock crowd -- and that's the ultimate compliment. Dog is a gawldang throwdown and God-bless comedown, a CD that belongs on acetate in the Library of Congress basement-tapes archives. "Pats the Rub" may well be the stompingest song you'll hear (or, likely, not) all year, and its follow-up, "Evergone," may be the saddest, especially when the thirtysomething Flemmons starts crooning like a 90-year-old man oooohing his last breath. At first, I thought Dog sounded like something recorded on a front porch; upon further inspection, more likely it was just found in a ditch, at the end of the rainbow.

Robert Wilonsky

Good Night, Little Girl of My Dreams
Budapest One

Even after dozens of spins, I'm still not sure what to make of a disc that tells the story of self-immolating lamplighters, yodeling mutes, bastard princes, mail-order brides, Rudy Vallee, and God knows what else. Eclectic wouldn't begin to describe a record that's equal bits Elvis Costello and Bertold Brecht, forward-thinking and backward-glancing, literate and literal, too much and not enough. It might be Joe Jackson on a USO tour, backed by the Attractions and a band of gypsies, or it could be the Stiff Records back catalog rendered as musical theater by a troupe of Southern preachers. Who knows, really? The only thing for sure is that frontman Keith Killoren has assembled a record that's as challenging as it is charming, an oddball, everything-and-then-some-and-then-some-more album that begins in the '30s, ends in the '70s, and hits all the high points in between as hard as it can.

Joined by Brave Combo's Jeffrey Barnes and ex-Young Turk Lee Tomboulian, as well as bassist William Pollard and Baboon drummer Steven Barnett, Killoren creates a whimsical world that sounds more than a little like a daydream during a 1950s sock hop. You never quite know which way Killoren is leaning, whether he's among his congregation doing the twist ("Ballad of the Yodeling Mute") or sending up Nashville and Texas at the same ("Could've Been a Texan"). It doesn't really matter which direction he chooses, because he walks through every genre and era that litters Good Night's dozen songs as surely as can be, jumping down from his pulpit to deliver his sermon-songs about men "who walk in faith" all the way to "healthy-breasted sin" and women who are "too low for the dogs to bite." Killoren might lose you every once in a while, but he's always there to lead you right back to the flock. Wherever that may be.


My ears are ringing but my heart's ok
Captain Audio
(Last Beat Records)

It's not fair to refer to Brandon Curtis, Josh Garza, and Regina Chellew in terms of the bands they used to be in; this one's fine by itself, thankyouverymuch. After all, only bits and pieces of their respective pasts in other bands have wriggled their way into this brilliant future. They are fading echoes that have almost completely dissipated by the time the chorus of voices that overwhelms the latter half of "know it all" fades into the guitar feedback that closes out the song and the disc. It's that moment that best sums up My ears are ringing but my heart's ok, the subtle shift from melody to malady and back again. Songs are pulled apart and put back together in the wrong order, piled high with effects or pared down to just Chellew's trembling voice -- both of which are used to fine effect on "know it all." Captain Audio renders pop music as scientific experiment, mixing together sounds and adding more, until even the free-jazz interlude on "often mistaken for the sun" doesn't seem out of place. If nothing else, the squealing, reeling guitar solo that kicks off "driving, riding" features the least self-conscious Prince reference of 1999.




Idol Records

The Static vs. The Strings Vol. 1


Quality Park Records

Most musicians have trouble coming up with enough quality material for one album, yet Will Johnson already has his next record ready and waiting, the forthcoming All the Falsest Hearts Can Try, and is beginning work on another one. But maybe the best proof yet that Johnson is one of the finest songwriters here or anywhere is the fact that The Static vs. The Strings Vol. 1 -- a set of songs that didn't fit onto either of his previous releases, 1997's Redo the Stacks or Navigational -- is just as good as any other disc released this year. The leftovers on The Static vs. The Strings are every bit as appetizing as the 16 tracks on Navigational, and, maybe, they highlight Johnson's skills even better, bouncing from Will-and-a-guitar sketches ("Say Something/ 95 Frowns") to four-on-the-floor stompers ("Neighbors. Habits. Downtown.").

Which is not to say that Navigational isn't as good as The Static vs. The Strings -- it just focuses on one of Johnson's many talents. Navigational is a more somber and sedate affair, country waltzes that would have you believing Johnson is the most depressed person alive if you didn't know any better; if "Ruin This With Style" doesn't make you hide all knives and sharp objects, nothing will. But Johnson sings a sad song better than anyone on this side of the Mississippi, and Scott Danbom's fiddle would make a dead man tear up. While The Static vs. The Strings has its downhearted moments as well, it also lets Johnson and the rest of the band prove that they are one of the few rock-and-roll bands around these parts that matter. And as long as Johnson continues to write songs as good as these, Centro-matic might be the only band that matters.


A Few Possible Selections for the Soundtrack of Your Life



There are few things that can be said about Chomsky that don't also apply to groups such as XTC and The Police; there's little that can be added to the dialogue that was started two decades ago. What else is there left to say about four guys playing pop songs on guitar, drums, and bass? More than you think, at least when the band does it so well that you forget you might have heard it all before. That doesn't mean that Chomsky is unoriginal, only that it comes from good stock, writing simple pop songs that become more complex and intelligent each time around. Other groups have tried to walk through this same territory and failed, only because they never realized that guitar-pop can be a minefield of clichés if you don't watch your step. Singer-guitarist Sean Halleck and the rest of the band -- drummer Matt Kellum, bassist James Driscoll, and guitarist Glen Reynolds -- pull the neatest trick of all, managing to sound as familiar as yesterday and exciting as tomorrow at the same time. You only think you've heard it all before.


More Bad Habits
Ronnie Dawson
(Yep Roc Records)

Not much left to say about this cagey veteran that hasn't been said since, oh, 1954. Either you know or you don't -- and those who don't haven't really lived, so get with it or get gone. The point, at this point, isn't whether Dawson gets better (how does he do it?) or gets worse (yeah, right), but merely that he exists -- not as a vestige of that teenybopper who wowed the crowds at the Big "D" Jamboree, but as a still-viable performer with potency enough to make the dead dance. He's not just some symbol, a weathered icon to be adored because he never gave up; to see him as mere survivor is to see past him, to altogether ignore the man and his music. His back story becomes irrelevant once he steps into the studio or takes the stage; his greatness is not dependent upon "Rockin' Bones" or "Action Packed," simply because the man is no more an echo of those songs than he is a shadow of the young man who once performed them.

Ronnie D. is the last remaining flame of a once-mighty conflagration, a one-man Million Dollar Quartet. More Bad Habits may not be Dawson's best record of the decade -- that honor goes to Monkey Beat!, perhaps only because it signaled the resurrection -- but it's still the best Rock and Roll Record released here or anywhere else this year, and Dawson's one of the last of the good guys. I know this because a few months ago, my wife and I were invited to attend Dawson's 60th birthday party, during which he and an old friend turned Dawson's Lower Greenville den into a Waxahachie hootenanny. He and his pal strummed and sang through the night, resurrecting old country standards and old pop ballads; around them sat a few family members, some old friends, and two very lucky guests who, on this night, sat inches away from the man who is Rock and Roll.


Drink With the Grown-Ups and Listen to the Jazz
The Deathray Davies
(My-t Records)

I got the same charge listening to The Deathray Davies' debut -- otherwise known as John Dufilho's first record, since he wrote and plays everything here -- as I did upon first hearing Go Metric USA's Three Chords By Two Verses only a year ago. Something about the golly-gee pop of both discs that recalls Britrock circa 1968 (at least someone still listens to the Kinks), with a decent dose of pet sounds thrown in for good (vibrations) measure. Sure, it ain't "original," but what is in these cut-and-paste-and-cut-again days of post-pre-post-modernism (dude, it's just a pop song)? Indeed, those artists worth revering are those who rescue the good stuff from the dustbin of pop-music history and abandon the detritus; taste counts for everything in these tasteless times. And Dufilho's debut outing (he has since fleshed out the Deathrays with the likes of Peter Schmidt and other homebodies) is made up of the good stuff, whether it's the merry-go-round rock of "Elephants" or the choogaloo fuzz of "Divine Sarcasm" or the melodramatic melodicism of "Set to Stun." So you can sing along with the whole lot three spins after the fact -- damn, that's the brilliant fucking point. May never listen to this again, but that's only because I've already memorized it.


Dixie Chicks
(Monument Records)

Swear to God, these aren't the valentines of a homer or the apologies of a bandwagon-jumper. Look, it's actually possible to dislike Wide Open Spaces and adore Fly. Why? Because one disc sounds like the sell-out (or buy-in) move it was meant to be (every note likely went through extensive marketing surveys), and the other like multiplatinum award-winners willing to melt down all the accolades. Not that Fly ain't a Young Country commercial break in places -- the opener "Ready to Run" was apparently written on a bar code, and "Heartbreak Town" diminishes whatever momentum the album builds toward the end -- but in all, it appears that Natalie Maines, Martie Seidel, and Emily Robison have merged their top-of-the-pops desires with their top-of-the-notch chops.

Turns out they haven't completely dyed their roots: Martie and Emily still own this band -- yes, it does make a difference when the band can actually play -- even if the label's dying to turn Natalie into country's own Edie Brickell. Nice to see that women's-lib thing finally stuck in country; these women don't need men, unless you're talking producers and ex-husbands. And "Hole in My Head" is, hands down and then way up, the best Zep country song since "Hot Dog."


At the Gypsy Tea Room
Earl Harvin Trio
(Leaning House Records)

What a windfall for Dallas that this region can claim someone as deeply gifted as drummer Earl Harvin, not to mention his flankers, keysman Dave Palmer and bassist Fred Hamilton. Never mind that the trio isn't around often; they go their separate ways to meet the demands of other projects, such as Harvin's work with Matt Johnson on the forthcoming The The disc. But when they come home to roost, supported by the venerable Leaning House label, everyone can breathe a sigh of relief that, yes, even Dallas can spawn great jazz. The double-disc At the Gypsy Tea Room is just such a reassuring boost. Recorded at what may be Dallas' best live-music club, the sounds are as subtle as they are satisfying. Palmer pushes a template the three of them weave spells around, twisting and turning each song until it's something that can't be found on any set list. From the bright staccato smoothness of "Albino" to kool-factor assertions of "Geraminals Rising" (picture the early hours of a Fellini cocktail affair) to the brooding low-end seduction of "Morning Psalm (compliments to Hamilton), this act can do no wrong, live or otherwise. And this record proves it...again.


Welcome To Eleven Hundred Springs
Eleven Hundred Springs
(13 Recordings)

This is the band that made Monday night in Dallas not such a vacuum anymore, a bring-in-the-week party soaked in cheap beer and priceless standards. The top of the week -- every week -- saw young Matt "The Cat" Hillyer and his boys take the stage at Adair's to help their audience cope with the hell of a working week, and they did it with cheerful aplomb. Eleven Hundred Springs' debut may not pack the punch of the sweaty, rolling live show at a downtown honky-tonk -- even the group's subsequent live disc couldn't do that -- but it'll definitely get you through Tuesday, Wednesday, and those other godforsaken stretches.

The eleven originals and one cover on the album show off the band's range: sensibilities run from old-old school Hank Williams territory ("Gone Crazy Blues") to caustic Folsum Prison strains ("A Few Words to Remember Me By"), to loping Dwight Yoakam-style updates ("The Only Thing She Left Me"), never straying into the blighted, slick swamp of new-school young country. Guitar prodigy-frontman Hillyer obviously knows his shit. That is to say, he cultivates a proper reverence for the good stuff and it shows in his high-trad songwriting. The guys still play over at Adair's occasionally, when they're not on the road or gracing some bigger stage. For the Monday nights they don't, pop this one into the CD player and let it go to work on your Pearl Light-drenched soul.


Please Let Me Go, It Wasn't Meant to Be
Little Grizzly
(Quality Park)

It's hard not to think of George Neal as Will Johnson's kid brother, doggedly following a trail that's already been blazed. Like Johnson and Centro-matic, Little Grizzly started as a one-man show, just Neal and his guitar. And also like Centro-matic, Little Grizzly has matured into a full band, a process that's documented (sort of) on Please Let Me Go, It Wasn't Meant to Be. The comparison is made that much easier since Johnson and his Centro-matic bandmate Scott Danbom both appear on Little Grizzly's debut. But the similarities end at the CD booklet, since it's clear from the soft-focus melodies here that Neal and his band don't need to use Centro-matic as a crutch. The songs mutate from lo-fi choruses ("Next to Nothing") to play-fuckin'-loud rockers ("Fission Song"), and Neal sings them all in a high-pitched drawl that's not unlike Tripping Daisy's Tim DeLaughter, though not as grating. As if that needs to be said.


Noise and Smoke
Little Jack Melody and His Young Turks
(Kilroy Records)

Figures that Little Jack would finally get around to making a live record, since that's always been the place to catch his band. And unlike most live records, Noise and Smoke is a pretty close approximation of Steve Carter and his Young Turks in their element, Carter proving that Tom Waits for no one except him. Sure, it's not as good as, say, 1994's World of Fireworks, but Little Jack probably won't ever be able to top that record. Let's just be happy he keeps trying to.


Meredith Miller Band
(Binkey Records)

It's pronounced "Madam, I'm Adam," if you're struggling. One thing you never struggle with, however, is the music of young Miller herself: wry, comforting, impossible to categorize but never disconcerting. For a handful of years now, the unassuming Miller has been writing and performing songs that roll out so fully formed and relaxed that you might think of them as Athenas sprung all-growed-up from the head of Zeus. She can croon (and man, what a voice), observe, folk-out, and meditate with the thoughtfulness of a young woman who gives herself time to think about what she's saying long before she says it. There ain't a dumb or impulsive lick in sight. Flanked by guitar great Reed Easterwood, bassist Dave Monsey, and drummer Bryan Wakeland, Miller's sound has gotten fuller these past couple of years, as is evident on madami'madam, which morphs her previously folkie-cum-indie angle into twelve songs you can sink all of your teeth into.

From the lilting twang of the opener "This Time" to the lonely waltz-reverb of "Your Laugh" to the bluegrassy "My Thinking," Miller never betrays her affection for roots rock, but she never quite buys the cow. Miller's trump card is her power to absolutely haunt: When she is sad or sentimental, you'd better make room in your schedule for heavy sighing. Just listen to "Flannel," a thickly dreamlike homage to dear old dad, and try not to let your guts roil up in knots. We should all rejoice that the mesmerizing "Prince" -- a song that so perfectly captures the downside of falling for someone that it should be required listening for, well, everyone -- is here. And that Miller is still in Dallas.


Little Lost Girl Blues
(Cheeky-I Productions)

Here's where Chonita "N'Dambi" Gilbert stepped out from her homegirl Erykah Badu's shadow and shows she's more than a backup singer with a cool 'fro. Seriously, if Gilbert had made this record before Baduizm hit stores, Badu would be trying to do the same thing. But even though Gilbert toured with Badu, this is no cheap imitation of the original. Gilbert's soul is full of jazz, and both are the kind that people stopped trying to make a long time ago. Lord knows it's harder to launch a musical career here that doesn't revolve around loud guitars, yet Gilbert has much more of a chance than anyone, if only because now that Badu's opened a few doors for her, her talent will keep her walking through them.


Fight Songs
Old 97's
(Elektra Records)

Figured by now this disc would be a platinum sweetheart, especially after hearing "Nineteen" the first time -- now there's something for the WB audience in search of its next boy-band. And for a while there, "Murder (Or a Heart Attack)" seemed destined to become the Hit Single it never quite turned out to be; whenever it came on the radio, at least around these parts, it sounded like something that had been there forever, like Ron Chapman. And it only sounded better on TV, where the boys acquitted themselves nicely; guarantee you that's the only time we'll ever watch The Tonight Show by choice. But sooner or later, talent catches up to the most promising chart-climbers: Everything here only sounds as though it belongs on the radio, when in truth there's real depth to these shallow swimmers -- "Oppenheimer" included, if not especially. Turns out all those years of pretending to be country only reaffirmed Rhett Miller, Murry Hammond, Ken Bethea, and Philip Peeples' love for pop, if by "pop" one means the jingle-jangle-tingle variety and not the populist brand that sacrifices content for form.

Four albums into a career that once seemed like nothing more than yet another side project for apparent journeyman Miller, the 97's have evolved into the perfect little rock-and-roll band: The country fetishism of the early albums hasn't been excised so much as absorbed, lending a little grit to the otherwise spit-shined exterior. Miller's still writing them in-love-outta-love songs -- though I'm still not convinced he's better-looking than any woman who'd ever dump his ass -- but he's become a better writer, meaning it's possible to separate narrator from character. You just gotta believe. "Indefinitely," "Valentine," "Murder (Or a Heart Attack)" -- a trifecta on a winning little record that's just too good to be pop, or popular.


Pleasant Grove
Pleasant Grove
(Last Beat Records)

It's tempting to just refer you to Z. Crain's review of this disc last issue; he pretty much summed it up, referring to this long-long-long-awaited debut (by us, anyway) as Bedhead's country cousin performing songs out of the Kris Kristofferson fakebook -- sounds pretty good to me, Mr. C. I'd add only this: "Wide Open" should make a pretty good cover for the next Old 97's disc, what with all the broken-hearted harmonies (singer-guitarists Bret Egner and Marcos Striplin sound like two halves of the same tortured man) and corn-pone drone, the toward-the-end guitar breakdown (country feedback, indeed) notwithstanding. This is the inevitable path down which country music must travel -- away from tradition, toward beautiful chaos.

Haven't heard -- wait, felt -- a record this deeply in years, and that's even without listening to the words, which injure the strong and decimate the frail. It's all about beneath-the-skin delivery, the forlorn melodies ("Demonic" builds to a quiet nervous breakdown), the whispered plaints and dark spaces between the notes. "Nothing This Beautiful" is George and Tammy...wait, Gram and Emmylou...wait, John and Exene for the doomed generation; 10 minutes and 31 seconds lasts forever, and not long enough (first 13 times I listened to this record, I had no idea it was only 38 minutes long). "Nothing this beautiful could ever last," they sing, and of course they're right -- especially when the guitars explode and the song shatters like shrapnel. This is what dreams sound like for those of us who live only half our lives.


Sha Sha

Radish's missing-in-action sophomore album was supposed to be in stores last spring, until mergers and morons kept it on the shelf, where it now collects dust and back interest. That Mercury refused to release the follow-up to 1997's Restraining Bolt says less about the quality of this pop-pop-POP disc than it does about the state of the music business, which hasn't been about music for a very, very long time. From the opening shebang till the farewell kaboom, this disc gets more play than Lee Stevens at first base; like the kids say, gimmegimmegimme. And who knew young Ben Kweller, the forever teenager who sounds on the phone like he's just about to bite into a PB&J, had such magic repressed in his bag of tricks? Surely, not those who heard Restraining Bolt and found only echoes of alt-rock past, circa 1992. From "Dear Aunt Arctica" to "Launch Ramp," which kick-starts Sha Sha, in two short years -- talk about your Christmas miracles. See, kids, that's what happens when you stop listening to Weezer and Nirvana and start paying attention to your internal jukebox.

Restraining Bolt, after all, was the sound a kid makes when he's told too often he's a prodigy by old men in search of vicarious thrills; young Ben, from little ol' Greenville, wore his Nirvana fetish like a Kurt Cobain T-shirt until he all but resembled the baby pictures of the Ghost of Alternative Radio Past. Such are the mistakes made by bizzers when they think the novelty of youth will overshadow the reality of inexperience. (And the children shall lead them, right to the cutout bin.) So perhaps expectations were low when a CD-R of Sha Sha arrived in the mail, courtesy a Mercury exec who wanted to liberate the incarcerated album; anticipation disappears when trepidation wanders through the door holding a recordable disc. Not in a very long time has such cynicism been so quickly dissipated, replaced by a giddy enthusiasm -- the smirk done in by the smile. From the distorted harmonica burst that opens the disc to the title song (which wears its la-la-las like a rose in a lapel) to the ambient beauty of "Here Is Not Dissonant," here's the disc that sounds as though it were indeed made by a child -- one bereft of self-consciousness, cynicism, and guile. If only record labels were run the same way.


Marijuana Beach
The Tomorrowpeople
(Olivia Records)

Just imagine how much better this record would have been if the other nine songs the band recorded for Geffen Records appeared as well, including shiny redos of past faves such as "Mercitron" and "Youth in Orbit." But as it stands, Marijuana Beach is just fine on its own, what ambition sounds like when it straps on a guitar and doesn't pay attention to the clock. "By My Side" is the would-be-should-be hit, frontman Mike Gibson "keepin' it real" (desperate, that is) with his airy falsetto, possibly singing about a girlfriend, but more likely, a girl he's watching from outside of her bedroom window. But "Love That Yer Making" is the real deal, where the band delivers a flick-your-Bic anthem for the indie-rock set. It could have been a hit for Geffen if the someone had just held onto it. Don't make the same mistake.



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