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Misunderstood

Sorta lead singer Trey Johnson (far right) is too relaxed to be in a rush: "If we make 10 more albums in 10 years, we'll still be of able body to make great music."
Mike Fuentes

Three months ago, Sorta accepted its first Best Act in Town distinction at the Dallas Observer Music Awards, a major validation for a band that consistently produces some of the best music in this city--but also somewhat of an albatross. Because almost overlooked in the "Best Act" hoopla is the "in Town" disclaimer.

What's implied is that the band is still a Dallas band, for better or for worse. That might not be a burden for fresh-faced kids who've been playing for a few months or a couple years. But surely after decades of local gigs and grinding tours with dozens of different bands and side projects, the guys in Sorta must be getting anxious. In the past couple years they've had a song handpicked by Liz Phair for a nationally distributed compilation and others featured in commercials and trend-setting teen TV shows; those tastes of potential stardom can't help.

Now with a new album finally released and the recent addition of 2006 DOMA Musician of the Year winner Chris Holt on guitar, they're so close to the promised land the six guys must feel desperate to make the leap beyond respected locals. And with the mean age of a Sorta member at 35.5 years old, surely they're starting to feel like it's now or never. Right?

"No, there's no sense of urgency," lead singer Trey Johnson says. "I've got 30 years left, hopefully. I've never even thought about it."

Holt has obviously given it some consideration, listing all the reasons that experience, age and years outside the spotlight improve Sorta's condition. A minute later, keyboard player Carter Albrecht puts it more simply: "If we were 10 years younger, we'd be 10 years worse."

He dismisses the discussion as absurd and is so eager to swat away the question that it's hard not to wonder if he's a little sensitive about the matter.

"We're not an athletic band," he says. "It doesn't matter. We're not trying to fit into tight pants."

But they all agree that age--and the accumulation of obligations that comes with it--complicates the music.

"Having kids definitely does change it," says Johnson, the father of a 2-year-old. "You have to get up a lot earlier."

"It's harder to tour now unless there is money coming in that can pay the bills," bassist Danny Balis says later via e-mail. "We're not in the same boat that we were when we were 20 and can jump in a van at a moment's notice and deliver pizzas or bartend when we get home. Everyone has full-time jobs, kids, mortgages, etc., that demand priority."

Johnson's lyrics on Strange and Sad but True, as in previous releases, address the dilemmas of adulthood, comforting nostalgia and love. Often he writes in the oblique way you'd expect from a fanatical Bob Dylan admirer: "I have been turning to stone/So I go back to where I started from," Johnson sings in "Lazybones."

That seems to be the band's curse: They keep coming home again. Their audience has gradually expanded with each tour, write-up and song placement, but they haven't yet snapped those tethers holding them to the Big D. They're certainly not living the high life yet; drummer Trey Carmichael missed the group interview after the doughnut tire on his car blew out. Big-time rock stars don't usually drive on spares.

"I'm happy to be a local band and work with musicians I love," Carmichael later says by phone. "We can continue to be a Texas band forever if that's what is intended."

But they'll do it on their terms. Sortaweb.com instructs you to "File Under Rock, Pop, Roots," an obvious attempt to shed the "alt-country" label that has dogged the band. Johnson knows that comparisons to Wilco early in the band's career led to the tag, which fit Sorta just as poorly as it did Wilco. They are also open about their desire for a better-heeled record label than Summer Break Records to put out their next album.

The year-long delay of Strange (reported May 26 on Unfair Park) was due to financial difficulties at Summer Break, which still owns the rights to the album, but the guys claim to have self-released it. Johnson says he still believes Summer Break owner Robert Jenkins will help the band out however he can, considering his stake in it. (Jenkins did not respond to an interview request.)

So there were label woes, and during the delay Strange was made available for free download on MySpace. Wilco similarities don't end there: As on previous releases, Johnson's singing voice on Strange is sometimes remarkably similar to Jeff Tweedy's, despite the deep speaking voice so suited to the radio commercial voice work he recently quit. And the band's layered roots-rock with Albrecht's distinctive somber/spacey electric piano sometimes approximates Being There- and Summerteeth-era Wilco.

But Strange proves the band's might beyond such comparisons. The interplay between Albrecht's keys and pedal-steel player Ward Williams' subtle flourishes is essential on songs such as "Goodnight"; the players' efforts turn a potential acoustic-guitar yawn into a palpable document of Johnson's anxiety. Opener "Buttercup" builds from clean vibrato guitar and soft, regretful reflection to pounding drums and a soaring guitar solo that is both angry and achingly melodic. And the production on "Lazybones" dips the trapkit in deep reverb, making Carmichael's drum rolls sound like something off The Soft Bulletin.

Fortunately, there's no Tweedy/Jay Bennett power struggle here, either. The group is loaded with songwriters (each has fronted a band or solo project, including Albrecht's defunct Sparrows and Holt's Olospo), yet Johnson has borne the writing brunt throughout Sorta's life. But the guys say it has never been a sticking point, happy to bring Johnson's songs to life and contribute with arrangements. Even Balis, whose other songwriting outlet is parody songs for sports talk show The Hardline on 1310 The Ticket, doesn't mind.

"Most of the stuff I write I end up hating on my own and would never consider presenting it to the band," he says. "'Closer' was the first song I had written in years that I thought was decent and would fit with Sorta...Maybe one day I'll put out a cassette of garbage I've written over the years. Probably not."

Though the delay has dampened their enthusiasm about the new album, they still look forward to playing songs from it that they have yet to perform live. Holt describes the band's approach to some of the new songs as very experimental, like "multilayered chamber pop." Johnson aims to have the new album out next summer to coincide with a European tour.

The tour talk sparks a discussion about Iceland. Williams seems convinced the band absolutely must record there, though his only connection to the island is an appreciation for Sigur Ros and a memory of an Icelandic girl he met several years ago in Spain. He seems to have the others half-convinced--especially Albrecht, who makes sure to point out he's been with an Icelandic hottie as well.

"It's a very spiritual place," Williams says after describing a land of volcanoes, geysers and mountains, a beautiful land in perpetual motion, a place he's only seen on TV and read about.

"Oh yeah, it's very spiritual," Johnson echoes, adding: "When we say 'spiritual,' we actually mean 'sexual.'"

But the facetious tones melt away the more they talk about it. For all their contented talk of being grounded and at peace with the band's status, their eyes brighten and they straighten up in their chairs at the prospect of the unknown. Then they catch themselves dreaming out loud and laugh the whole thing off.

But even if things turn for the worst--more Sad than Strange--the guys won't be feeling sorry for themselves. The sextet pledges to ride it out with the prolific Johnson, who sees no reason to pin his hopes on one album after crafting three that he's openly proud of.

"If we make 10 more albums in 10 years, we'll all still be of able body to make great music," he says. "How many bands have 13 great records that nobody's ever heard of?...At some point, somebody's going to say, 'Wow, what a great catalog.'"


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