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Don't call it a sell-out; she's been around for years, and all Meredith Miller has to show for it are two locally released CDs and a day job that pays for her to play at night. No, Miller's decision to form a band--a year ago now, in case you didn't notice--was a long time in coming. She did it for practical reasons: When the frat boys storm Deep Ellum on the weekend, the last thing they want to do is listen to a single white female strum her acoustic guitar and sing smart little folk songs about her boyfriends and her dad. She did it for financial reasons: Perhaps now she'll get signed to a major label that will finance her dreams. But most of all, she did it for artistic reasons: As far as she was concerned, when you get the chance to play with such musicians as Reed Easterwood and Bryan Wakeland, you take it without asking questions. Miller might well dream of one day waking up without having to go to work, but who in the hell would deny her such aspirations?

And besides, she says with a small laugh, "Everybody knows rock and roll's more fun than folk music."

It's been three years now since Miller moved back from Austin, where she attended the University of Texas, three years since she began playing live again, three years since she jump-started the idea of making a career out of music. Back then, she sat on the Dark Room stage and, in a deadpan-pretty voice, sang these wonderful, deceptive songs about waking up alone and falling asleep with Elvis; she wrote about admiring a boyfriend for trying to kill himself and other songs about falling in and out love easier than taking a breath. A tape of these songs, which was recorded in Austin in 1995, became a CD a year later: ifihadahifi, licensed and released by Crystal Clear Sound. Sparse in places, funny in others, beautiful at unexpected moments ("Whole," with cello and violin, is a heartbreaking highlight), the album was a significant evolution away from her indie debut Bob, which was produced and mixed without her permission.

Yet ifihadahifi sold like every other underfunded local release that doesn't get promoted outside the area code, and Miller was left wondering what to do next...which turned out to be going to work every morning.

"I've done two locally released albums now, and I haven't gone anywhere, and it hasn't gotten the labels anywhere," Miller shrugs. "There was no money for them to promote my records, and that's what has happened with every record out of Dallas. I don't have money to do it, and the label doesn't have money to do it."

Frustrated with the lack of sales and with crowds that seemed more interested in hearing themselves than the performer, Miller finally put a band together. She had thought about it for years, since her days at UT, but she could never find musicians she could work with. In the end, she didn't have to look too far: Miller had been a longtime acquaintance of former POWWOW frontman Reed Easterwood's, and she approached him about playing together and possibly doing some recording. Easterwood had his own project going (it also featured bassist Dave Monsey), but all of a sudden, Miller and Easterwood's projects and intentions sort of merged.

"Playing with a band is more fun, but also it seems I can play more places, and people take me seriously," Miller says. "It just seems like when I'm with a band, I get attention I didn't before. With a band, people have to pay attention. They're automatically listening because it's loud. When I was with myself, they didn't have to."

Still, they needed a drummer. Easterwood's was more into jazz than rock, and as luck would have it, Easterwood's old friend Bryan Wakeland was looking for a job, having spent a short, unfulfilling stint in Pluto with former Fever in the Funkhouse bandmate Nick Briscoe. (Miller had also known Wakeland since high school--this is a damned small town.) Wakeland--among the most veteran of local drummers, having spent time in Fever way back in the day and Tripping Daisy until two years ago--had sort of retreated from the scene, taking stock of his decision to leave a band with a major-label deal.

"I didn't get out of Tripping Daisy to do my own thing," Wakeland says. "I just knew I didn't want to be there. I just wasn't happy overall. It wasn't the type of music I wanted to be doing full time. It was just a lot of things. Like, I'd listen to Neil Young and shit like that, and then have to go back and play the trip they're on. As they grew as musicians and as I grew, we grew apart. It was the best call to go different ways."

 

As Easterwood was hooking up with Miller, Wakeland was off writing his own songs and getting together his own band with Ugly Mus-tard bassist Mike Daane. Wakeland was even recording his own songs, singing and playing keyboards on a seven-song demo that's damned good--playful, moody, even kind of Tin Pan pop (the tape's opener, "Rainy Day Jesus," is a delirious killer). Indeed, the demo ranks as one enormous revelation, proof that some people are going to waste just keeping the beat.

But that didn't stop Wakeland from signing up with Miller as soon as Easterwood asked. He says now he was immediately impressed by the collaboration between Easterwood and Miller--the way they worked as a team. No longer was Miller a singer-songwriter fronting her own solo thing or dueting with Bruce Dickinson at the Dark Room; now, she was half of a partnership, letting Easterwood write the music as she penned the words.

"It's so much more exciting and interesting to play with a band than just by myself," Miller says now. "It's more interesting musically to hear a whole song fleshed out. It sounds like a complete song now, especially when we play my complete songs."

Miller's band has recorded only a handful of tracks: One, "A Year and Three Months," appears on the latest Scene, Heard compilation, while four more recently recorded tracks exist only on a demo cassette Miller's shopping around to local lawyers and managers, hoping someone will take enough interest in her to open the industry doors wide enough for her to sneak through. If it recalls Liz Phair, it's only because the tape is catchy and caustic--the sound of a woman kissing a boy hello and kicking him goodbye at the same moment. The tape sounds like ifihadahifi on a four-day bender: Miller's voice is deeper now, more weary and less, well, pretty. It's like waking up one day and finding out your prep-school sister can kick your ass.

"This is the best thing I've ever been involved in," Miller says with one of those confident, self-deprecating laughs that people tend to confuse with aloofness. "It's good, and I can say that without being conceited, because I'm just one-fourth of it. We've gotten good response from this--more than I ever got by myself."

Meredith Miller will record a live album of "sappy love songs" with Bruce Dickinson April 21 at the Dark Room, and her band will perform May 7 at the Dark Room. Bryan Wakeland's project, featuring Mike Daane and Reggie Rueffer on violin, will perform April 19 at the Curtain Club.

Party favors
Brave Combo is now available at the Nice Price: Last week, Rounder Records released Polka Party, the band's...what? 532nd record--and, believe it or not after lo these many decades, the Combo's first live release. Actually, Polka Party--which contains 12 tracks of oom-pah frolic recorded at the Sons of Hermann Hall and Rick's Place during two days last September--was released by Rounder's budget subsidiary Easydisc, which targets, well, Target (and Wal-Mart, you name it). So far, Easydisc has released records titled Bayou Dance Party, Zydeco's Greatest Hits, and Surf Guitar Greats, each featuring a collection of previously released tunes from the Rounder archives. The label wanted Brave Combo to go through its catalog and pick out 12 old songs for one "brand-new," bargain-priced package.

"But we said, 'If you will give us the money you'd give us for moving this stuff over to a division label, we'd rather do a new album with live cuts, which people always wanted anyway," says Brave Combo's Carl Finch. "An album featuring 'People Are Strange' one more time didn't excite me at all, and Rounder was thrilled, even though it's not going to get the push of, say, a 'new' Brave Combo record on Rounder." If nothing else, a new polka record might also help the band's chances of getting nominated one more time for a Grammy--and this time, they may even win the durned thing. You can pick up Polka Party for a mere $7.99--maybe even cheaper--at a megalomart near you, and the band will celebrate its release with two shows in May, one at the Groovy Mule in Denton on May 2 and another on May 8 at the Sons of Hermann Hall, with special guest Phoebe Legere.

Reel music
If the story sounds a little familiar--straight woman falls for gay man she can't have (and, no, it's not the upcoming The Object of My Affection or Chasing Amy when viewed backwards)--then there's at least one good reason to see the film Finding North, which screens at 9:10 p.m. on April 20 as part of the USA Film Festival: Tanya Wexler's film features an original score by Cafe Noir. The movie, which will be shown at the AMC Glen Lakes, is partly set in Denton and features contributions by a host of Texas musicians, including Don Walser and Johnny Gamble, but Cafe Noir provided every note of the original score--and in record time.

 

Norbert Gerl, the band's violinist-guitarist, says the connection to Wexler was Mike Dempsey, the assistant director on sex, lies and videotape, who introduced Cafe Noir to the director while she was shooting in Denton. Wexler was working under an impossibly tight deadline, hoping to get the film ready in time to show at the Cannes Film Festival, and she told Gerl she needed the music in, quite literally, a matter of days.

"The whole project was kinda wild," Gerl says. "We had two weeks to write the music, and fortunately we were able to do it. We wrote the score in 11 days and recorded it in three." Wexler didn't make the Cannes deadline, but she did get Finding North into a handful of festivals, including Palm Springs and South by Southwest. "It almost killed us," Gerl says, laughing, "because the mixing session lasted 36 hours without a break. I passed out at the mixing console for an hour at four in the morning. It was an interesting project. I thought I was gonna have to check myself into the hospital after it was done."

Gerl says there will be a soundtrack album, but only if Finding North finds distribution. Otherwise, Cafe Noir--which still includes longtime members Gale Hess, Jason Bucklin, and Lyles West--is beginning work on its fourth album, using as its demo a tape of live material recorded at UCLA in January. The band has undergone radical changes since the release of The Waltz King in 1995: Vocalist Randy Erwin has left the band, joining Gary Sweet and the Rounders, and Russian-born Vladimir Kaliazine has signed on as the new accordion player. But the real revelation is the addition of Dennis Durlick, the first drummer to join Cafe Noir in its 10-plus years of existence. "It was hard at first," Gerl says of the addition. "But Dennis is such a monster, he has made it work." We'll learn if that's the case in May, when the band is slated to make a rare hometown appearance at the Gypsy Tea Room.

Scene, heard
Speaking of movie music, Colin Boyd has a song featured in the recently released Barney's Great Adventure (hey, you in the corner, stop laughing). Titled "Rainbows Follow the Rain" (no, really, stop) the song runs over the end credits and is featured on the soundtrack, which also includes such music-biz luminaries as Roberta Flack, Peabo Bryson, Sheena Easton, Take 6, and Jane Siberry. Boyd says he was approached about contributing a song by Tim Clott, the CEO of Lyric Studios, which produces Wishbone and Barney; Clott ended up co-writing the song with Boyd, who says, with all sincerity (but of course, since that's the name of his most recent album), "I love the song. I sing it in front of people, and they go, 'Yeah, that's a good song. It works for kids and grown-ups.' And Barney moves product. They expect the record to sell more than 350,000 copies. If it's a gold record, I'm getting one." Yup, Boyd has the world by the big purple tail: He's also currently writing songs with Austin's country-pop hunk Monte Warden, and though there's no plan to record right now, they are working on demos. "We get together and make the words rhyme," Boyd explains...

Movie music, part 2: Pimpadelic also has a song on a new soundtrack, if you can even call Burn Hollywood Burn a movie. The band landed on the album after despised Hollywood screenwriter Joe Eszterhas (Basic Instinct, Showgirls) put out a call for bands to give him songs for free that he could include in his latest film, which is about a movie so bad no one wanted to take credit for it. Talk about life imitating art: Burn Hollywood Burn hasn't been released outside of L.A. and perhaps never will be, mostly because it could suck chrome off a tailpipe. Eszterhas claimed the L.A. production company, Cinergi, had no money left to spend on music, so he put an ad in the trades begging for young bands to donate their, uh, talents in exchange for a piece of the soundtrack sales. As a result, Pimpadelic landed "Out for One Thing" on the, uh, record. If you just can't get enough--and go ahead and kill yourself if you can't--Pimpadelic's new CD Statutory Rap, featuring such would-be hits as "Middle Finger" and "Tits," will be released on April 25. Like I give a damn...

 

This ain't the want ads, but we're always willing to give some free space to a guy who's worth it. Peter Schmidt is looking for a drummer to join his band Legendary Crystal Chandelier, which will perform in support of his solo debut, Love or the Decimal Equivalent, due out the first week of July on steve Records. It's not yet a full-time gig--Schmidt's had enough full-blown bands to last him a while--and he says applicants can be committed to other projects; indeed, bassist Brandon Curtis (of Captain Audio) and guitarist-keyboardist James Henderson (Dooms U.K., Corn Mo) have their own projects right now. (Both Curtis and Henderson appear on Love or..., in addition to producer Matt Pence and Scott Danbom, both of Centro-matic, Brave Combo's Jeffrey Barnes, and Hagfish's Doni Blair.) Also, Schmidt needs someone good with a sampler. "Basically, I'm looking for whatever I can get," says Schmidt, who can be contacted via e-mail at lcc@irby.org. "Sex and age not important, but they have to be sexy."

Send Street Beat email tips, gripes, and pipe bombs to rwilonsky@dallasobserver.com


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