Sweep the Leg Johnny
Any band that borrowed its name from a bit of dialogue found in The Karate Kid's climactic fight scene should be, by all rights, easy to define. It's the kind of ironic moniker that would fit right in with the SoCal punk-pop crowd, one of those start-stop descendants of the Descendents putting out albums on Epitaph or Fat Wreck Chords or one of the other imitation labels that fill ad space in between scene reports in Flipside. Go to Galaxy Club almost any night of the week; you'll be sure to find one. That's what most of the audience at Emo's in Austin thought when Sweep the Leg Johnny played there a few years ago. You couldn't exactly blame them: With that name and the other bands performing that night, most of them punk-pop locals, Sweep the Leg Johnny was a pigeon looking for a hole.
Yet as the crowd at Emo's found out that night, pegging Sweep the Leg Johnny as a punk-pop group was almost as ridiculous as casting thirtysomething Ralph Macchio as a high-school karate champ. (Or, while we're on the subject, having Elisabeth Shue fall for him. I mean, come on.) In fact, there is no way to properly describe Sweep the Leg Johnny without completely missing the point, without chiseling away at the Chicago-based band until it neatly fits into a category that is comfortable and familiar. And wrong. I still didn't know what to say after seeing them at Emo's again in March as part of the South by Southwest Music Conference, watching them turn eight-minute freak-outs into three-minute anthems, Steven Sostak's sax skronk alternately coaxing the melody out of noise and completely removing it. It was art-punk disguised as free-jazz trying to be prog-rock, but that doesn't quite cover it all. A dictionary doesn't have enough definitions for what Sweep the Leg Johnny was doing on the cramped stage at Emo's that night.
Every description falls flat because there aren't enough words to support it, at least not enough of the right ones. The band -- Sostak on vocals and saxophone, guitarist Christopher Daly, drummer Scott Anna, and bassist John Brady -- is chaotic and catchy at once, succeeding where its hometown peers at Touch and Go and Thrill Jockey fail; those, after all, are groups that manage to bring the noise and nothing else. After one listen to the band's latest disc, Tomorrow We Will Run Faster, you might say that Sweep would have been the outcome if the late Mark Sandman and his band Morphine had been weaned on Fugazi. And even while that almost sums up songs like "Las Cruces," with its throbbing sax and quiet-LOUD guitars, it leaves out more than it includes.
The same could be said for the track listing on the back cover of Tomorrow We Will Run Faster, which only hints at the amount of music contained on the album. Only five songs are named, but there are at least twice that number on the 40-minute disc, songs buried within songs hidden inside others. You still won't know what to call Sweep the Leg Johnny after you unravel it all. But brilliant might be a good place to start.
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