Daniel Markham is in the midst of a pretty serious addiction. Now 33 years old, the Denton-based singer-songwriter has managed to live an exceptionally lengthy time without tumbling into the otherworldliness of one of the most popular escapes of the past three quarters of a century. The drug he can't kick is one that millions of people from basically all over the world have fallen victim to and have subsequently spent their remaining years on earth all shook up.
The culprit? The King. Elvis Presley.
"I spent 33 years not really listening to or caring about Elvis," explains Markham, who in spite of dropping a stellar new record, Pretty Bitchin', can only bring himself to listen to Presley's music right now. Thankfully, it's an addiction that should likely be less than fatal. "After spending some time in the South and hearing people talk about him as a real person, I just had to find out for myself. I've seriously listened to nothing but Elvis Presley for the past month. Sometimes, I just go down these rabbit holes, man."
Pretty Bitchin' is the follow up to Markham's 2013 record, the acclaimed Ruined My Life, which features the same rough-hewn and highly melodic rock that Bitchin' carries in spades. It's a tight work featuring Replacements-style grit and the type of innocently sweet joy that only (occasional) handclaps will lend to any set of tunes. Earlier this year, the redheaded singer who first fell in love with rock music thanks to an intoxicating cocktail of "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Thriller" traversed down a different kind of rabbit hole, a much darker and more dangerous one than Elvis.
In July, Markham released a black metal EP under the moniker of Larry Legion. While Larry Legion isn't likely to unseat Wolves in the Throne Room for being the most frightening of American black metal acts, that's completely fine. Inspiration for the seven sinister tunes, including "Rot Your Soul" and "Black Death," came from his descent into black metal from the subgenre's Scandinavian motherland.
"I really love Norwegian black metal," Markham explains. "I was going through a [black metal] phase and thought it would be fun to record a bunch of songs that were my idea of black metal. Bands such as Darkthrone, Satyricon and Ulver were my biggest influences for that record."
It only take a cursory listen to any of Markham's records, especially Bitchin', to grasp that he's able to craft a set of songs that feel cohesive without being monotonous. Markham's ear for sheer catchiness, regardless of subject matter or musical approach, helps this record stand as one of the great rock efforts from North Texas this year. Of course, it's worthy of note that Markham recruited a badass band of local all-stars to help him along as he worms in and out of his various phases and stages.
Recorded in less than a week in Denton this past spring under of the tutelage of Justin Collins (as prolific an engineer and musician as there is in Denton) at Satisfactory Recording Company, Markham finished the new record with his band, which consists of Ryan Thomas Becker, Grady Don Sandlin and Tony Ferraro. If you've paid even the slightest bit of attention to bands from Denton in the past decade, you're familiar with these three thanks to the music of bands such as RTB2 and Satans of Soft Rock, among many others.
Observing from the outside, gathering such a talented, established crew seems to have been quite the coup for Markham. But as with his go-with-the-flow style of musical muses, this lineup fell into place pretty naturally.
"I knew them all before I moved to Denton," he says. "I was in a band called One Wolf and we played some shows with both RTB2 and Eaton Lake Tonics. After I moved to Denton, we became friends, and we just ended up playing music together. It's been a huge blessing to my life to be able to play well and travel well with these guys. They are the best of the best."
On songs like "Nova," "Night (Just One More)" and "Coming Down," a wondrously fuzzy, distorted guitar ribbons its way around and through the songs, providing a resonant, binding element. "We like to make noise," Markham says. "Nothing bothers me more than some weak guitar tone on a record." And the handclaps that brighten up the galloping "Hide the Body"? "They're fun because everyone in the studio is doing it," he explains with a smirk. "It's fun for the whole family."
But there's also lyrical depth behind all the fun. Many songs on this new album deal with the fallout from Markham's decision to leave his hometown of Lubbock for East Texas -- "Ruined My Life," he says, was written out of "desperation" -- and the life that developed from that point, including the ending of relationships and feelings of deep disappointment.
The aforementioned "Nova," a largely somber and ethereal number, has Markham singing, "Did I really disappoint you, lady/Was I ever good enough for you?" Indeed, this is one of the songs in which Markham deals directly with loss and sadness. He came up with the idea for the lilting melody during the course of an overnight drive and, befitting such an environment, he decided then he wanted the song to be a slow one because, as he says, "It's your standard break-up song."
With lines such as "Did I tell you too much, or was it not enough," it's easy to hear the simmering-then-burning album closer "Let You Down" and think the person singing is going through a break-up, but it's not that simple in this case. "That one's actually not a break-up song," he says. "It's just this song about me being imperfect. I mess things up, but I'm always learning and trying to be a better person."
Markham's deft handling of such universally inspiring themes as heartache, anger and uncertainty make for a new album of infectiously relatable songs that beg to be played on repeat. He's now proven to be an artist who can master a wide range of emotions and sounds. Markham's a man who seems to learn a great deal from his excursions, whether they be geographical, musical or philosophical in nature. Perhaps he's delving into some grinding, opaque noise from across the pond, being inspired by the trippy bliss of a Magical Mystery Tour or allowing himself to be blinded by the King's hip-shaking light. Regardless, Markham uses rock 'n' roll to deal with life's joy and despair.
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