Grading on a curve

Every band is a local band somewhere.
So with that in mind, as we look back at 1995 and pat ourselves on the back for making the Toadies gold, launching Deep Blue Something to top-of-the-pops domination, and landing Tripping Daisy on MTV and Reverend Horton Heat on every sound track and tribute album, understand this: The best local music is still being made in obscurity. Yeah, it's the year local music broke, awright--the year it broke wind.

Don't judge your local music scene by the bands signed to the majors; don't buy into bullshit myth that mass-market appeal is a signature of quality or a recognition of talent. The Toadies were a great band long before a radio station in Florida started playing "Possum Kingdom" and forced Interscope to give Rubberneck another try. And likewise, Deep Blue Something is terrible no matter how popular they become--bland and generic, as catchy as the flu. If you want Deep Blue Something to represent Your Local Scene, I have an Edie Brickell solo album I'd like to give you.

Certainly, Dallas bands are more prevalent on the pop charts than ever before: As of this writing, Deep Blue Something's "Breakfast at Tiffany's" stands at No. 11 on Billboard's Hot 100 singles chart; their album Home is No. 97 on Billboard's chart. The Toadies' Rubberneck, which has sold more than 500,000 copies and achieved gold status, is No. 73. Tripping Daisy's I am an Elastic Firecracker made it onto the Billboard Top-200 chart earlier this fall, breaking into the Top 100 for a brief moment before slipping off the chart in recent weeks.

And this year, the number of Dallas bands attached to major labels grew even larger with the signing of Vibrolux to Atlas/Polydor, Jack Ingram (now in San Antonio) to Warner Western, Tablet to Mercury, and Deep Blue Something to Interscope. Add to that the sudden support for homegrown music at local rock radio--three stations (KEGL, KDGE, and KTXQ) claim supremacy on that front, each claiming to have "made" the bands and "scene" they virtually ignored just a year ago--and there's a certain palpable excitement surrounding Dallas music that hasn't existed since New Bohemians hit No. 1 with "What I Am" five years ago. Of course, back then KVIL played the New Bos more than Q102, but no matter because Ron Chapman and Redbeard are actually the same person.

The excitement is justified, but it's aimed in the wrong direction. With the exception of Brutal Juice's Mutilation Makes Identification Difficult--released under the auspices of Interscope, though the label is dumfounded by what to do with the band and the over-the-top noise--the best local records of the year were released by independent labels or artists themselves. They're the kind of albums that receive no press outside these parts, that compete for pocket change instead of big dollars.

They're records that redefine our perceptions of rock and roll (Dooms U.K.'s Greasy Listening), revive long-lost art forms (the soul-searching R&B of Ernie Johnson's In the Mood, Cowboys and Indians' Western swing-styled The Western Life, Big Al Dupree's jump-blues extravaganza Swings the Blues), and transcend easy labels (Cafe Noir's The Waltz King, the Japanese-only Brave Combo-Lauren Agnelli release Allumettes).

Some are records that stick to a tradition but never mimic it--Funland's The Funland Band, Slobberbone's eponymous debut, Earl Harvin's masterful jazz debut Trio/Quartet, Caulk's Love American Style, even the Old 97's Wreck Your Life. Then there's the oddball exception, that one-off surprise that catches you off-guard; this year, that honor would go to Jeff Liles' White Trash Receptacle, released under his spoken-word nom de homey cottonmouth, texas. (More-than-honorable mention also goes to the Live at the Barley House compilation, which exposes the roots-rock scene--Cowboys and Indians, Tex Edwards, Homer Henderson, Lone Star Trio, and others--with terrific success.)

These are the artists that make up the so-called Dallas music scene as much as Deep Blue Something, the Toadies, Tripping Daisy, Hagfish, Spot, and the Nixons. The latter have profiles--some looming larger than others, some possessing tremendous talent while others are the answers to future trivia questions--but musicians like Cowboys and Indians' Erik Swanson, Slobberbone's Brent Best, Funland's Peter Schmidt, Caf Noir's Norbert Gerl, and Dooms U.K.'s John Freeman are the ones who tend to the shop while they're away.

These are the musicians I trust--not their tastes, not even their judgment, but their commitment to this tenuous craft called music. Their instincts remain untainted even as others around town long for recording contracts after only few gigs. They play music for music's sake, never losing sight of why they first picked up instruments in the first place--to express themselves, to give something of themselves without asking much in return from their audience.

Modern-rock radio has killed rock and roll, turned every artist into a one-hit wonder even if they score two or three hits. It's just a little harder to flush the crap down the commode these days, so determined is it to float to the top. Deep Blue Something isn't evil, just a product of an industry that now thrives on disposability; "Breakfast at Tiffany's" says and means little and gives nothing in return to its audience. It's a piffle of a love song about a boy and a girl who are together because they like the same movie--nothing more, nothing less, except a chorus that's harder to get out your head than brain cancer.

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky