1995 Dallas Observer Music Awards (Part I)

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In 1995, Dallas' rich musical heritage continues with a new breed of musician--some are young, some old, some natives, some transplants, some keepers of the flame, some creating their own brand of noise.

But like the musicians who preceded them--such Dallas music legends as Blind Lemon Jefferson, Red Garland, Aaron "T-Bone" Walker, Bob Wills, Charlie Christian, the still-very-active Ronnie Dawson--they are all artists ranking with the best found anywhere. If nothing else, Dallas' musicians are among the most resilient and optimistic, paying their dues even as they struggle to pay their bills.

Perhaps, after so many years of grumbling about the subject, there is indeed a local music scene or, even better, a local music community--a thriving organism that pulses just beneath the surface.

On April 2, during the Music Award showcase performances scattered throughout Deep Ellum clubs, more than 1,500 people descended upon downtown to check out a wide variety of local bands. They arrived early and stayed late, band members and suburbanites and downtown regulars and just the plain old curious folk who made it impossible to get into Naomi's or Club Dada even during the wee small hours. They crammed against the stage to hear the Old 97's, stood on tiptoes to witness Cowboys and Indians, shook in their shoes to Sixty-Six, dropped their jaws over Kim Pendleton and Vibrolux. It took a while before anyone realized: this happens every single damned night.

As we were compiling the Dallas' Scene, Heard CD to release in conjunction with this issue, drawing only from the pool of nominated artists, we were struck by the difficulty in whittling down the number to fit on a single disc. And for every band nominated, there are dozens of young bands out there worthy of attention and praise--Slobberbone, Earl, Comet, Butch, and so many others cropping up unexpectedly each weekend.

So much is always made about the good ol' days of Deep Ellum circa 1987, around the time of the release of Sounds of Deep Ellum and the beginning of the New Bos' launch to stardom. But the scene then was like a baby, and even now it only begins to approach awkward adolescence--struggling to find an identity as an amusement park, a mall, or an artists' refuge, maybe even some comfortable middle ground on which all three things exist comfortably.

Nonetheless, the music being made in Dallas in 1995 is a strong breed--containing echoes of the past (Cowboys and Indians' nod to Bob Wills, Henry Qualls recalling Blind Lemon Jefferson and Mance Lipscomb, Ronnie Dawson keeping rockabilly alive) and pointing only toward a brighter future. Some long-time Music Award winners were supplanted by newcomers (to these awards, at least) such as Spyche and the Old 97's and Andy Timmons. And that there is no clear-cut Music Award winner as in previous years, when bands like Tripping Daisy and Course of Empire and Reverend Horton Heat went home with most of the top honors, only underscores the fact there's plenty to go around for everyone.

--Robert Wilonsky, music editor


Reverend Horton Heat

Liquor in the Front
(interscope records)

Last summer, as he was waiting for Interscope Records to release his band's third CD (and first for a major label), Jim Heath spent several hours with the Observer recounting the intimate minutiae of his life--a childhood spent in Corpus Christi; an interrupted stay at the University of Texas at Austin; a failed marriage; a hard-earned career forged from the music of Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Gene Vincent, AC/DC. It's a tale that's been told and retold a thousand times in the annals of rock and roll, myth and reality mixed together like the gin and tonics Heath has been known to gulp down in quick succession.

Heath is by far the most fascinating figure to emerge from the local music scene since the days of Aaron "T-Bone" Walker or Bob Wills--a bona fide legend and hero to those who know of him through his albums and his live performances, a larger-than-life embodiment of rock and roll that dates back to a time when the music was the sound track for sin. He is Elvis, Jerry Lee, Gene V., and the Cramps' Lux Interior action-packed into the body of a man who swaggers even when sitting still; though his record company biographies often have been filled with the stuff of fiction--listing such credentials as pool shark and reformed ex-con, all the better to bolster his myth--Heath truly does exude the rock and roll demons whenever he takes the stage, sweating them out through the pores.

"Music industry folks especially are all interested: 'Now, Rev, what is your image?'" Heath said last summer. "It's like I'm supposed to start into this monologue thing, like Humphrey Bogart would do: 'Well, I'll tell you what I'm about. I'm all about fast cars. I'm all about lucky dice and wild women.'" Then he added--after a pause, with a wicked grin--"And sometimes, I am."

Heath's image is essential to his music. It's what draws the rockabilly cats to the shows--the slicked-back, tattooed, smokes-in-the-sleeve, rolled-up-jeans dudes who look like a cross between James Dean and the Fonz--and imbues his rockabilly with that extra punk flair. He's a showman whether he's in the studio working with Ministry frontman Al Jourgenson (who produced Liquor in the Front) or on stage opening for Soundgarden, a bad-ass dude who begs his chick to masturbate for him ("One Time for Me") then croons the ballad for the ladies ("In Your Wildest Dreams"), sings love songs to his car ("Five-O Ford"), pays homage to the finer things in life ("Liquor, Beer & Wine"), and then goes "Cruisin' for a Bruisin'."

If nothing else, Heath utilizes and brutalizes the clichs of rock and roll as if they are brand-new, positioning himself as a cross between Jerry Lee and Frank Sinatra--the fighter, the crooner, the lover. His is a music that relies as much on the baggage of legend as upon the revved-up sound of guitar, a doubled-up drum beat, and the slap-and-tickle of the upright bass. Those who consider Liquor in the Front a lesser partner to 1993's The Full-Custom Gospel Sounds of the Reverend Horton Heat do so only because Heath's take on history clashes too uncomfortably with Jourgenson's discofied metal. "Yeah, Right" and "I Can't Surf" (not to mention the unnecessary belch-and-fart remake of "The Entertainer") bust up the flow of the record, sounding like the Ministry but not the Reverend. (According to the Rev's manager, Scott Weiss, Liquor in the Front has sold 135,000 copies in the United States, with an additional 45,000 in Europe.)

In the past few months, the Rev has also undergone a fairly major personnel change (though, presumably, any change is major when you're a trio): drummer Patrick "Taz" Bentley recently jumped ship to join Tenderloin, a frequent opening act for the Rev, to be replaced by Jackopierce's Scott Churilla. But such a shake-up has not affected the Rev's touring and recording plans. The band (with bassist Jimbo Wallace still on board, of course) will begin recording its fourth album May 1-7 at Pedernales, Willie Nelson's old studio in Austin, with Thom Panunzio (of U2, Bob Dylan, and Joan Jett fame) behind the board.

After that, the Rev will head out on the road for two months opening for White Zombie, as part of an odd eclectic bill that will also feature the Melvins (the band Kurt Cobain used to cite quite often as a major influence on Nirvana), then head back into the studio to finish recording. And as it stands now, Interscope plans a September release date for the fourth album--to coincide with the opening of an expected blockbuster movie for which the Rev will contribute three songs, including the title track. We have been asked not to identify the film, but it's well-known around Deep Ellum that Heath was in the Last Beat studios a few weeks ago cutting demos for Ace Ventura, Pet Detective 2--the implications of which are too profound to consider at this particular moment.


Andy Timmons

Though his name still carries far less recognition than Jim "Reverend Horton Heat" Heath's, and though he has not yet made his long-lasting mark on Dallas music like Texas Tenor Marchel Ivery or rockabilly hero Ronnie Dawson, Andy Timmons easily beat them all for local musician of the year. Whether his win is a surprise or not is a matter of some debate, though there is no disputing the fact the guitar whiz deserves it as much as anyone.

From almost out of nowhere--actually, from a metal-lite band called Danger, Danger, which recorded three albums for Epic Records but released only two--Timmons has gone on to sell more than 8,000 copies of his debut CD, ear X-tacy, since its release last fall and garner rave reviews in almost every guitar-hero magazine in the country. He is among the hardest-working musicians in the city: in the past year, he has lent his playing to albums by Vanilla Ice and Paula Abdul (so he's not too choosy, the man's got bills to pay); performs with the Pawn Kings every Wednesday night at Blue Cat Blues; maintains another trio with bassist Mike Daane and drummer Mitch Marine; sits in occasionally with jazz harpist Cindy Horstman; and is currently trying to record a follow-up to ear X-tacy. (Recently, ear X-tacy was licensed to Sony Music in Japan, and will be released there shortly.) On top of that, the man just got out of a session cutting a jingle for Macy's.

"Like I said," Timmons says with a grin, "bills to pay. But I don't know. The fact the CD sold more than 8,000 copies--no complaints there. Just the fact it paid for itself and now I can pay the other players and make a little money is inconceivable. What a happy accident."

Or perhaps not. Though he is a technical master, Timmons' guitar-playing style has tremendous substance. Unlike Joe Satriani or Adrian Legg or Steve Vai, men who equate emotion with the ability to play a thousand notes a second, Timmons understands the real thrill of guitar soloing is the space in between the notes, the places in which the notes reverberate best. Ear X-tacy contains its share of show-off showcases--the Stevie Ray Vaughan and Hendrix tributes pay so close a homage they're eerily derivative, and a couple of tracks might define Timmons as the Eric Johnson of Dallas--but he possesses a subtlety rare among those musicians who'd call Dallas City Limits their home. He shines best in the oddball moments, such as the galloping hillbilly of "Farmer Sez."

"The first album is primarily a rock record, but I want to keep exploring other areas, keep growing in that area," Timmons says. "That's the ultimate freedom. When I was pinned in and doing this metal thing in New York, I realized I needed to get back to Dallas and do my own thing. Having been locked into this one thing for so many years, I just died creatively and just wanted the freedom to do what I was inspired by, and not be concerned it was going to fit a format or work on the radio.

"I just want to get it on tape for the fun of it, for the art of it. And it's been working out really well."


Todd Lewis of Toadies


It is always difficult to gauge how well a local band will fare once it is thrust into the larger arena. Certainly, Jackopierce and Tripping Daisy's most rabid fans thought guaranteed fame and fortune lay ahead for those two bands when they released their major-label debuts, yet they suffer in greater anonymity today; certainly, Course of Empire and Little Sister's labels expected something better than the lethargic response that greeted them upon the release of their discs. Every band can be a star in Deep Ellum for a lifetime, but it can be a humbling--if not humiliating--experience to discover just how tenuous and elusive fame truly is once you load the van and leave downtown.

In the months preceding the release of Rubberneck, the Toadies' debut on Interscope Records, I had long predicted huge things for this band. That something about them being "the future of rock and roll," written in January 1994, was simply a sincere nod of affection and appreciation--no mere hometown stroking, but an honest response to an album that, along with Bedhead's WhatFunLifeWas, ranks among the best albums released anywhere last year. A hundred listens later, Rubberneck retains its impact--its threats no less serious, its hell-bent furor no less weakened, its screams and anger and fervor no less diminished by repeated playings.

And yet, like Bedhead, the Toadies have received little attention since the album's release. The band's press kit, sent from Interscope, is filled with clips from the likes of Cake, Ink Nineteen, Lollipop Magazine, Diesel, Magnet, and assorted other underground indie mags filled with such critical praise as "The Toadies ROCK!!!!" The band did receive a nice nod in the Los Angeles Times a month ago--but only at the bottom of a concert review for Bush, the Toadies' label- and tourmates. "Bush could perhaps do with a few lessons in raw feeling from openers the Toadies," wrote Sandy Mauso, "who launched into their surging set of brash and acridly melodic tunes as if the hounds of hell were on their trail."

Their trip into the world of major-labeldom has been an odd and bumpy one, fraught with severe disappointment and pleasant surprises. Rubberneck was to have been released last April; then the label decided to make Reverend Horton Heat and Helmet priorities and pushed the Toadies back to June, then July, finally settling on an August release date (to coincide with college students returning to school, the label explained). But when the album finally hit stores, Interscope was immersed in the sudden, inexplicable popularity of glam-horror band Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails, and threw their publicity machine behind those two acts until the Toadies were relegated to the bottom of the list.

Their initial signing to the label might have been a stroke of good luck--a relative knew someone at a small label who knew someone at the bigger label and so on--but from there, it backslid into the same ol' same ol'. Just a couple of weeks ago, the band was preparing to go on tour with the Cult for a few weeks as opening act--begrudgingly, mind you, but with the knowledge that the Toadies would be playing to the largest crowds of their lives. But that band canceled its entire North American tour (something to do with bad habits, evidently).

And yet just last week the band heard that its third video, an amazing piece of work for "Possum Kingdom," has been accepted by MTV to air on "120 Minutes." On top of that, their performance last month on "The Jon Stewart Show" was astounding television, all catharsis and cathodes.

That the Toadies are the biggest winners in this year's Music Awards is both a pleasant surprise and, quite simply, a surprise. After making much in these pages of the band's normally tepid response from Dallas crowds--especially after witnessing the rabid mosh-pit lunacy of fans in Fort Worth and Austin--perhaps there is finally a recognition of the band's stature and power. Though the band walked away last year with the rock and alternative-rock awards, for the first time Todd Lewis has been recognized as this town's premier male singer and songwriter, an award befitting any man so willing to bare what is left of his soul each time he takes the stage.

When Lewis went back to playing guitar after the departure of Charles Mooney, there was a concern that his frenzied persona would be tempered by his inability to crouch and grovel in front of the microphone, that the instrument in his hands would temper his mania. And there have been changes, though they have been subtly evident--like when you raise the temperature from 211 degrees Fahrenheit to 212, and suddenly water begins to boil. Instead of bending and contorting his body, using the mike stand as a prop, he is fully in control of the sound of this band--its searing vocals, its unholy guitar riffs (created with Darrell Herbert), its deceptively catchy pop tunes about the evils of religion and stalking women.

Lewis was raised in a devoutly religious household, quit going to church when he was 14, got married to a God-fearing girl when he was 19, then she split after six months. "I gave the whole thing a try, and it didn't work out, so I left the whole thing," Lewis says--religion and marriage being "the whole thing."

Now, it's the whole thing that informs his work, whether it's the baptism nightmare of "Backslider" or the ominous overtones of "Possum Kingdom," in which Lewis asks a woman if she wants to be his angel and you're never sure if he means his sweetheart or his murder victim. "Do you wanna die?" he repeatedly asks, clarifying the frightening point that is the very essence of the Toadies' music.


OLD 97's

Rhett Miller walking away with the Music Award for best new act is a little bit like television winning an award for best new invention. To some of us, it seems like Miller's always been around, the ubiquitous teen folkie whose good looks and pleasant charm landed him regular gigs at Dave's Art Pawn and inside the pages of Seventeen magazine (the latter of which contained Miller's description for the Ideal Girl--"grooviness is essential"). He has literally grown up in public, matured from sensitive-boy-with-guitar to pop-rocker (with Sleepy Heroes) to power-balladeer (Rhett's Exploding) to a damned fine singer-songwriter. May still look like that 18-year-old goy-wonder, but his voice carries with it a deeper resonance, a more profound understanding of the words he writes and sings.

Where he once chirped in a vaguely British accent sweet songs about God and girlfriends (he once wrote tunes titled "Seashell Girl" and "Cicada Song"--request them now), as the main vocalist and exuberant frontman for the Old 97's, he now communicates his romantic pessimism in a bittersweet twang. On such songs as "St. Ignatius," "Wish the Worst," and "Dancing with Tears" off the band's 1994 debut CD Hitchhike to Rhome, Miller comes on like a country boy raised on the Everly Brothers--his voice clear and pretty, finding the right harmony with his longtime partner, bassist Murry Hammond. (Indeed, the Old 97's isn't Miller's project alone: Hammond, a longtime train-song fanatic; electric guitarist Ken Bethea; and drummer Philip Peeples round out the band.)

Make no mistake: the Old 97's are a pop band that aspires to be a country band (and not, as some would insist, the other way around)--Uncle Tupelo, perhaps, without the coalminer and Carter Family references. And so there's the Merle Haggard cover (the least convincing track on the record, if only because no one would believe anyone in this band turned 21 in prison doin' life without parole), the Bob Wills favorite "Miss Molly," the fiddle and banjo and mandolin, and the "Tupelo County Jail" bonus track that's some kinda bonus. Either way you cut it, though, the music's always folk, especially when Miller and Hammond do their acoustic duo thing at the Gingerman or the Barley House.

When the Old 97's first formed, there were those around town who eyed the band with much skepticism, as though this were another attempt for Miller to find some used clothes that fit him well this week. But more than a year later, as the Old 97's continue to evolve into a band that picks up where Killbilly left off, fusing traditional and the very modern, it's safe to say Miller's finally grown into his wardrobe.


Kim Pendleton of Vibrolux


Kim Pendleton sits slumped over in a wooden chair, looking and sounding very much like a woman with a bad head cold. Behind her sit the members of Vibrolux, each quietly preparing to perform a rare acoustic set in an even rarer atmosphere--Borders Books and Music in North Dallas, farther removed from Deep Ellum than the 10-minute drive would suggest.

Without the distance of a stage and the darkness of a nightclub to hide behind, the band--four members augmented by a fifth, a 19-year-old classical guitarist who works with Vibrolux guitarist-songwriter Paul Quigg at Speir Music--is forced to give perhaps the most intimate set of its career, in a bookstore during the daytime. To further exaggerate the moment, more than 150 people--many long-time Vibrolux fans, others kids who can't get into the clubs or parents who wouldn't be caught in Deep Ellum on a weekend night--crowd around the group, literally sitting at the feet of the woman who would be local music's past and future queen.

From the moment Quigg strums the first note on his acoustic guitar and Pendleton opens her mouth, nasal congestion or no, it becomes readily apparent to those who've heard the band a hundred times or even just once that this is a truly special moment. Though Pendleton repeatedly apologizes for her stuffed head, her voice rings harsh and beautiful through the P.A.; it breaks at times, only bends at others, but always it's haunting and perfect. If Spyche's is the voice of an angel, Pendleton's is possessed by a demon--the same one that made Billie Holiday such a wreck, the same one that made Frank Sinatra so sad, the same one that drove Janis Joplin nuts. Pendleton is at once a jazz singer and a blueswoman, a rock star and your best nightmare.

As though this were a classical recital, the audience remains completely still and quiet throughout the 40-minute set, transfixed by what they hear--Pendleton's scratchy, gorgeous voice surrounding each word like a warm blanket; Alan Hayslip's bass pouring out a beautiful melody; Bruce Alford shaking out the beat with hand-held percussion instruments; and the fragile music that comes from the two acoustic guitars. There's never been any question that Pendleton--her voice, her looks, her whole tougher-and-sweeter-than-you persona--is the star of Vibrolux, but on this day, one realizes that songs like "Volcano" and "Good Night Sleep" deserve co-headline billing. This is a band with a damned special frontwoman, but a band nonetheless.

With each passing day, there comes word that yet another major label is interested in Vibrolux; with each passing week, it seems they spend more time in Los Angeles on a label's tab, performing for crowds of A&R men and women eager to attach the band's name to a dotted line. This time last year, Capitol Records had forked over some money for the band to cut demos; shortly afterward, Capitol lost interest, then the band had a falling-out with management, and two band members departed. To those who had witnessed Pendleton's previous flirtations with major-label promise during her days in Princess Tex, it seemed just another inevitable let-down, the fate of the talented. To this day, the band--which has been together almost two years--has yet to release even a cassette of its material for public consumption, always waiting for the day when the perfect deal will come along.

Now, the cycle has begun anew, with almost every single major label pursuing Vibrolux with an unrequited passion: at a recent showcase in Los Angeles, representatives from Sony, Warner Bros., Virgin, A&M, Elektra, and so many other record companies were in the crowd, and just last week, the band flew back to the West Coast for another round of showcase performances. Whether this will again end with disappointing results or a shot at something bigger remains to be seen, but know this much: each night, when Kim Pendleton and her boys take the stage at a club near you, there is never a boring song or a wasted word or a wrong note. And you do not need some record company executive in California--or, for that matter, some writer in your own backyard--to validate the obvious.


Cowboys and Indians

Down at the end of Industrial, past the drive-thru burger stands and the liquor stores and topless bars that exist today as they did 50 years ago, Bob Wills ran his Ranch House till it passed into the hands of Jack Ruby till it passed into the hands of Dewey Groom till it just passed. The place sits empty most nights, filled only occasionally with a biker swap meet or the rare second-tier blues concert; mostly, though, the Longhorn Ballroom just rots away slowly and imperceptibly, till it will someday vanish like every other great Dallas musical landmark that ever existed.

But the music created in that legendary joint--the amalgam of black big-band jazz and white honky-tonk country known as Western swing--still reverberates throughout this town (as the latest incarnation of the Light Crust Doughboys would attest). Between Tommy Morrell and His Time-Warp Tophands and those Doughboys (from which Bob Wills and Milton Brown sprang loose seven decades ago), Western swing hasn't died, not just yet.

Walk into Sons of Hermann Hall or Naomi's whenever Cowboys and Indians are performing and it's 1949 again--sax and steel guitar and upright bass and trombone providing the sound track to a time when Dallas reigned as country music's hot spot, when honky-tonk heaven had a 214 area code. Even when they're hi-di-hi-di-hoing through Cab Calloway's "Minnie the Moocher."

Of the new breed of country traditionalists--those bands, such as Liberty Valance and the Cartwrights, that lean heavily on the legacy of men like George Jones and Hank Williams--Cowboys and Indians is perhaps the greatest anomaly: sounding like Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys backing Louis Jordan and His Timpani Five, theirs is a sound decidedly rooted in another era, and yet it hardly comes off as the stuff of nostalgia or homage. Rather, it is timeless--as swinging as Wills, as exciting as Jordan, jump-blues and R&B and jazz and country fused into one indestructible entity that encompasses the history of Texas music without burying it.

Erik Swanson (the Herculean trombone-playing front man with a classic voice) and guitarist Billy King originally envisioned Cowboys and Indians as a Western swing-rockabilly hybrid--swing played on an electric guitar, rock and roll on fiddle and steel guitar. But Cowboys and Indians, which has suffered through numerous personnel changes, has evolved over the past few years into a brassy small-big-band, driven as much by the horn section as by King's blazing guitar.

To listen to their soon-to-be-released album The Western Life is to recall both Wills' Tiffany Transcriptions (which features dozens of big-band standards, such as "Take the 'A' Train") and Jordan's "Five Guys Named Moe." It is surprising to discover that among 14 tracks on the record, only one--"I'm a Ding Dong Daddy," written in 1946 by Phil Baxter and recorded by both Louis Armstrong and Wills--is a cover, the rest being originals that sound instantly familiar and instantly classic. When Swanson sings "Big Man" ("Ya asked about my specs / Got an inch on ol' Big Tex") or "Indian Attack," he sounds at once blues and country; and Billy King's playing, sparse in places and fiery in others, fares well in comparison to Milton Brown's old sideman Bob Dunn or Eldon Shamblin, who defined Wills' sound for many a year.

"The thing I always liked about Western swing is it gave you the chance to do some kind of jazz-type stuff," Swanson says. "But it gave you the license to get kinda raunchy about it, doing it kind of dirty and grungy, do it rockin' as opposed to finessed and refined and smooth. If you listen to the Tiffany Transcriptions, [Wills'] guitarists have their amps cranked and they're just blowin'. It's real grungy, and it's like the rock and roll of its time. That's what I wanted to get back to."


Earl Harvin

Two years ago, Earl Harvin and I sat in the living room of James Clay, raptly listening as the Texas Tenor told tales of days spent with Ornette Coleman, Ray Charles, Cannonball Adderly, and so many other music greats. Surrounding us were photos of Clay sharing the bandstand with the likes of pianist Red Garland at the American Woodmans Hall and fellow tenor saxman Marchel Ivery at the Recovery Room. Memories, like the smoke from Clay's constant cigarette, swirled about the cramped study.

Harvin had performed often with Clay, providing the backbeat to the sax player's wide-open sound, though they had never spoken about James' past; among jazz musicians, their stories are usually communicated within the notes they play, and their bonding is done on the stage as they attempt to follow each other's split-second improvisations. As Clay spoke, his voice harsh with years of cigarette smoke and various illnesses that would eventually claim his life in January of this year, Harvin would chime in with a question or an observation--sometimes playing the role of the student learning at the feet of the master, other times assuming the role of colleague and peer, two equals telling each other how they began.

Clay told us of how he actually began playing the drums as a kid, switching to the saxophone only after someone had stolen his snare drum in elementary school--and, he stressed with great importance in his voice, once he noticed that the older guys in the marching bands who played the horn got the flashy uniforms and all the girls.

"When I was a kid," Harvin told Clay, "I always wanted to play the trumpet. I had some drums around, but it's like, when I was in third grade, they sent out a note to all the parents saying if your kid wants to play, he needs to audition for the elementary school band. And I was like, 'Mom, I want to play the trumpet,' and she looked at the price of what it cost to rent the trumpet instead of the drums--they always have the drums at the school and all you have to do is buy the sticks and the book, whereas you have to rent the trumpet--and she said, 'You ain't playing the trumpet.' It was like, 'We'll buy you the sticks,' and that's how I ended up playing the drums."

Over the course of the two hours spent at Clay's house, Harvin and Clay compared notes on Coleman's avant-jazz; they discussed Clay's early recording sessions for Cannonball Adderly; they debated the merits of a big band; and they discussed the way in which record companies and writers try to classify jazz as be-bop or free-jazz or what not to make it easier to package.

"I think you just try to think of it as music, the sound," Harvin said. "I've always thought of styles just as the label the record company puts on it in order to sell it."

James Clay is dead now, and though his death means little to most people around town, it carries with it great significance throughout the local jazz community. He was one of the all-time greats, a man to be appreciated and admired--a link to Dallas' legendary jazz past, and a key to its future and players like Earl Harvin.

Earl Harvin is certainly part of that future, a New Jersey-born transplant who, like Philly Joe Jones and Max Roach before him, elevates the role of drummer to frontman--not merely someone who keeps the time, but a musician whose playing provides the melody. He has played with the best, and he is also among the best, using his drum kit the way Thelonious Monk used the piano's keys--creating sheer beauty out of discordance, finding all the right notes by using all the wrong ones.

The forthcoming Earl Harvin Trio/Quintet album, due sometime in the next couple of months from Leaning House Records (the local indie that released Marchel Ivery's Marchel's Mode last year), is a startling, long-awaited debut. Harvin and his mighty band--Dave Palmer on piano, Fred Hamilton on bass, and Shelly Carrol on tenor and alto sax--create a gorgeous sound out of fragments of melodies, fleshing out ideas till they become emotions. If Harvin's work with local art-punk band Rubberbullet and with MC 900 Ft Jesus garners him more attention, it's his output with his trio and quartet that showcases his ability--and his purest musical soul--best.



To those who have known her for several years or only a few moments, Spyche is a most elusive woman. Each night, as she works the door at Trees checking IDs and keeping out suspected interlopers, she comes across as a powerful force to be reckoned with--as though all that separates a pleasant night out and a painful experience is one swift kick from the young woman's beat-to-hell combat boot. Her arms are marked with the occasional tattoo, the origins of which she will not explain; through her lip is a small silver loop; her hair has lately been kept up in small thatches wrapped in rubber bands. She is like some immovable, quiet, sly presence, never one to reveal too much of herself but able to force even the most intimate secret from a stranger.

"I don't like talking about stuff," she told the Observer last June. "I just don't like thinking about a lot of things."

And yet she is also one of the sweetest women in town, and one of the most well-read. If her lyrics, both as a solo artist and with her band 39 Powers, reveal a clarity and literacy most bands never attempt even to strive for, it's only because she devours words by the page; each day, it seems, she has begun or finished some new book, and she is always on the prowl for something that will interest her.

Then there is the not-so-small matter of her voice--that surprisingly sweet, beautifully low, indelibly pure voice. Even now, several years after she began performing around town as a solo artist, singing only with the accompaniment of her bass, it still seems like a shock for most people to discover that that voice comes from that package. Her take on Cheap Trick's "The Flame"--originally from the long out-of-print 1991 local cassette Heaven on a Stick, now available on the Observer's CD--remains one of the greatest, most startling moments in local music of the past decade: in four minutes flat, she renders the sugary pop staple into a tortured, melancholy, desperate lament.

"Part of the power of that song," one local musician has said, "is the fact you couldn't believe she could sing like that."

Spyche, hardly forthcoming with facts about her life, will say she did begin her musical career performing in the Washington, D.C. bands Press Mob (which she calls "jazz-thrash") and Parasite (a metal band in which she only played bass). She moved to Dallas in 1991 on "intuition," then began performing as a solo acoustic act, though she absolutely loathed climbing on the stage and baring her soul without the safety net of other musicians surrounding her.

"Back then, I would get up and sometimes shake so badly I couldn't play," she said. "If I made a mistake, I forgot what I was doing. When I started, I really couldn't play well, and I would fuck up all the time...Solo, everything goes away and there's nothing to lean on. Every time I played solo it was because someone twisted my arm and talked me into it after hours."

After a year-long stint in Rumble, playing bass and singing only Prince's "The Beautiful Ones," she formed 39 Powers with bassist Mike Daane, ex-Shallow Reign drummer Brad Robertson, and Buena Vistas guitarist Greg Prickett. The shy, nervous performer of a few years ago has given way to a bona fide frontwoman, one who commands a stage filled with rocker boys (though she stopped performing solo for a while, concentrating instead on the band, she has begun playing around town with an acoustic guitar, which could account for her confidence). When she ambles up to the mike to belt out a song like "Four Corners" or to croon the lovely "Blue," she does so with an almost touching sincerity--as though she has to do this, and not just because she wants to.


Little Jack Melody and His Young Turks

I'd been raving to my wife about Denton's own Little Jack Melody and his Young Turks for a good month or so before she finally got to hear the group in concert. After four harmonically complex, brass-heavy numbers that veered stylistically between waltz, samba, peppy pop, and slow ballad mode--nudged along by lead singer and chief songwriter Little Jack's reedy, vaguely haunting voice--they launched into a galloping, messy, borderline-hysterical version of "America" from the Broadway musical West Side Story. As they chirped and bleated and pounded and howled their way through it, Little Jack kept time by smacking two small cymbals together with the demonic zeal of a grinning, wind-up toy monkey and gyrating his torso as if trying to dislodge a vexing knot in his spinal column. "You know," my wife said incredulously, "if you sit back and think about this band, there's really no reason why it should work."

Which probably gets as close as possible to summarizing the appeal of this cabaret-inflected pop ensemble. They're sublime and ridiculous, loony and tragic, cheerful and perverse, but they're never less than convincing. And nothing they do feels false or predictable. No matter how much you've heard about them--or for that matter, how often you've heard them, in person or on CD--Little Jack Melody never stops surprising and delighting you. You can drop names like Tom Waits, Randy Newman, Nelson Riddle, Kurt Weill, Leonard and Elmer Bernstein, Nino Rota, and Carl Stalling, and keep adding to the list until your musical memory runs dry. But in the long run, it's probably best to forget about analyzing the group's musical influences, because Little Jack Melody is kin to the chimera and the platypus: it belongs to no single classification, yet if you look closely, you can spot bits of mammal, reptile, fish, and fowl--maybe some vegetable and mineral, too.

But what makes them compelling, as opposed to merely interesting, is their willingness to push past cleverness, self-consciousness, and pop culture gamesmanship and plug into genuine emotion. The key is their crafty use of narrative voice, which shifts between tricky and simple, deceptive and straightforward, depending on the song's intent. The Doug Frantz co-written "On The Blank Generation," the title single of their first album, would be just another screed about the materialistic wasteland of the go-go '80s if it wasn't told through the voice of a speaker who betrayed no hint that his appalling selfishness was anything less than completely justified--and by the time that Spielbergean choir of sweet little boys chimes in near the finale, the song is transformed from a cautionary sick joke into an infuriating call to arms.

"Bela Lugosi: The Lost Years" and the Brave Combo-Lauren Agnelli remake "J'ai Faim Toujours," from the 1994 follow-up album World of Fireworks, are Felliniesque swirls of spangly brass and drums that come off as slightly scary precisely because they're so energetic and playful; they're the sounds of men tap-dancing away from the abyss. "Barbie and Ken," an as-yet-unreleased tale of marital illusions slowly dissolving, is so engulfed in obviously doomed hopefulness that it doesn't matter whether you take it as a fairy tale about two famous dolls or a stylized pop fable about a perfect union that isn't: either way, the song's free-floating aura of melancholy is so sincere that you can't help being touched by it.

Without the astounding versatility and enthusiasm of Little Jack's musicians--Jerome Rossen (organ, harmonium), Mike Stinnett (alto sax), Dave Dorbin (tuba), and Norm Bergeron (drums and percussion)--none of the group's songs would be remotely convincing. Note by note and chorus by chorus, they construct alternate musical universes so rich and strange that you can't help chuckling as you wander through them--chuckling at the group's confidence in its ability to take you any place and show you anything, and make you not just believe it, but feel it.

That's why Little Jack Melody and his Young Turks can take you "screaming 'cross the Kalahari on the way to Berlin" in "Bastard Moon," and recast the history of Sinatra-inspired crooner pop as an Old Testament creation myth in "Happily Ever After," then ease back into low-key domestic bliss in "A Waltz in Springfield, Missouri" and bohemian listlessness in "Ballad of The Night Cafe" and party-time giddiness in their rollicking remake of Petula Clark's "I Know a Place." They merge the grandiose and the everyday in every note they play, and every word Little Jack croons with that evocatively dry, direct, unfussy phrasing of his evokes both a whispered playground secret and a mystic incantation. To immerse yourself in their music is to visit a world where genre boundaries bend like the frame lines in an old Krazy Kat comic, love songs are arranged on sheets of wind, and moons and stars drop from the heavens to form notes, chords, and rests.

--Matt Zoller Seitz


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