Soundcheck

There's been a good amount of tooth gnashing and hair pulling these past months over proprietorship of something that, for lack of anything better to call it, is being bandied about as The Houston Sound -- as in: who's got it? where do I go to see it? on which CDs will I find it? etc., etc., blah blah blah. The question comes up every now and again, usually, as now, in the face of a flood of local compilations, often after the repetitive (and some say pointless) embarrassment of SXSW, and sometimes for no apparent reason other than that in the cyclical (as opposed to progressive) conversation about music in Houston, there's often not much of anything else to talk about.

The big gun of this latest Houston Sound controversy has been Justice Records' Hellhole, which is being judged as representative of Houston's punk/alternative underground because, in a way, it is, and because Justice had the ambition and gall to conceive and promote it as such. Reception hasn't been kind, and the record has been greeted with so much suspicion and doubt -- my own included -- that Justice has resorted to a new public relations tack: press releases accompanying Hellhole now say, essentially, listen for yourself and make your own decision.

Which is certainly fair enough, and good advice at that, but it also points out a persistent problem with local music or, more accurately, with the attitude most of the city seems to take toward it. Houstonians don't listen for themselves. If they did, they'd notice that Hellhole, for instance, is just another in a long line of local compilations with flawed sound and some questionable decisions on the roster. It also, unlike a great many local compilations, carries a few memorable, standout tunes.

And if people listened, they'd perhaps understand the folly of even thinking of anything so cohesive as a "Houston Sound" in a town with so many mutually exclusive mini-scenes bouncing around the night. If there were a hit Houston act in the national marketplace (and remember, by assuming there isn't we're more or less discounting the Tejano, rap and country markets), then you could make a Houston Sound argument based on national identity. And if Houston were a tiny college town with a focused minority of music makers, then you could make another argument based on mutual influence. But there isn't, and it's not, and the Houston Sound is a myth that may be quickly gotten over with a style-blind survey of just what homegrown music is coming across the desk -- not my desk, but a desk nonetheless -- these days. It's coming out on tinier-than-tiny indie and borderline-vanity labels, so you know it has to be driven by motives other than money. Add it all up, and I suppose you could call it a Houston Sound, but you'd be hard-pressed to distinguish your Houston Sound from another too-broad-for-usefulness term: music.

Which is all very encouraging in its intimation of diversity, but not necessarily to be confused with a recommendation to buy any of these discs. Some are pretty good. Some contain moments of fleeting genius. And some are God-awful terrible.

Like Shake Russell and Jack Saunders' Live at the Duck (Jalapeno Records). I wanted to like this CD, because I'm tired of hating and a lukewarm reaction is difficult to write about, but intentions can only carry you so far. Shake and Jack are a Houston institution, two good guitarists with pretty voices who've developed a loving fan base over the course of long, hard-working years, and at least this disc has the virtue of placing the duo firmly in their element, in front of an appreciative home crowd at the Duck, rather than trying to pass them off as some "adult-alternative" act on the Jackopierce model. But honesty of presentation doesn't count for much unless there's something in the presentation to like, and unless you're already the sort of hard-core fan who'll buy anything the pair produce, there's not much here to recommend: wilted melodies, limp arrangements, precious harmonies and a smug confidence that that's enough. The songwriting -- according to local music polls, one of Shake and Jack's strong points -- is the weakest link: an endless, monotone parade of homilies ("in love I've found there are no guarantees... ") and cliches ("Texas means friend!") and cutesy novelty ("Two Ol' Dogs"). There's no point in going out of your way to loathe something so entrenched in the local scene, but there's not much reward in listening to it, either (*).

Less entrenched, more rewarding and strangely appealing in its total anachronism is Charlie Shaffer Presents ... Gayle Beverly (Bellaire) -- a collection of vocal standards pegged for the same crowd that quietly snaps up Shaffer's own orchestrated croonings from the bins at Don's Record Shop. Beverly wraps her pipes around classic material such as "Ain't Misbehavin'," "Sweet Dreams," "The Lady Is a Tramp" and "It Had to Be You" with a breathy talent that surpasses competence and, at moments, almost makes you forget the too twinkly arrangements that mar clunkers such as the Beverly/Shaffer duet "Makin' Whoopee." If you stay awake nights twitching because you're unable to locate a high quality local singer of vocal standards, you can go to bed now (***).

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