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Unmedicated, ready for action... There's nothing particularly unusual about '90s rockers whining over their addictions. Having a habit and then kicking it might as well be a mandatory rite of passage into the realm of the "serious artist."

Tablet's Steven Holt would like to think that he's met and exceeded that requirement. He's partied plenty, and now he's cleaned up. Still, as his band's primary songwriter, Holt would rather not pander to the sort of morose nonsense that makes most post-rehab rock so difficult to sit through. As Holt himself notes, "The whole drug experience in rock and roll seems pretty trite."

There's nothing dreary or trite about Tablet. The Dallas quartet knows how to take a humbling dose of reality and make it entertaining. Not only that, but they're damn sneaky about it -- especially Holt. He's been a junkie, sings about it plainly on the group's debut CD, Pinned, and still manages to convince us that things could have been worse.

"I was doing a lot of drugs, and it was pretty weird," says Holt. "But it wasn't necessarily a dark period. It was definitely a learning experience."

Still, that kind of hands-on education can be pretty intense. Tablet's songs deal in fluctuating levels of despair, insanity, depression and oblivion, wrapped in Holt's sandy-throated vocals, which contrast delicately sung interludes with guttural screams. Live, Holt seems to relish his role as the tortured leading man, jerking around perilously to the band's jarring, overamplified accompaniment with the exaggerated nervous ticks of some poor, strung-out addict.

On CD, though, it's another story. Pinned, a satisfying blend of grunge, glam rock and psychedelic drone, rarely falls prey to Holt's more tragic whims. "Cancelled" is the first single, and it's a beautiful monster. Big, bold and melodramatic, the tune achieves its orchestral intensity without the aid of synthesizers or strings. Before letting go of the song's addictive chorus, Holt teases us with an assortment of unsettling images -- "Brain is screaming that his leg has been shot / Contemplating if he has or has not / Building's growing like a roach on the wall / Brain is registering nothing at all." Then he exits his living hell with the lines, "I've been cancelled, floating free / I've been cancelled, look at me."

A hit in Dallas, "Cancelled" hints at a suicide theme, but Holt prefers a less fatalistic reading. "It's almost meant to show apathy toward everything that's going on," he says. "All these terrible things are happening, but he's floating free -- unaware. The thing that binds this record together is that it's meant to represent one man's experience. It's not shtick or a gimmick."

Pinned aspires to work equally well as either a loose collection of ideas or a unified conceptual piece, and it largely succeeds. Heading into a California studio late last year with producer Matt Hyde (Porno for Pyros), the band wanted to emulate its idols -- David Bowie, Mick Ronson, the Velvet Underground -- without succumbing to stale retro overtones. They managed to pull it off in a mere 21 days.

Soon after Pinned was recorded, bassist Mike Damron joined Tablet, filling out a lineup that also includes drummer Dave Christopher and guitarist/co-founder Paul Williams. Despite an initial push from its new label, Mercury Records, Pinned has been largely and unjustly ignored everywhere but Dallas, where it's selling well enough, Holt says, to keep Tablet from dissolving. Packing clubs in its hometown has never been a problem, but so far Tablet hasn't been able to duplicate those turnouts in Houston -- where the group headlines the Urban Art Bar Thursday -- or anywhere else. But they're holding tight for a minor miracle.

Etc.... Given the venerable trio of former stadium superpowers that were in town over the July 4 weekend, '70s nostalgia hounds could be excused for getting all misty-eyed. Styx put on a classy show for a surprisingly large crowd in The Woodlands July 5. Fit, trim and enthusiastic, with most of their hair accounted for, the Dick Clarks of cheesy art rock looked as if they'd just stepped out of a time capsule. Every song was familiar (often painfully so), and Dennis De Young, his voice well conditioned from a recent road gig with Jesus Christ Superstar, didn't miss one ridiculous high note. Not true for Kansas' Steve Walsh, who rasped pathetically through his band's short opening set. As for the Kiss concert the following evening at the Summit, there were explosions, blood, flames, floating band members, a levitating guitar, an elevated drum kit -- the same old tricks, the same old good time. For those who haven't had enough old-time fun yet, Iron Butterfly performs Thursday at Party on the Plaza. For those among us whose nostalgia turns to people and places of a more recent vintage, the Blue Iguana celebrates its third anniversary this weekend with a three-day lineup of live music that features Fastball and I End Result Thursday, the Megatones and Little Joe Washington Friday and the Flamin' Hellcats and Strap Saturday. Also worth a mention is Bash the Blockade II Thursday at Power Tools, a benefit to raise money for a sister-campus project between students at the University of Houston and the University of Havana. Among the acts performing are the Suspects, Aftershock, Feel and Small Craft Advisory.

-- Hobart Rowland

 
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