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Bite This!

Sink your teeth into the 1997 Houston Press Music Awards

Apparently, Justice Records's recent downsizing -- and the inevitable rumors surrounding the label's decision to lay off a part of its work force -- did nothing to shrink its stature in the eyes of Music Awards voters. Justice's easy victory is even more impressive when you consider that the label to come in second, Rap-A-Lot, has its imprint on one of the biggest releases of the year, Scarface's platinum The Untouchable. Just goes to prove that unless your bag is hip-hop, Justice is still the only label in town with the money, reputation and connections to compete with the big boys.

Not that long ago, Justice was home to only a single up-and-coming local artist -- Jesse Dayton -- and a small stable of aging Texas treasures. But over the last year, Justice cast aside its conservative ways and courted Houston acts like never before. Local faves Carolyn Wonderland and the Imperial Monkeys were the label's biggest signing of the last 12 months, inking a multi-release deal that began with the '97 Press Music Awards Album of the Year winner Bursting with Flavor. Justice is also distributing Horseshoe's King of the World debut, and appeared to be going after the Hollisters, though that deal apparently went south. Then just as the label seemed to be expanding, the personnel cuts came. Now Justice's cheery receptionist has been replaced by an answering machine. We just hope those taped voices aren't as ominous as they sound. (H.R.)

Best Pianist/Keyboardist
Paul English

Paul English has played and recorded with jazz veterans and newcomers alike, and he has never limited himself to any one color on the improvisational palette, flitting from fusion to straight-ahead jazz to the occasional freeform dabbling. And though he had always written, classical composition has only recently been added to his musical arsenal. In fact, English has become a prolific composer, writing music for radio, film, television and chamber and symphony orchestras. Earlier this year, he premiered "Wrestling with My God", a full oratorio for mixed choir, chamber orchestra and organ with texts by 19th-century English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, as well as "Her Name Shall Remain Unspoken," a piece for French horn and piano that got its first hearing at the prestigious Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. The classical bug has spread to English's jazz performances as well. In 1994, he formed PICO (Paul's Improvising Chamber Orchestra), which features classical French horn, oboe, flute, cello and various percussion. When was the last time you heard a decent jazz solo on French horn or cello? If the answer is somewhere along the lines of "never," English has got a show for you. (M.T.)

Best Male Vocalist
Songwriter of the Year
Jesse Dayton

One reason Jesse Dayton -- former (and occasionally still) frontman for storied Houston rockabilly outfit the Road Kings -- decided to go solo was so that he could focus on his songs rather than just on his band. And if his double winnings this year are any indication, that decision was a good one. Dayton's solo career has been gradually gaining momentum since the release of his critically acclaimed Justice Records debut, Raisin' Cain (which, incidentally, won Album of the Year in the 1995 Houston Press Music Awards). In addition to warming up the stage for acts such as the Supersuckers and the Presidents of the United States of America, this "next generation" country artist has had the honor of opening for the legendary likes of Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson. He also played guitar on Jennings's Right for the Time release and was featured on Justice's well-publicized tribute to Nelson, Twisted Willie. And the exposure has bled over into other mediums: The Beaumont native's music has been featured on TV's Melrose Place and in the Sam Shepherd film Curse of the Starving Class, and he has appeared in two Pam Tillis videos.

If Raisin' Cain was Dayton's proving ground, Hey! Nashvegas, its long awaited follow-up due in January, should determine whether he has what it takes to go to the next level. Hey! Nashvegas was recorded in Nashville and features Dayton regulars Charlie Sanders (bass), Brian Thomas (pedal steel) and Richie Vasquez (drummer) as well as Raisin' Cain collaborators Floyd Domino (piano), Johnny Gimble (fiddle) and Flaco Jimenez (accordion). Given that stellar supporting cast, we wouldn't bet against him. (J.H.)

Best Underground
Middle Finger

Anyone who's seen Middlefinger play live or heard their debut CD, 1996's 3 Martini Lunch, would be hard-pressed to deny that these guys are good, regardless of whether or not said listener digs the band's volatile mixture of hard-driving punk and rootsy ska (flavored with occasional metal nuances). Live, Middlefinger is simply amazing, with a hyper-kinetic frontman (in the person of former Sprawl vocalist Matt Kelly, whose madcap antics with a microphone and its accompanying stand make you wonder what he does in his spare time) and a band that, despite being obviously youngish, plays tighter than many veteran groups.

3 Martini Lunch is exactly what every local, self-released release should aspire to: an accurate representation of a band's sound without too many studio bells and whistles. Recorded "in the armpit of Summer 1996" at Deep Dot Studio, the CD leaves one salivating for more. Fans will have to wait a while for another full-length effort, but Middlefinger has finished recording an EP at Texas Music Studios that should be ready for release later this summer. Until then, check them out live if for no other reason than to be able to say you saw them when they were still "underground," man. (J.H.)

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