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The Bards of Baytown

Scattered Pages' urban art-country music is as pretty as its hometown is ugly

I'm a sucker for bands that dance around the fringes of twang -- bands that are country-steeped but not country, pop-friendly but not pop, exactly. Anglophile touches don't hurt either, nor do mild tinges of psychedelia. Usually these bands have an exquisite sense of melancholy as well. When it sets aside the Latin stuff, Calexico is one such band; Clem Snide and the Decemberists are two others.

And so too, at last, is Houston's own Scattered Pages, which is now every bit as good a band as any of the aforementioned.

I first saw this trio about three years ago, when it was still a four-piece. The band opened for Clem Snide at Mary Jane's, and I liked what they were trying to do more than what they could deliver at that time. Back then, they sounded like they were striving for a sort of mesquite-grilled late-'60s Kinks vibe. It wasn't there yet at all, but I was hoping they were in it for the long haul.

Coming from just down the road, Scattered Pages has finally arrived.
Coming from just down the road, Scattered Pages has finally arrived.

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Thursday, July 27
Brasil, 2604 Dunlavy, 713-528-1993

Three years later, they have arrived. Their new EP, This Is Where the Story Ends, came wafting out of my 14,000-song iTunes library, grabbed me by the lapels and riveted me immediately with its mellow, Harvest-era Neil Young feeling. I had no idea who it was at first -- generally, at work, I play my whole library on shuffle and hope for pleasant surprises, and Scattered Pages was absolutely one of the most pleasant. The title track's brushed snares and breezy, keening guitars forced me to stop thinking of new insults for Blue October or whatever I was doing at the time and pull up my iTunes to find out just who this great new band was. I was as surprised as I was delighted to see it was one of our own.

This Is Where the Story Ends should be where your relationship with this band begins. "Stately Man" recalls Revolver-era Beatles with its backing harmonies and warm, trilling keyboard riff; out of nowhere in the waters of the "Apple Sea" the band launches into a blindingly cool breakdown that could only be termed as "surf-flamenco," while "Before the Last War" sounds like a more ramshackle and rhythmically interesting Son Volt. And "The Boating Party" builds from simple acoustic guitars and plinking strings to a swirlingly dazzling distorted-guitar climax.

Scattered Pages is composed of singer-guitarist Brandon Hancock, drummer Andy McWilliams and bassist Kurt Coburn, all of whom are 28 years old and all of whom have been friends since childhood in Baytown. Over beers at the West Alabama Ice House, I ask the three how their upbringing shaped their music.

"Yeah, you kinda can't get away from country in Baytown," says Coburn. "So that's always there -- it can't be helped."

Hancock's vocals at times, like those of Colin Meloy of the Decemberists, take on something of a British-feeling tinge. As is the case with Meloy, Hancock says it comes from an obsession with Morrissey and the Smiths. The Smiths have always seemed to resonate particularly well with young people here, more so than they do in other American cities. Hancock thinks it has something to do with certain similarities between Houston and Baytown and Morrissey's native Manchester. "They're both industrial cities with bad weather and everybody's dad does the same thing," he says.

Like former Houstonian Greg Ashley, who recently recorded an album near Centerville, Texas, Scattered Pages headed deep into the East Texas pines to record This Is Where the Story Ends. McWilliams's family owns a domicile of sorts near Lake Livingston. "Calling that place a lake house kind of gives it too much credit," chuckles Coburn. "It's more of a cabin, really, and it was January and cold and rainy and we had no hot water, and some of the time there was no electricity either. It was really roughing it."

The band would rise at 10 a.m., eat breakfast, record, eat lunch, record some more, and then start drinking -- a liter of whiskey a night, they say. Then they would get up the next day and do it all over again. Coburn and his bandmates believe that the hassles -- the cold and the power outages -- were outweighed by the benefits. Coburn says that cutting the EP was a welcome distraction from the sessions for their now-finished, soon-to-be-released full-length Lazy Are the Skeletons, which will be out this fall on the San Francisco label Three Ring Records. You can hear a few of those cuts -- which are more elaborate and orchestrated than the EP -- at the band's MySpace page (www.myspace.com/thescatteredpages).

Coburn also believes that the intense, isolated tone of the sessions helped them create a tighter, more focused final product. "By taking yourself out of town, you're able to just focus on the music for a week at a time," he says. "We have seen lots of bands making these records that took a year or two to make, where they would start a song one week, and maybe finish it the next, then do that over and over. And you can hear a lack of cohesion in the finished product."

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