A spitfire female MC with a jazzy softer side. Two indie trios that spin shoegaze atmospherics and reverb rock into pop gold. Celtic rockers (but not those Celtic rockers) who threaten to drink you under the table, and a duo that may be eavesdropping on you right this very moment. A group that has been around so long and plays so many kinds of music that we usually just call it "jazz."
We couldn't find a more diverse crop of nominees for Best LP/CD/EP if we tried. So if you can draw any kind of conclusion at all about the local music scene from these six recordings — which you can vote on until Sunday at midnight at www.hpmusicawards.com — it's that Houston is a place that encourages creativity, innovation and sometimes some very strange ideas. Hey, that sounds pretty good. We'll take it.
Alkari, Blackout Falls
Alkari dare to dream big. Their driving brand of piano-driven, echo-chamber rock uses big chords and big drums to create melancholy anthems. It's a sound that (mostly) post-dates Coldplay, contains trace elements of the Flaming Lips' The Soft Bulletin and scares up the U2-size waves of guitar on "Quality." The songs feel born out of some deep-seated insecurity but are just too huge to confine to the bedroom. Indeed, Alkari closes out Blackout Falls by setting the controls for the heart of the sun on "Halfpipe" and then "Genesis," their two-part space-rock odyssey that is not at all prog-like.
Bang Bangz, Bang Bangz EP
If Bang Bangz lived in Brooklyn or L.A., popular blog Hipster Runoff would send out breathless text alerts every time the trio brushed their teeth, swearing how "alt" they are. They deserve better. One of the more beguiling recordings to come out of Houston in a long time, Bang Bangz may have been the last thing anyone expected out of Tax the Wolf's Mario Rodriguez, but his vocal chemistry with Elizabeth Salazar is palpable. Reminiscent of Interpol, Doves and a dash of Spiritualized, Bang Bangz puts a happy face on goth and wakes shoegaze out of its stupor. This music is sexy and mysterious, ideally suited for moonlight drives, fireside canoodling and other nocturnal pursuits.
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Free Radicals, The Freedom Fence
Every year or so, Houston produces an album that deserves to be remembered as a historical document as much as a piece of music. Last year it was Sideshow Tramps' Revelator; in 2012 Free Radicals' The Freedom Fence can't help but take that honor. Topical in more ways than one, it addresses one of the 21st century's flashpoint issues — borders — in a multitude of languages and genres: Salsa, dub, klezmer, Afrobeat, jazz, blues, rock and rap, among others. It may span the globe, but Freedom Fence doesn't shut out local inner-city gentrification ("Third Ward Not for Sale") and the hospital that has treated so many uninsured local musicians ("Ben Taub Blues"). At 23 tracks and more than an hour of running time, the album could have easily amounted to a train wreck but instead demands a comfortable chair and some serious listening time. It unfolds like a postmodern novel with chapters written in wildly varied styles but never losing the plot.
Illegal Wiretaps, Jesus, What Have You Done?
This Houston duo professes an interest in "field recordings and unsettling ambient sounds." No kidding. You may well ask yourself, "Jesus, what am I listening to?" Depending on which of the 20 "songs" here it is, it could be a brusquely strummed acoustic guitar with a cooing baby in the background ("Next Time"), Tangerine Dream-like wall of ambient synth ("Censored in the Name of Professional Courtesy") or computer voice duetting with a drum machine ("Light Dawns Before Darkness"). In the classical world, some of these pieces would be called "tone poems," while others sound more like plain and simple eavesdropping ("The Sound of Lust from Teen-Aged Springs"). One simply asks, "Surveillance or the Truth?" You decide, but it is a real treat to have someone this close to Negativland nominated for our own Music Awards.
Murder the Stout, Murder the Stout EP
It's only right that Houston have a Scottish counterpart to our esteemed Blaggards, and since 2004 that role has been filled by Murder the Stout. Instead of "Stout Irish Rock," here we have "Progressive Celtic Rock," with a group as large and instrumentally diverse as the Pogues or Chieftains. Fronted by native Scotsman Hugh Morrison, Murder the Stout released this eponymous EP last December, just in time for the rainy season. Borrowing Johnny Rioux of Dropkick Murphys offshoots Street Dogs, Morrison and his accordion lead the lads through seven singalongs ("The Foggy Dew," "Leaving of Liverpool") and order up round after round of "Six O'Clock Swill" with hardly a teary eye in the pub. You don't know how hard it was not to make a joke about green beer there, and tartan beer just doesn't have the same ring. But it's got to be delicious.
Tawn P, Next Phase EP
Before she linked up with Preemo to form the duo All Day, Tawn P made her argument to be counted among Houston's elite female MCs with this EP. Building on the success of her 2011 tape The Wake Up Kiss, Tawn can roughneck with any man. "I ain't gotta pass it to a fella, this chick here got her rappin' together," she vows on horn-punctuated Next Phase opener "Go Hard." She does, on Latifah-tipping "I Got It Like That" and Southside-swaggering "Let Go." But Tawn has a soft side, too. "Liquid Sunrise" is a sensual, string-dusted ballad where she coos "open your mind to me," and she teases "you could fall in love at any moment" on "Song 4 Love." After being touted as one of Houston's rising young rapper/singers for a couple of years now, Tawn may have arrived.