The Literary Greats don't keep an especially high profile in local music circles. Between day jobs, families and once-a-month weekend tours to nearby cities, the Houston quintet that describes its sound as "the Pixies meets Kenny Rogers" only plays its hometown a few times a year.
Perhaps less is more. Thanks to the group's second album, last year's Ocean, Meet the Valley, the Greats received more nominations for next month's Houston Press Music Awards than any other local artist. Ocean also reached No. 108 on college-radio tracker CMJ's Top 200 and stayed for eight weeks — a remarkable achievement for a self-released album.
Ten songs of muscular but melodic Wilco-esque Americana, Ocean owes its melancholy tone to vocalist, guitarist and principal songwriter Brandon Elam's serious health scare a few years back. Being hospitalized for two months, and another six months of recovery, significantly darkened his lyrical outlook.
"Before, I probably wouldn't have been comfortable talking about dark subjects, and you never would have heard death in any of my songs." he says. "Now it's kind of all over this one."
Chatter: Kenny Rogers?
Brandon Elam: I grew up on Kenny Rogers. I remember this one trip to South Dakota, four kids and my parents in one car, listening to 8-track tapes. It was Kenny Rogers, Barbra Streisand and Truck Drivin' Songs Vol. 3. Tracks like "Big Wheels Keep on Rollin'," "When Is My Man Coming Home?" — I'm actually still looking for that record. I would love to have it.
I actually became a big fan of Kenny Rogers early on, the song structures and that kind of thing. I like his melodies. It's funny — the older Kenny Rogers stuff from the '70s is actually really cool. It's not the cheesy pop-country stuff from the '80s. If you go back and listen to it, it's actually really raw. It's got good beats, it's very bluesy.
C: One blog called your music "almost Southern Gothic." Would you agree?
BE: I can see that. It's not exactly Southern. It's got more of an edge to it, but you can hear our backgrounds. I feel like when you listen to it, especially this record, you can tell we grew up in Houston. There's something about the humid Gulf air, the dynamics and the diversity of the city, the blue-collar oil aspect, that kind of makes its way through the way this record sounds. It's not a Southern record, but it's got Southern roots.
C: Several songs have a lot of nature-based imagery. Are you especially drawn to the outdoors?
BE: Yeah, I am. Growing up in Corpus Christi, I grew up on the beach, so I spent a lot of time outdoors. I spent summers in the Hill Country, off the Frio River, so I've always been drawn to it. And from a lyrical perspective, the names of flora and fauna are great. They roll off the tongue nice, because people have been saying them for a thousand years.
C: As the Literary Greats, who are a few of the band's favorite authors?
BE: That's a funny question, because we're not really avid readers. The guys in the band read more histories, biographies and political works instead of fiction. For instance, I'm reading John Adams's biography right now. I read [David McCullough's] 1776 before that.
This Thursday, July 15, online voting opens in this year's Houston Press Music Awards. Set your browser to polls.houstonpress.com/polls/hou/mas2010/ or just click on the HPMA banner on our home page at www.houstonpress.com. The Music Awards ballot will also appear in next week's print edition. Voting runs through August 7, the date of the HPMA showcase spread out over several Washington Avenue venues. Wristbands for the showcase, featuring special guests Matt & Kim and Jonathan Tyler & the Northern Lights, are on sale now ($15 advance, $20 day-of) at www.houstonpress.com. The Washington Wave will provide complimentary transportation for wristband-holders during the showcase.
Sig's Lagoon, 3710 Main, 713-533-9525
1. Alejandro Escovedo, Street Songs of Love
2. Various Artists, I Smell a Rat: Early
Black Rock 'n Roll Vol. 2 1949-1959
3. Andre Williams, That's All I Need
4. Doug Sahm, He's About a Groover:
An Essential Collection
5. Dara Puspita, Dara Puspita 1966-1968
6. Various Artists, Songs the Cramps Taught Us Vol. 1 (LP)
7. Various Artists, Songs the Cramps Taught Us Vol. 2 (LP)
8. Various Artists, Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows: Songs of John Prine
9. Various Artists, Angola Prisoners' Blues (LP)
10. George Tomsco, Tex-Mex Fireball
The Morning Show
KUHF (88.7 FM), weekdays 9 a.m.-12 p.m.
Selections from Elaine Kennedy's July 7 playlist
1. Louis Moreau Gottschalk, "Grande Tarantelle"
2. Franz Josef Haydn: Symphony No 79 in F
3. Gioacchino Rossini, "Overture to Torvaldo e Dorliska"
4. Benedetto Marcello (arr. Béla Bartók), "Sonata in B-Flat"
5. Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, "Waltz"
from Serenade for Strings
6. Felix Mendelssohn, Symphony No. 3 in A minor ("Scottish")
7. Gustav Holst: Wind Suite in E-Flat, op. 28
8. Johannes Brahms, "How Beautiful Are
Thy Dwellings" from A German Requiem
9. Georg Telemann, Concerto in E for Flute,
Oboe d'Amore & Viola d'Amore
10. Richard Strauss, Don Juan, op. 20
(lists compiled by Chris Gray)
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