Only in Houston
It's that time of year — it has been since, like, November — for rock writers to show everyone else how cool they think they are with their year-end best-of lists. How obscure can you get? How controversial can you be with your choices?
"If only Honey Boo Boo released an album that I could put next to Frank Ocean!" says one blogger to himself as he makes his Top 50 that no one will ever read. Who the fuck is Grimes anyway?
This best-of list is geared toward my favorite local albums of the year, the ones that grabbed me and shook me for weeks and months on end. No beers, shots or free merch were involved. I swear.
10. Come See My Dead Person, Come See My Dead Person: Released in early December, CSMDP was a latecomer this year. The Galveston gypsy-folk-rock bleeders' self-titled album came heralded by lead single "John Doe," a grim and grimy bounce through the graveyard or the killing floor of a slaughterhouse.
9. Female Demand, Outside the Universe: Luckily, the now-defunct Female Demand dropped this LP before they called it quits. Outside the Universe, their first full-length LP after two EPs, is infinitely groovier and more aggressive. Bassist Bradley Muñoz and drummer Jonathan Perez created one of the most hectic live experiences we've seen in years, trapping crowds inside a harsh bubble of sound, sweat and light.
8. A Sea Es, A Sea Es: Austin Smith's 11-track debut album as A Sea Es wowed me with his multilayered, kaleidoscopic sound. Fans of Animal Collective, Harry Nilsson, T. Rex and the Beach Boys will not be disappointed.
7. Sunrise and Ammunition, Tesseract: Zooming into my radio late in 2012 was Sunrise and Ammunition's Tesseract, one of the most amplified local albums of the year. The power trio benefited from production and mixing by NY-based producer Jesse Cannon, who streamlined the harsher elements of S&A's last two EPs into something less scatterbrained.
6. Weird Party, Hussy: Weird Party is like this elusive Houston black bear that appears randomly from the wilderness, mauls a few passersby and drops an eight-cut album called Hussy with a pair of huge tits on the cover. Then it retreats — not to rest but to wait. More, please.
5. Buxton, Nothing Here Seems Strange: Buxton has been on the road touring behind their New West debut for the majority of the past year, working an album into which they had poured the last five years of their lives. Nothing Here Seems Strange got progressively better with each listen, no small feat when most 2012 albums were one-pump chumps. "Oh My Boy" and "Boy of Nine" are two of the biggest standouts, building up promise for an even more harrowing follow-up.
4. The Niceguys, James Kelley: There was nothing nice about the Niceguys' James Kelley. Burly, angry, imposing and fucking exciting, tracks like "OVERTOAST" and "Ain't Life Grand" made Kelley an instant HOU classic. Cheers to the money gods.
3. Grandfather Child, Grandfather Child: This past year, Grandfather Child bandleader Lucas Gorham told me something about his band that most other acts in town wouldn't have the stones to utter anywhere. "I like to think that when someone sees a Grandfather Child show, they are experiencing a church service devoid of religion," he said. "No disrespect to religion." His band's self-titled debut made good on the promise of their long-running live shows, with nine tracks of salacious Prince/Frank Zappa-infused stomp and an ever-so-light touch of twang.
2. Venomous Maximus, Beg Upon the Light: It's been awhile since an album by a Houston band made me wanna light black candles in my living room and put a druid's cloak on my dog. There's no telling how many times I caught myself at the gym trying to replicate Maximus drummer Bongo's parts here on the elliptical machine. Beg Upon the Light was probably the best Texas metal album of 2012, a fun, riff-heavy, assaultive party record.
1. B L A C K I E, GEN: No one else in Houston was this bare and honest this year. GEN didn't prove that B L A C K I E is gifted; no, he did that a long time ago with hundreds of sweat-stained gigs across the globe. GEN proved that Michael LaCour is in this for life, not as a musician but as a capital-A Artist. It largely left behind the walls of sound you knew from B L A C K I E's last three EPs and 2008 debut LP for horns, keyboards and acoustic guitars. Its haunting, harried, hellish choruses were more like the blues than the damaged hip-hop that made B L A C K I E an underground institution — folk music fed through his noise thresher.
Our other writers chime in with their 2012 local favorites.
Corey Deiterman: Buxton's Nothing Here Seems Strange is the culmination of the sound the La Porte natives have been pursuing for years now. Our folky indie-rock band's New West debut not only proved worth the wait, but delivers on all the promise shown by their earlier releases. Combining the members' disparate influences (from Nick Cave and Wilco to Björk, Converge and Circa Survive) into a cohesive whole, it's not only a great album, but all the work that went into the production makes it one of the year's best-sounding releases as well.
Cory Garcia: excuseMesir were my big discovery at the Houston Press Music Awards, but there was a problem: They didn't have an album for me to listen to constantly. Luckily, they rectified that soon after with the release of With You in Mind, fully capturing the mix of Kelsey Lee Brand's vocals and the rest of the group's jazzy math-rock playing that won me over in person.
Chris Gray: Milton Hopkins's and Jewel Brown's eponymous CD that came out on Austin's Dialtone Records back in May should remind all you kids out there — he said, shaking his cane from the front porch — that there is a Houston scene out there far, far removed from Mango's, Walters and Fitzgerald's. These two seasoned Houston R&B performers poured about a century's worth of experience, give or take, into an album of what we call "grown folks' music," and it's good. Really good.
John Seaborn Gray: A tie between Benjamin Wesley's Think Thoughts and Second Lovers' Wishers, Dreamers & Liars. Think Thoughts is full of heart, smarts and insane creativity; nothing else sounds quite like it. Wishers, on the other hand, is the quintessential good old-fashioned folk-rock album. Perfect for the car ride home from the bar.
Jef With One F: Kathryn Hallberg's Nocturnal EP can calm the most restless minds. No matter what's going on in your life, with the soft sounds of "Move On" or "Nocturnal" — a quiet ode to nighttime contemplations — it just seems to make life hit a little less hard. I don't know what I'd do without her.
Matthew Keever: I choose the Manichean's Lovers. I've been of fan of these drama junkies for a few years now, and was ecstatic to hear Lovers. Like their previous EPs, Lovers has a distinctive air of mystery, as listeners follow a story arc that is sometimes difficult to grasp. But like abstract poetry, the music, lyricism and delivery are so on-point that you end up getting lost in it all the same.
Christina Lynn: I wanna go with Free Radicals' The Freedom Fence. It's like the Houston answer to Joe Jackson's Night and Day, which felt like a musical walk around New York City.
Shea Serrano: I suspect it's The Niceguys' James Kelley, though I may be wrong. It might be Dustin Prestige's Plaid or Delo's HP3 or Le$'s Struggle... or The Outfit's SS&R or Killa's WTTFF or Undergravity's Underdawgs, or one of about seven others.
Nathan Smith: My vote goes to the Linus Pauling Quartet's Bag of Hammers. In addition to featuring the year's best cover art, it's chock-full of heavy, stoney grooves that sound equally great live and blasting out of the stock speakers of a used car.
Marco Torres: Grandfather Child's Grandfather Child was another case of an underappreciated talent who flew under our radar but were later signed and are now hopefully on their way to bigger and better horizons. Even after seeing them live more than a few times over the past two years, I never expected their self-titled debut to rattle me the way it did. The combination of the tearfully sweet wine of Lucas Gorham's lap-steel guitar and the country-blues vocals makes this album top-notch. My favorite tracks are "Can't Seem to Forget" (that breakdown is downright killer!) and "Magical Words."
KICK IN THE TEETH
Is it right for a band to use popular crowdsourcing site Kickstarter to fund an album?
Jef With One F
I do a monthly Kickstarter round-up on Houston Press arts blog Art Attack, because I really do think that crowdsourcing is a great way to get projects off the ground that might otherwise never see the light of day. Some wonderful independent video games, for example, exist because of crowd-funding, and it is certainly the only way the awesome-looking film Goon is going to get made — no studio in its right mind is going to finance it, because it will almost certainly not make very much money.
One thing I see on Kickstarter a lot is bands wanting to raise money to record albums. Frankly, every time I do I get a little angry, not least because they seem to want an ungodly amount of dough to lay down an LP — $8,000 and more in some cases for local bands. What the hell kind of music are you recording? Full orchestral scores?
Look, I know that my own work as a musician comes from a band that thought having to do a third take for a song was the will of Hitler, but I have put out three full-length albums and some EPs in a project that at its height boasted six members. The recording process never topped a grand, even including mastering. So when I see local acts seeking the equivalent of a basic-model Toyota sedan, it makes me think of a few things.
First, they are trying to play way above their station. Yes, you can go down to SugarHill and drop some serious cash on high-end recording equipment. You can also find people willing to do it for $25 an hour all over the city. But you don't inherit greatness from the studio itself, and home recording has never been easier, anyway.
If you're a local band spending $8,000 on recording an album, then I promise you need to rehearse more and have your act together like a well-oiled machine before you go in. That's where a lot of the money in recording seems to go, fiddling around when the clock is ticking.
The thing that really melts the candy in my pants, though, is that asking for money to record seems like begging at best and a scam at worst. It honestly feels like you aren't invested enough in your own work to cover the most basic act of creation.
Not that I'm against musical Kickstarters entirely. If Poe or Sisters of Mercy's Andrew Eldritch started one tomorrow so we'd finally have a new album after years of silence, I'd sign up. If a local band had already recorded an album but wanted to raise some dough for a good music video, a spectacular release party or some inventive packaging, I'd probably be down.
But to me, recording an album is the very foundation of being a musician, which makes it the artist's responsibility. Kickstarter is for funding things that otherwise can't happen, and your average Christian prog-metal band can lay down ten tracks without my help.
On the other hand, I don't speak for all the musicians in the world. Here's what a few locals think:
La Catrin: I personally have not done it, but if after exhausting all other avenues and it is my last resort, then maybe I would. Mexican pride.
Tianna Hall: I don't like the idea of doing it myself. The thought of it makes me feel icky. But if that's the only way some people can get a recording project done, more power to them.
Robert McCarthy, From Beyond: I have a job and make sacrifices to put out music. I have never put my hand out unless I was offering something in return.
Lotus Effect: If four to six members of a band can't pool together enough resources to record an album, what the hell are they asking other people for?
The day after it posted, this article drew 17 reader comments (and counting), including these:
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Eudemonist: Not sure I'm quite with you on this one, Jef. I totally agree that, for eight large, a frugal local band should be able to get four albums done. I don't, however, think the simple act of asking for support is "wrong" or, to me, insulting... A Kickstarter [campaign] is simply an offer of a deal — promise to buy my album, and I'll make one.
Justin Allen Norwood: Kickstarter is kinda DIY — not everyone is able to fund an album themselves...or wait, are we just to have music from upper middle class yuppies?
Jacob Majors: Kickstarter is pathetic. DIY or die, losers.
Sheila Willard: Fuck Kickstarter. [I] have funded four things, [and] only have ever received my prize for one, Rocky Votolato.