In the past month, three local artists have dropped albums either recorded at Sugar Hill Studios or with Sugar Hill connections. The pick of the litter is Johnny Falstaff's Honky Tonkin' Daddy, produced by John Evans and engineered by Sugar Hill vet Steve Christensen. It's a rough-and-ready beer-joint collection that resonates with Piney Woods hillbilly twang and East Houston dive attitude. Because he picks like his job depends on it, Falstaff doesn't rely on hired guitar assassins; instead he distinguishes himself lyrically with stone-cold sawdust-floor lines and a country crooner voice that leave no doubt he's been there. "Turn down the lights, turn on the wine" and "It's half past the party, it's closing time again" are just two hooks that give Honky Tonkin' Daddy a legitimacy few trying to tonk can even approximate. And Falstaff's exhilarating South Texas interpretation of the Beatles' "Rain" is a prime musical example of what makes Houston Houston and Johnny Falstaff Johnny Falstaff. No fancy microbrews in this joint.
With Houston-raised Son Volt guitarist Chris Masterson playing and producing, John Evans's Lucky 13 can't be faulted for its sound, which ranges from hubba-hubba Chris Isaak ladies' man on "Sweeten Up My Game" to the Old 97's thing that's been an Evans staple for years. But the syrupy "Not Afraid to Fall in Love" doesn't measure up lyrically to what we've come to expect from Evans, and "I'm gonna play my guitar for you as loud as God's green earth is big" has to rank as one of the most awkward, make-it-rhyme lines ever. Filled with light, easy-laughs lyrical fare like "Hoochie in a Honky Tonk" and "Champagne Brunch," Lucky 13 is fun and poppy but doesn't resonate for long.
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Employing high-profile hired guns like Brooklynite Roscoe Ambel (Steve Earle) on guitar, Kanude is probably the most costly album of the three. The problem is not with the playing or the sound — when you pay for this kind of mercenary firepower, it better sound good. Subtract front man Chris Knudson's trite, strained lyrics and over-the-top vocals and this might amount to something more than warmed-over Southern rock. Don't be fooled by absurd "review" blurbs like "imagine a pissed-off Roy Orbison on a peyote binge." Kanude is just another project running on too much cash, hype and ambition and too little substance and songwriting savvy.