Of the several periodic roundups of local releases we've done, our Fall '09 crop is the best thus far. We've been impressed by what we've heard from newcomers and old hands alike, and it gives Noise great pleasure to offer the following holiday stocking-stuffer suggestions for that special Houston music fan in your life.
Or, you know, just for yourself. Enjoy — we sure did.
A Dream Asleep, We Are the Juggernauts: Hardcore, metalcore — call it what you want, but this Houston five-piece's debut is loaded with throat-shredding vocals and guitars that, when they're not working you over like one of those fancy massage chairs turned up to 1,000, nod back to the herky-jerky days of Texas punk-funk immortals Bad Mutha Goose. Good luck making out what front man Mike Seals is "singing" about, but the titles at least ("March of the Bears," "Jesus Stole My Bathrobe") suggest A Dream Asleep doesn't take itself too seriously. The album's title comes from the song "Horus vs. the Juggernauts," which surveys the accidental demise of the band's beloved bong. To paraphrase Lesley Gore — most assuredly not an influence here — you would scream too, if that happened to you.
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Crossing Togo, Of Love, Scorn & Insecurity: Critics generally take a dim view of bands that hire high-powered PR firms before releasing a note, which is what makes Houston guitar-voice duo Crossing Togo's debut LP such a pleasant surprise. Augmented by keyboards, strings and drums, vocalist Ko and songwriter/guitarist Scott Spencer echo — but never ape — Radiohead, Jeff Buckley and the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood" as they explore the three titular emotions.
The Factory Party, After Death There Is Nothing: With their yelpy Fall vocals and cylindrical whooshes of post-Joy Division guitar, Houston quartet The Factory Party has learned the lessons of the 1980s Manchester-based record label from which it takes its name well. More encouragingly, After Death There Is Nothing makes a better-than-adequate alternative to the all-too-infrequent visits of UK bands of a more recent vintage like Kings of Leon openers/ACL Fest stunners White Lies.
Football, etc., First Down: Remember before "emo" was the punchline to off-color jokes like "I wish my grass was emo so it would cut itself" — the days when nobody was quite sure what that word meant, except that it was some sort of shorthand for a strident but quirky brand of U.S. post-punk? Football, etc. sure does — their four-song First Down EP is loaded with the kind of springy bass lines, off-pitch vocals and gnarled guitar that prompted Collective Zine UK to liken the local trio to mid-'90s Wisconsin emo trailblazers Rainer Maria, and we see no reason to disagree. Jocks take heed: "Touchdown (Dance)," "Catch the Spirit" and the title track are not about football.
Robert Earl Keen, The Rose Hotel: Individually, he's written better songs on other albums, but taken as a whole, The Rose Hotel feels like Robert Earl Keen's most complete, satisfying set to date. Like his old A&M buddy Lyle Lovett — with whom he co-wrote "It's Rock and Roll" on Natural Forces (see below) — Keen is in his element on Rose Hotel, even also covering a Townes Van Zandt song (the haunting "Flyin' Shoes") to boot. Keen also cracks up with Billy Bob Thornton on "10,000 Chinese Walk Into a Bar," pays tribute to Band drummer Levon Helm on "The Man Behind the Drums," wonders where he can plug in after he checks out on "Wireless in Heaven" and paints a fine little Larry/James McMurtry word portrait on the title track. Hold the Aggie jokes, please.
The Live Lights, The Live Lights: This three-song preview (call it an EP if you must) of the Houston modern-rockers' forthcoming full-length is tantalizing, to say the least. Aggressive rocker "Lights Out" suggests a synthy Billy Corgan side project, "A Song for Strangers" some sprawling Killers-like dance-floorplay and "Sky Will Fall" a slowly ticking AFI-style ballad. In the proper hands, all three could log some serious airplay.
Lyle Lovett, Natural Forces: We knew Lyle Lovett had a sense of humor, but not once did we expect to cue up one of his CDs and hear these words: "Choke my chicken 'til the sun goes down." That's from "Farmer Brown/Chicken Reel"...something you'd like to tell us, Lyle? Whatever else Klein's favorite son is getting into, he hasn't lost his knack for interpreting Anderson Fair mentors such as Vince Bell ("Sun and Moon and Stars") and Townes Van Zandt ("Loretta"), and pens a couple of winners himself in the rollicking "Pantry Song" — co-written with his longtime girlfriend — and lovelorn "Empty Blue Shoes." A heartfelt album told with his trademark sly grin, Natural Forces is classic Lovett through and through.
The Rafters, Colourful Freedom: "Day to Day," a solid blues song on Houston six-piece the Rafters' new LP, reminds us of that old The Onion headline, "Day Job Becomes Job." Sounding like a mellower Allman Brothers — i.e., a loose-knit blend of country, rock, bluegrass and blues —the Rafters obviously make music because they enjoy it, not to "make it big," and Colourful Freedom exudes the warmth of their motives. The Rafters may lack the technical prowess of better-known bands in their genre, from Phish all the way to semi-Houstonians Moses Guest, but considering the major knock against "jam bands" is their tendency to overplay, that hardly counts as a fault.
Runaway Sun, The Bridge: "How can whiskey be so clear?" asks Runaway Sun front man Andrew Karnavas alongside lead guitarist Daniel de Luna's fiery licks on "Miss Whiskey." Good question, and the Houston quartet's debut LP The Bridge just might contain a few answers. "Whiskey" is about as rock and roll as The Bridge gets; the rest is a much jazzier affair, ideal for puzzling over the idiosyncrasies of the human heart while nursing the amber on the rocks of your choice at some dimly lit dive.
The Umbrella Man, The Umbrella Man: If your holiday shopping list includes a musical map of modern Houston (and not-so-modern Houston), the Umbrella Man's debut disc has got you covered. Shouting out Sig Byrd — Google him, kids — and Metro's "Crosstown 42" line, The Umbrella Man spans Montrose to Midtown, the East End to Second Ward as bassist/vocalist Nick Gaitan's five-man, one-woman musical crew proves what an international city Houstonreally is.
Fancy a wild-eyed gypsy bolero? Here's "Mind's in Misery." A boisterous rockabilly/cumbia mash-up? Here's "Keep It on the Move." Old-fashioned gospel or honky-tonk? There's "Carry Me Away," with Kam Franklin doing her best Mavis Staples, and "Neptune's on the Bayou," respectively. We could go on and on, but we'd be remiss if we didn't mention there's two versions of Gaitan's love letter to "The Island" at 3700 Main, the second complete with Sideshow Tramps bard Craig Kinsey on harmonica.
Bonus trivia question: Where are the beginning and endpoints of "Crosstown 42"?
Where to find these artists (and their work) online:
A Dream Asleep: www.adreamasleep.com
Crossing Togo: www.crossingtogo.com
The Factory Party: www.myspace.com/thefactorypartymusic
Football, etc.: www.myspace.com/footballetc
Robert Earl Keen: www.robertearlkeen.com
The Live Lights: www.myspace.com/thelivelights
Lyle Lovett: www.lylelovett.com
The Rafters: www.myspace.com/rafterslive
Runaway Sun: www.myspace.com/runawaysunmusic
The Umbrella Man: www.myspace.com/theumbrellaman4
Now see them live...
A Dream Asleep: Sunday, December 6, White Swan
Football, etc.: Monday, January 4, the Mink
Robert Earl Keen: Monday, December 28,House of Blues
The Live Lights: Friday, December 18, the Mink
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Runaway Sun: Friday, December 4, Avant Garden
The Umbrella Man: Tuesdays, Continental Club; Sunday, December 6, Meridian
(Trivia answer: Metro's "Crosstown 42" line begins at Lovett and Yoakum in the Montrose and terminates at the Fifth Ward/Denver Harbor Transit Center. Or vice versa.)