There are things in this town -- as in all towns -- that are so regular, so consistent, so ever-present and so thoroughly accessible as to be completely unremarkable. There are restaurants you'd never think of as destinations, even though the floor of your car is littered with their takeout bags. There are people you see with pleasure four nights out of seven, without knowing their last names or phone numbers. And there are bands like the Rounders -- always on the calendar, always just a short drive away, always a professional good time -- that just don't get the attention that their apparent talent and perseverance would seem to demand.
Music critics -- who, according to popular assessment, wouldn't know a good band if it bit them on the collective ass -- are often blamed for neglecting the steady talent on display right under their collective nose, but that's not really fair. Critics work for newspapers, which purport to deliver news, which is widely thought to consist of that which is new, or at the very least, that which provides some drama. The Rounders are not new (five years old, more or less), and they've so far failed to supply any but negligible amounts of the usual record-biz/ heroin-addiction/gardening-accident journalism fodder. All the Rounders do is play seriously high-quality live honky-tonk rock and roll.
Thrill-Billy Bop shows, if anyone's looking, that the Rounders can put it on record as well as belt it out live. There are ten songs here, and if none really stands out, that probably has more to do with that consistency we were talking about earlier than with any inability to pen a "hit single." Starting with the twangy riff of "Singing for My Supper," getting a shot in the arm from the ballad-ish romper "Jaded" and carrying all the way through to the chunky closer, "Great Wall of Clarkesville," this disk evokes -- as well as anything that fits in the palm of your hand possibly could -- a warming mug of beer in one hand, a wooden barstool under your butt, and, at your side, a pretty partner pulling you toward the dance floor.
But the fact remains: warming mugs of beer, wooden barstools and pretty partners are still better evoked through their own not-uncommon presences in the clubs the Rounders regularly play. Short of turning the lyrics into a running joke and following in the footsteps of Mojo Nixon, or disbanding and waiting for some folklorist to decide that this is Important Music, there's really no place to take this stuff where it'd be any more effective than where it already is -- in the bars. Mike Barfield (lead vox, harmonica), Danny Gardner (guitar, vox), Rex Wherry (bass) and Steve Wood (drums) surely know this, and that's why you'll catch them playing out almost any time you want a fix. As for the disk, it's a well-produced souvenir.
Tone Zone Records
OK, kids, we're entering gothic-industrial-techno terrain here, so throw away all those preconceived critical notions you've developed to help you judge the quality of music. Endless repetition isn't bad, it's necessary. Lyrics are not just irrelevant, they're one more piece of sonic furniture. Technology is more than a tool, it's a foundation. And don't go talking about unique this and inimitable that in a field where a band develops its own special "sound" by digitally lifting chunks of pre-recorded material and setting them to a fast, mechanical, electronically embellished beat. Yes, purveyors of industrial dance music can dress up and play theater all they like (and Bamboo likes, a lot...), but when it comes down to music, they're mining a narrow hole. There's a reason dance bands hardly ever score a hit without resorting to a novelty cover tune.
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Ken Gerhard is the vocalist and resident mastermind here, and Shapeshifter offers four songs, including the title cut, that sound something like Nine Inch Nails relaxing, or low-budget Ministry -- which seem to be the industry standards these days. It's also pretty damn tight. Which means, under the programmed musical circumstances, that the production is clean enough to earn these tracks at least a shot at the fickle attentions of a fashion-happy dance-club scene. Gerhard's compositions are fast enough, and filled with enough varieties of noise, to virtually guarantee that no one will fall asleep on his feet, but that's really all there is to say about them. I have a feeling that if I were inclined to thrash about to a nose-leading amphetamine rhythm, I'd rather do it to this than to The Hunger, but that's all the comparison-shopping advice I can offer, because for the most part, this just gives me a headache.
IN MY DISK-CHANGER
Layin' It All on the Line / Clay Blaker and the Texas Honky-Tonk Band / Neobilly Records
Best of Kodo / Kodo / TriStar Music
Now I'm Singing the Blues / Aubrey Dunham / Houstone Records
Nacogdoches Waltz / Paul Buskirk / Justice Records
Pastures of Plenty: An Austin Celebration of Woody Guthrie / Various Artists / Dejadisc