There's been a good amount of tooth gnashing and hair pulling these past months over proprietorship of something that, for lack of anything better to call it, is being bandied about as The Houston Sound -- as in: who's got it? where do I go to see it? on which CDs will I find it? etc., etc., blah blah blah. The question comes up every now and again, usually, as now, in the face of a flood of local compilations, often after the repetitive (and some say pointless) embarrassment of SXSW, and sometimes for no apparent reason other than that in the cyclical (as opposed to progressive) conversation about music in Houston, there's often not much of anything else to talk about.
The big gun of this latest Houston Sound controversy has been Justice Records' Hellhole, which is being judged as representative of Houston's punk/alternative underground because, in a way, it is, and because Justice had the ambition and gall to conceive and promote it as such. Reception hasn't been kind, and the record has been greeted with so much suspicion and doubt -- my own included -- that Justice has resorted to a new public relations tack: press releases accompanying Hellhole now say, essentially, listen for yourself and make your own decision.
Which is certainly fair enough, and good advice at that, but it also points out a persistent problem with local music or, more accurately, with the attitude most of the city seems to take toward it. Houstonians don't listen for themselves. If they did, they'd notice that Hellhole, for instance, is just another in a long line of local compilations with flawed sound and some questionable decisions on the roster. It also, unlike a great many local compilations, carries a few memorable, standout tunes.
And if people listened, they'd perhaps understand the folly of even thinking of anything so cohesive as a "Houston Sound" in a town with so many mutually exclusive mini-scenes bouncing around the night. If there were a hit Houston act in the national marketplace (and remember, by assuming there isn't we're more or less discounting the Tejano, rap and country markets), then you could make a Houston Sound argument based on national identity. And if Houston were a tiny college town with a focused minority of music makers, then you could make another argument based on mutual influence. But there isn't, and it's not, and the Houston Sound is a myth that may be quickly gotten over with a style-blind survey of just what homegrown music is coming across the desk -- not my desk, but a desk nonetheless -- these days. It's coming out on tinier-than-tiny indie and borderline-vanity labels, so you know it has to be driven by motives other than money. Add it all up, and I suppose you could call it a Houston Sound, but you'd be hard-pressed to distinguish your Houston Sound from another too-broad-for-usefulness term: music.
Which is all very encouraging in its intimation of diversity, but not necessarily to be confused with a recommendation to buy any of these discs. Some are pretty good. Some contain moments of fleeting genius. And some are God-awful terrible.
Like Shake Russell and Jack Saunders' Live at the Duck (Jalapeno Records). I wanted to like this CD, because I'm tired of hating and a lukewarm reaction is difficult to write about, but intentions can only carry you so far. Shake and Jack are a Houston institution, two good guitarists with pretty voices who've developed a loving fan base over the course of long, hard-working years, and at least this disc has the virtue of placing the duo firmly in their element, in front of an appreciative home crowd at the Duck, rather than trying to pass them off as some "adult-alternative" act on the Jackopierce model. But honesty of presentation doesn't count for much unless there's something in the presentation to like, and unless you're already the sort of hard-core fan who'll buy anything the pair produce, there's not much here to recommend: wilted melodies, limp arrangements, precious harmonies and a smug confidence that that's enough. The songwriting -- according to local music polls, one of Shake and Jack's strong points -- is the weakest link: an endless, monotone parade of homilies ("in love I've found there are no guarantees... ") and cliches ("Texas means friend!") and cutesy novelty ("Two Ol' Dogs"). There's no point in going out of your way to loathe something so entrenched in the local scene, but there's not much reward in listening to it, either (*).
Less entrenched, more rewarding and strangely appealing in its total anachronism is Charlie Shaffer Presents ... Gayle Beverly (Bellaire) -- a collection of vocal standards pegged for the same crowd that quietly snaps up Shaffer's own orchestrated croonings from the bins at Don's Record Shop. Beverly wraps her pipes around classic material such as "Ain't Misbehavin'," "Sweet Dreams," "The Lady Is a Tramp" and "It Had to Be You" with a breathy talent that surpasses competence and, at moments, almost makes you forget the too twinkly arrangements that mar clunkers such as the Beverly/Shaffer duet "Makin' Whoopee." If you stay awake nights twitching because you're unable to locate a high quality local singer of vocal standards, you can go to bed now (***).
Since we don't have a Houston Sound to squeeze into, we're free to descend even further into musical anachronism -- down, down into the land where people must make music just because they, and maybe a few of their friends, really love it, because it's sure as hell got no commercial potential. Such is obviously the case with the Flying Fish Sailors' Give Me Coffee (Topmast Productions). Greg Henkel (vocals, violin and lawnmower), Jay Lee (vocals, guitar, dumbek, octave mandolin, synthesizer) and Joseph Linbeck (vocals, tin whistle, flute) recruited another half-dozen acoustic musicians to recreate the Brit Isles flavor of traditional tunes such as "Bonnie Isle O'Walsay," "Do You Want Your Old Lobby Washed Down?" and "Old Woman from Wexford." When the band is thus archiving, it's easy to hear why they're favorites on the Renaissance Festival circuit: it's honest, straightforward music, and the Sailors play it well. It's only when the band introduces self-penned novelties such as "Mow Johnny Mow" and the title tune that they abandon much of the music's universal appeal and resort to cuteness (though "Peaceful Warrior," with its "We Will Rock You" beat and Robert Bly-mocking lyrics, is a chuckling exception) (****).
Moving back toward center, the Surrealtors (if there's no Houston Sound, we might still identify a comprehensive civic affliction of cutesyness) are songsmithing brothers George (drums and vocals) and Jim (guitars and vocals) Kovacik, who, judging by the kiddie pictures on the CD's inside sleeve of their CD No More Milk, have wanted to do something like this for a long time. They got good help from producer Robbie Parish, who must owe master masterer Bob Ludwig (Sting, the Stones, etc.) one hell of a favor for squeezing this one in on an off-weekend. The CD sounds great in its mellow, inobtrusively clever pop-lite way, and the brothers Kovacik aren't half-bad pop songsters who probably like Crowded House a lot. They're also, though, self-styled pranksters who insert not-particularly-funny bits of chatter between songs in an ill-advised attempt to come across as "goofy," marking the disc for certain death. With all the shtick slapped on, the "humor" is what gets remembered, when the straight songs would have been vastly more impressive. Still, it should find an audience (**).
I say that, but if there were any real correlation between quality delivered and attention received, Sugar Shack would be revered alongside ZZ Top, traveling around the globe on airlifted Harleys and carousing with shimmying beauties on stages from New York to Tokyo. Instead, one of Houston's best rock bands has just released one of its best albums -- Shotgun For Two -- on Au Go Go, a hip Australian indie, but still, an Australian label, fer chrissakes. Why Sugar Shack hasn't been snapped up by a major (hell, if Sponge got a deal... ) is one of life's little mysteries, but at least the thing's out there, and I'm glad, because even if local interest in the band isn't what it ought to be, the fact remains that the Shack carries a torch lit in 1971 by the MC-5, and the thing burns. Post-punk garage rock with some Stooges and surf thrown into the boil. Gritty guitars and barked vocals and you can hum along with it, too. Advancing age (the band's, not mine) notwithstanding, this is the pure rock shit (*****).
Dry Nod's long-awaited release (you've got the ashtray, now buy the album!), sentimentally titled Dry Nod Live in Concert (Double Naught), sent me to the books and a re-reading of Lester Bangs' rock-crit classic "A Reasonable Guide to Horrible Noise" (from the collection Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung). What I was looking for was some reminder of why it is that certain ugly or dull pieces of music -- and with the exception of some slow, pretty and relatively pointless tunes, Live in Concert counts -- inspire such simultaneous love and loathing. What I found was more or less what I already knew, which is that in a namby-pamby musical culture hawking pablum accoutered with varying degrees of pleasantness, the band that will make a God-awful racket just for the sake of making a God-awful racket earns a sacred place in the hearts of whatever adventurous listeners may be left. Dry Nod's live shows have earned them a small cult of followers that will blather for hours about the subterranean complexities of Nod's guitar maelstrom, but that's them, not me, and I can only tell you that when the moon is right, this is good noise. That doesn't, however, mean that I can recommend it to our general reading public, because I know what kind of crap you listen to, and this is a different sort entirely (***).
Likewise, most likely, the Linus Pauling Quartet's Immortal Chinese Classics Music (Worship Guitars Records), which, it should be noted, comes equipped with the best cover art and liner notes (by Charalambides' Tom Carter) of any local release in memory. The Worship Guitars label is a good example of truth in advertising (unlike Shake and Jack's Jalapeno label), and strummers Ramon Medina and Clinton Heider put their instruments through a ringer of everything from chiming, dreamy Brit pop ("Larry's Song") to the Sabbath-esque guitar-cock duels of "Linus Theme" (still my fave local rock song). "Hamburger Girl" is awfully pretty, and disc leader "Narimasu Heights" is terminally annoying, but there's lots of worthy middle ground, and just when you think the noodling is about to go too far, there's a blast of punk frenzy like "Drop It" to bring it home again. Buy a dozen -- it's too cool not to become a collector's items (****).
-- Brad Tyer
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.