With the rodeo upon us and SXSW nearly so, there's no better time for Noise to set his house in order than right now. Actually, he probably should have done this awhile back, but one thing or another kept distracting him and led to mountainous piles of local CDs on his desk. Trust him, there's plenty more to deal with either in print or online in the weeks to come (MacAdams, Diane Landry, Versecity, Lazlo, Leaf and Paris Falls, your turn is coming...soon), but as the best of Houston's fertile crop of recent releases, these five discs deserve to be dealt with right now.
Cavernous, Cavernous: You have to admire a band that has no time for either vocals or song titles. This Katy-based prog-metal quartet's self-titled debut is simply split into six Roman-numeraled passages that have all the time-signature changes, labyrinthine riffs and "Unforgiven" overtones you could possibly want. Cavernous is anchored by the rhythm section of Clint Black's nephews Marshall and Brandon Black (sons of CB's brother Kevin, a talented singer-songwriter in his own right), but nepotism means nothing in Cavernous's universe of sprawling guitar work, terse soloing and whipsaw rhythm changes. Somewhere, maybe, Lemmy is wishing he'd never left Hawkwind.
The McKenzies, The McKenzies EP: One of the newer bands to cause a stir on the Boondocks/Mink/Walter's circuit, the McKenzies display an instinctive grasp of power-pop conceits that nearly qualifies the quartet as prodigies, if not savants. That designation may have to wait until they release a proper LP (at least), but their debut EP brims with the sort of melodic intuition more experienced bands are still trying to figure out. "Shall We Booty Dance" is a delightfully bratty kiss-off ("I never want to see your stupid face") that conceals its poisonous sentiment in an irresistibly upbeat indie riff, while the equally jaunty "Run Run Run" is, perhaps, the spurned party's ska-tinged apology. Farfisa-driven twist-and-shouter "My Baby Doesn't Understand" and chirpy Phil Spector update "The Devil Loves Us" make some attempt at reconciliation, but not before Jodie McKenzie arrives at a sobering realization on the lovely Mazzy Star homage "This Lonely Heart" that reveals a fatalistic wisdom well beyond her tender years: "I know you will become the tragic death of me." Let's hope that doesn't happen for a while yet.
Benjamin Wesley, Geschichte EP: The driving force behind disbanded, fuzzed-out four-string symphony Basses Loaded and low-end minder for rap-rock rude boys Tha Fucking Transmissions, Benjamin Wesley is one of the most gifted, eclectically minded musical catalysts in town. So when he turns his considerable talents toward his own compositions, the results are suitably impressive. "Stepping past the bullshit, that's my hobby," he sings on "People Will Never Stop Being Crazy," and his shoes are spic-and-span on Geschichte (German for "history"). Wesley's six-song EP, the first thing he's released under his own name, is a seamless hybrid of organic and electronic sounds unified by evocative lyrics ("The smell of trouble hangs in the air like rain"). "Ghost Story" weds lonesome Neil Young harmonica and deceptively innocuous Krautrock keyboards, resembling a lost My Morning Jacket track, while "Have You Ever Died?" answers that discomfiting question with a stuttery drum-machine track, fluttery accordion and wheezy Casio keyboard melody. Geschichte is as arresting and engaging a solo work as Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, which, as anyone who's heard Jeff Mangum's 1997 Elephant 6 landmark should know, is not a compliment to be taken (or given) lightly at all.
Wild Moccasins, Microscopic Metronomes EP: If anyone thinks these folk-poppers are simply too adorable to be for real, Wild Moccasins' second EP should shut them up and win them over at the same time. Yes, the "awwww" factor can be a bit hard to overcome (especially if you've seen them live), but the quintet's facility with everything from alt-country and indie-rock to Blondie-ish New Wave is far too effortless to be anything but genuine. Cody Swann and Zahira Gutierrez have the sort of vocal chemistry that's impossible to fake, the former resembling the Strokes' Julian Casablancas's just-got-up nonchalance, the latter Deborah Harry's sweetly cooed CBGB's come-ons. Together, they're like a local Mates of State, steering their mutual affection into the realm of universal pop appeal where nonsense syllables like "da-da-dum" and "oo-oo-ooh" speak volumes. They and their three bandmates create bouncy backdrops that are gossamer without being lightweight, whether the serious campfire sing-along "My Favorites Die," Santo & Johnny-stealing wakeup call (complete with yawns) "Zzzzzzz" or "Shiny Strings," which conceals raw desire in its gentle reggae groove. "Fruit Tea" and "Mailman," meanwhile, are sleek, circular rockers that balance the Moccasins' inherent sweetness with plenty of electric-guitar bite. "What's left to mend?" they wonder on the latter. Not much, to be honest.
Young Mammals, Carrots: Carrots is the former Dimes' first full-length, and first physical product of any kind since 2006's Delilah EP netted the quartet a slew of Houston Press music awards and set the local indie-rock community's hearts atwitter long before a "tweet" was anything besides the sound certain birds make. Three years (and one drummer) later, Carrots adds a Flaming Lips-like sense of wonder to the Mammals' propulsive sound. It's a huge-sounding record, with guitars that reach for the sky and towering drum crescendos, and also the somewhat unfortunate side effect of vocals mixed so far down they occasionally sound recorded for an entirely different album. Still, the Mammals play with an infectious, go-for-broke joy that can be very difficult to capture in the studio, and the songwriting — periodically augmented by a woozy brass choir and judiciously applied melodica — recalls both vintage New Order ("Wires & Buttons," "Stay to the Left") and of-the-moment bands like Vampire Weekend ("Confetti," "Dragon's Wagon"). Late in the album, the slower "The Man in the Cannon" and "Mosquitobot" dip their toes into Brian Eno's warm ambient waters, confirming Young Mammals are willing to try anything in their pursuit of bigger and better things.
Where to find these bands online:
The McKenzies: www.myspace.com/themckenzies
Young Mammals: www.myspace.com/youngmammals
Wild Moccasins: www.myspace.com/thewildmoccasins
Benjamin Wesley: www.myspace.com/benjaminwesleywinder3
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