Raves and wave-offs... Believe it or not, most critics would rather sing a band's praises than tear its work apart -- and I'm no different. In general, I'm of the opinion that the less said about a lousy CD, the better, and I do my best to subscribe to that policy when local music is forwarded my way for review.
I chose this line of work, after all, because I like music, and I don't really get any sort of thrill out of dogging those who work hard at making it -- even if what they do sometimes sucks. Still, everyone has a breaking point. Even the tamest hamster, if prodded enough, can snap. And while significantly larger than a rodent, I, too, have my limits, especially when pestered, however politely, over the phone for weeks on end.
Such has been the case with Madman Justice, a Houston-area quartet blessed with an admirably persistent publicity machine. Apparently, Madman Justice's Houstone Records subscribes to the more-is-better approach, and its flacks have done a bang-up job of making sure the group's debut release hasn't escaped my attention. So far, I've received three copies of Madman Justice's Beautifully Drowned, which seems a bit of a waste. Even so, as a gesture of good faith, I listened to all three.
But alas, even triple repetition can't cover the fact that Madman Justice's collective originality couldn't fill a thimble. Beautifully Drowned's Southern-fried prog-rock boogie centers on the somewhat busy, mock-metal guitar noodlings of Martin Butler and the bodacious pipes of dirty-blond bombshell Stevie MuRee, and it lives and, mostly, dies by their songwriting partnership. In publicity pictures, Butler looks like a cross between Axl Rose and Chris Whitley, but he's no singer and he hasn't an ounce of Whitley's blues-rock vision. Actually, it's MuRee who sounds like Axl Rose -- and hers is an anemic likeness, at that.
But, to steal a line from Spinal Tap, that's nit-picking, isn't it? Madman Justice rawks! Or they'd like to think they do. A Santana-meets-Aerosmith union might sound good in concept, but it doesn't travel particularly well. MuRee does, however, blow a nice flute.
Trying to milk a little holiday mileage out of Carolyn Wonderland and the Imperial Monkeys' CD Bursting with Flavor -- behind which the band has been touring incessantly -- Justice Records has just uncorked the Yuletide CD single Blue Lights. The first of its three tracks, "Blue Lights," is a moving, slow-burn ballad of seasonal longing co-written by Wonderland and frequent band collaborator Kenny Blanchet. Also included on the disc are "Stuck in the Road" and "Oh Yeah," two of Flavor's sweetest songs. Even sweeter, profits from the sale of Blue Lights go to the Children's Art Project at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. A worthy stocking stuffer, I'd say.
Also deserving of being stuffed in a sock or two is Full Frequency Package, yet another local compilation with designs on elevating the profile -- and the spirits -- of Houston's music scene. The 11-song collection was assembled by Jamie Sralla, the guy behind the local music section at Cactus Music and Video. A low-budget producer with generosity to spare, Sralla presides over the tiny Static House studio and its Wayward Sound label. All the bands featured on Full Frequency have been the beneficiaries of Sralla's technical resourcefulness.
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As is Sralla's signature style, the CD doesn't claim to be anything more than it is: a loose aggregation -- a mixed bag, if you will -- of area bands that have stumbled within the Static House orbit. As an introduction to some acts that even many scenesters won't know from Adam, Full Frequency succeeds well. And in more than a few instances, it surpasses that modest goal. Among the disc's highlights are Dissociation's lightning-quick pop-core tidbit "My Alien" -- a catchy, interpretive go at early Lemonheads sprinkled with a light coating of Pixie dust -- and Nougat's "Mend," which boasts whip-smart lyrics and a gorgeous hook. Meanwhile, the subversively slick "East Texas soul" of Nacogdoches natives Terry Wells and Mojo Filter is afforded an appropriately garage-ish edge by the scrappy Static House production, and J.C. Chamberlain's rubbery, redneck disco instrumental, "Then You Go," with its tacky synthesizers and hilarious Jew's harp solo, is inspired nonsense.
At best, Full Frequency Package is a steamer trunk of talent just waiting to be hoisted out of the bayou. At worst, its homespun eccentricities are merely interesting. In either case, the CD is further evidence that satisfying local music is available to those willing to put in the effort to find it.
Etc.... Houston blues guitarist Mark May rang in the release of his sophomore effort, Telephone Road, with an outright balmy November 23 performance at Rockefeller's. Doing his mentor, the late Albert Collins, proud, May and his backup band, the Agitators, blazed circles around their new material. They also lit into tracks from May's debut release, Call on the Blues, which, like Road, is on the national Icehouse/Priority label. At press time, my copy of May's latest was still forthcoming, but if the way May burns through the songs live is any indication, it smokes.
-- Hobart Rowland