Raves and wave-offs... Evidently, Liquid is just getting started -- or so says the group's leader. Bassist Kyle Watt has assured me (in a somewhat defensive manner) that the Houston quartet had yet to establish a real flow when they sat down to record Liquid, their new eponymous debut.

As it happens, that's pretty much how Watt prepped me for the demos from his previous disaster, Clever, a short-lived band most locals would have been happy to forget, had they ever heard of them in the first place. At the time, Watt said Clever "plays melody-based high-energy rock" that was "not unlike the Gin Blossoms or Counting Crows." Actually, the group's hollow sound was stripped of anything resembling either band; it was also rather lacking in melodies and rock energy. To his credit, Watt seemed eager to accept outside criticism (in my case, he stopped just short of demanding it). When he got it, he digested it all and, maintaining his positive outlook, returned to the studio with an overhauled lineup and a new name. Thus Liquid was born.

I'll say this much for Watt and the rest of the band: They've worked their tails off to be noticed. And they've even found a few fans. I, though, am not one of them. Liquid is an awkward, lifeless affair, its '80s cliches rammed home methodically, one after the other, in an audio test pattern of sterile competence. Even worse, the singing -- while technically adequate -- is mired in enough over-the-top, stadium-rock mannerisms to make even a Sammy Hagar fan cringe. Get beyond the embarrassing vocals, and you find cheesy synthesizer doodling and wishy-washy guitar effects that dull whatever impact might have been extracted from this unwitting morass.

I trust that wasn't Watt's intention. Nevertheless, most of Liquid winds up sounding suspiciously like a numbing aggregation of the '80s hacks Watt and his pals likely made fun of in high school. But rather than carrying the college-rock torch of, say, Echo and the Bunnymen or the Smiths, Liquid's buff nothingness churns up stale memories of Night Ranger, the Outfield and Men at Work (the declining years, of course). Indeed, Liquid is the perfect 12-track tribute to MTV's mustiest relics. As for the lyrics, I'll leave you with this bit from "Don't Change Your Mind": "Hey there, what you got in mind / Undressing me with every blink of your eye."

Words to melt a Winger groupie's heart.

Tree-loving militants... It appears the battle lines have been drawn between Sound Exchange's Houston and Austin locations. At the center of the action: a floor display. Understand, this is not just any floor display, but one of a limited number of hand-painted plywood Christmas trees distributed to select CD outlets to promote Pavement's new CD, Shady Lane. Houston Sound Exchange received one; its Austin namesake did not. The slight has caused a rift (albeit a tongue-in-cheek one) between the two stores that has spread to the Internet, where an e-mail campaign has been launched by those who want the thing in Austin.

The Austin Sound Exchange people claim the band's label, Matador, sent the display to Houston by mistake, that Austin was its actual destination. Not true, claims the Houston store. Matador, for its part, wouldn't comment. (Who says record execs can't be smart?)

Whatever the case, it looks like the tree is staying where it is. "We're hanging on to the thing," says Houston Sound Exchange's Kurt Brennan. "Maybe we'll even have a bonfire with it."

That's just the sort of comment that has the Austin Sound Exchange folks on edge. And upon realizing that the Houston store would only be stocking a small number of the Pavement release, Sound Exchange's Austin web site engaged in name calling, dismissing the Houston staff and its customers as "pinhead weasels."

Brennan, meanwhile, sees the spat for the joke it is. "And by the way," he adds, "I never said Pavement sucks."

Etc.... What images spring to mind when you think of the electronica craze? Tragically hip, bleary-eyed youngsters writhing to pulsing grooves in some dark, decrepit warehouse, maybe? Baggy trousers, tattoos and nose rings, perhaps? Apparently not if you're the powers that be at the Houston Chronicle. The cover of August 17's Zest supplement touted dance music's "new wave" while showing a dance floor at the semi-trendy Liquid Lounge teeming with conservative white-collar types bopping like wannabe disco ducks. Sure, fun knows no barriers, but Levi's Dockers and preppy, plaid sundresses don't exactly jibe with electronica's underground image. Then again, maybe the Chronicle knows something I don't. Or maybe they're just pinhead weasels (and I never said electronica sucks).

Houston guitar hero Jimmy Raycraft is back in action with a vengeance. After a nine-year hiatus, the Dishes alum is currently doing double-time on area stages, fronting his own trio, the Roaring Calhouns, while continuing to play guitar for Beans Barton and the Bi-Peds. Friday, Raycraft and his Roaring Calhouns (fellow Bi-Peds Wiley Hudgins and Jim Jackson) headline at Dan Electro's Guitar Bar. Then they return to Dan Electro's Saturday to open for Beans Barton before finishing out the night as Bi-Peds. Man, somebody call those guys an ambulance.

-- Hobart Rowland


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