Raves and wave-offs... For some people, summer means less of a workload. I, alas, am not one of them. As if tracking down the nominees for the Press Music Awards weren't enough to contend with (anybody know where to find Ken Valentino?), from June to September, local releases multiply atop my desk faster than the roaches under my sink. Sometimes (not often, mind you), I wish I were a schoolteacher.
But, hey, why complain? I could be grading papers and shielding myself from incoming spit balls (or worse) nine months of the year. Besides, I've pretty much resigned myself to this season of local proliferation. And a plethora of hometown product isn't necessarily a bad thing; the more Houstoncentric CDs out there, the greater the chance a good one will find its way into the hands of someone with the means and resources to move more than 100 units.
Then again, why leave your fate in the hands of some suit in Nashville, New York or Los Angeles? Why not instead take a tip from Houston's rap and hip-hop acts? DJ Screw is one of the latest in an increasing number of rappers out of Houston who have moved a significant amount of music without corporate connections. Screw's new 3 'N the Mornin', on the local Big Tyme label, has already sold more than 55,000 copies, mostly in Houston and around the Gulf Coast region.
Screw, an underground mixer nonpareil, happened upon a unique, slowed-down style of mixing in 1990. It came to him during his efforts to decipher garbled messages coming from the rap cuts of artists such as KRS-One, Ice Cube and fellow Houston homeboy Scarface. Not one to surrender credit for his invention, he dubbed the style he developed "Screw."
The adjustments in speed and pitch that Screw makes to the prerecorded tracks (some of it original music, the rest tunes from other Gulf Coast rappers) give the effect of a boom box with low batteries. A bleary-eyed mantra for gangstas with plenty of time on their hands, Mornin' ambles along at a leisurely, somewhat ominous pace, as Screw, 20-2-Life, Point Blank and others throw out a fractured street code of mumbled insider messages to their Houston posse mixed with snapshots of ghetto-hardened reality. What's said doesn't matter so much as how it's said -- and how effectively it complements the sleepy flow of the mixes, which are scratchy, not overly busy and imbibed with a well-baked feeling of ease. Screw calls Mornin' a soundtrack for kicking back and getting high. Whether the experience is hypnotic or just plain dull ultimately depends on where you're from, who you run with and, most important, what you're smoking.
You may want to stow the blunts and break out the tricolor bong and lava lamp for Melodic Mirrors, the sort of grand-scale, cosmic freak-out fodder that encourages worried parents to rifle through their kids' drawers for illegal contraband of the leafy variety. Stoners or no, the adventuresome Houston sextet Timmy displays an impressive amount of poise on its first CD, available locally on Timmy's own Bananna Fry Records. Somewhere in the thick hemp haze of Melodic Mirrors, the members of Timmy find an approach that allows them to be both humble and pretentious, with music that has the lofty intentions of art rock yet smartly stays out of the business of making "art."
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On Melodic Mirrors, Timmy fiddles with blues, dinosaur rock, jazz fusion and funk (I feel like I'm forgetting something), though not always successfully. Still, bless their tie-dyed little hearts for having the guts to try. They play their instruments better than they write lyrics, most of which are too conversational and silly to justify space here. Nonetheless, the music on Mirrors rocks intelligently without thinking itself into soulless circles. And the band knows its way around a studio.
Singer/songwriter Ronnie Po also sounds like he knows how to use a mixing board. From a small studio in his Houston home, Po has fashioned a precise, full-bodied pop/rock sound for his local debut, Stranger. But as any artist will tell you, good production is hardly a means in itself. The tunes have to measure up to their packaging, and on Stranger, quality song writing occurs only about half the time. The other half of the time, forgettable melodies and tired phrases flit about unaccounted for. Po is blessed with an almost methodical sense of what goes into a good pop recording; now what he has to do is concentrate more on making his music live and breathe on its own.
Etc.... Secret Sunday, Houston champions of Brit pop circa 1986, will head into Sugar Hill in a few weeks to record their full-length debut with producer Dan Workman. They play their last gig Friday at Emo's Alternative Lounge before taking a break from the stage for a month. Expect the CD in the fall. Awash in personnel changes, on July 10 Alien Swirl finally got it together for its first show in a while at Instant Karma. The band promises you'll see more of them in the coming months; we've heard that one before. Shows of note this week: Ray Benson and Texas swingers Asleep at the Wheel are at Rockefeller's Thursday; they're followed Friday by jazz/soul/gospel madame Oleta Adams and by another acid jazzy Soular Cafe Saturday. Local blues voice Chuck Strong is at the Silver Eagle Saturday, and at the Urban Art Bar Wednesday, there's pop-punk nirvana with Superdrag and Nada Surf.
-- Hobart Rowland