Thoughtful racket... It's easy to be put off by Brainiac's inspired brand of cacophony. It's a peculiar process by which gyrating vocals, unnerving screams, jagged guitars, random looping effects and a standard four-four beat combine for a general feeling of malaise that the group likes to call rock and roll. I'd prefer to equate the effect of Brainiac's latest slab of sci-fi punk, Hissing Prigs in Static Couture, to that of a prolonged, but oddly welcome, panic attack. Headphones only increase the discomfort.
John Schmersal, lead guitarist for the Dayton, Ohio quartet, listens to my comments about the band's third and best full-length CD, thinks for a moment, then decides that a "thank you" is in order. He's not sure that he agrees with what I've said, but he's pleased anyway. These days, Brainiac's members are more discerning about what they accept as a compliment, but not by much. Only a short time ago, any assessment of their work -- positive, negative or indifferent -- was met with appreciation.
"Just to get any reaction was fine," says Schmersal. "When we first started touring, we would rather hear 'they suck' than nothing."
Just be careful not to describe what Brainiac does as lo-fi.
"I don't really understand what that means," says Schmersal of the term used to tag any artist with a habit of hacking around with a four-track recorder and turning the results into music. "I really don't understand the aesthetic of having things come out sounding shitty."
Recorded in a Hoboken, New Jersey studio with Girls Against Boys' Eli Janney, Hissing Prigs in Static Couture sounds the least shitty of all the Brainiac releases, though with song titles such as "Nothing Ever Changes," "The Vulgar Trade" and "I Am a Cracked Machine," it is somewhat dark and depressing.
"It was a cold winter, and we all got the blues, I guess. It's just a logical progression in our evil," says Schmersal, with a muted chuckle. "This one has more fluidity. We're on a bigger label now [Touch and Go], so we had more money to do this one."
Brainiac's first two recordings on Grass Records, 1993's Smack Bunny Baby and '94's Bonsai Superstar, were iffy affairs, where the intentional miscues, jarring jolts and jerky pacing often sounded like nothing but sloppy mistakes. More unified and inherently musical in its approach, 1996's new and improved Brainiac (which also includes bassist Juan Monasterio, Moog maestro/vocalist Timmy Taylor and drummer Tyler Trent) paddles along skillfully for a group that, by most accounts, is supposed to despise continuity. But it would be a mistake, in the case of Brainiac, to confuse continuity with predictability.
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"We like surprises," says Schmersal. "It keeps things interesting."
Brainiac plays Fitzgerald's Friday with Shiner and Celindine. The Washington, D.C. punk outfit Jawbox was scheduled to headline the show, but drummer Zach Voracas' leg injury forced the band to postpone its visit. As of yet, no new date has been announced.
Label activity... Houston's Justice Records has landed another Texas icon, signing Billy Joe Shaver to a multi-release deal that begins with Highway of Life, available in stores August 6. The Spring-based Studiomuse just released the debut CD from Houston-area singer/guitarist Juan Villarreal. Texas Roots, Island Dreams is a 12-song collection of country ballads, love songs and dancier numbers that blends Tex-Mex and island influences.
Etc.... Austin's Fastball did an admirable job of battling back the unruly element at Rudyard's June 22, playing a furious set that included songs from their exceptional Hollywood Records debut, Make Your Mama Proud, as well as a few covers, including a jumpy rendition of the David Bowie chestnut "Queen Bitch." All this despite a turnout lame enough to leave any visiting musician frustrated enough to take a swing at the next idiot who stumbles onto the stage mid-set (which happened repeatedly that evening). Classy to the end, Fastball threw no punches. One hopes the pop-punk power trio will have better luck Saturday at the Urban Art Bar, where they play with fellow Austinites Death Valley and Houston's Poor Dumb Bastards. More casualties to report: Boston founder and guitarist Tom Scholz injured his hand, which means the band had to cancel its August 17 show with Cheap Trick at Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, along with the rest of its tour. Not to worry, though. There are plenty more '70s memories left to rekindle this summer, including Styx and Kansas at the Pavilion Friday. For bluegrass fans, Friday's Bluegrass at the Grand II should be worth the trip to Galveston this Fourth of July weekend. Hosted by the Grand 1894 Opera House, the event features the New Tradition and David Davis and the Warrior River Boys. In Houston Saturday, ambient smart-rockers Shallow at the Urban Art Bar and relentless punk attitude at Emo's Alternative Lounge courtesy of Denton's Baboon. Bringing along his guitar, his Beat Up Ford Band and more than a few good stories, Jack Ingram returns Wednesday to the Fabulous Satellite Lounge. An SMU grad who honed his chops and found an audience in Dallas, Ingram is touring the state behind his current CD, Live at Adair's, recorded at Adair's Saloon in (you guessed it) Dallas. Speaking of Dallas, it looks like Metallica and Soundgarden fans will have to make the pilgrimage all the way there on a Thursday (July 25) to catch the bands at Lollapalooza '96. A tentative Southeast Texas date had been set at Texas World Speedway in College Station, but, alas, it fell through. Also on this year's Lollapalooza bill are the Ramones, still stringing us along on what has to be one of the longest farewell tours in the history of rock.
-- Hobart Rowland