Back in June, when my friends learned I was leaving the Austin Chronicle for the assistant music editor post at the Press, most of them reacted like I had just told them I was moving to Siberia. Let's face it, as far as music scenes go, Houston will never be Brooklyn, or Berkeley, or Austin, and for that I am profoundly grateful.
Thirteen years is a long time to stick around any city, even one as laid-back and inviting as Austin, so by the time the Press job came open, I was more than ready to leave. With all due respect to the hundreds of talented, dedicated musicians in the capital city, all its festivals, "entertainment districts" and relentless self-hype as the "Live Music Capital of the World" (please) have turned Austin into nothing more than a musical theme park, somewhere tourists come to gawk at the longhaired, tattooed types and buy a few trinkets at Waterloo Records or on Sixth Street before heading home.
Furthermore, Austin's rampant real-estate boom is finally coming home to roost, as skyrocketing property values — even on the previously placid Eastside — force musicians and others employed in the bar/nightclub industry to seek refuge in more affordable rural enclaves like Buda and Bastrop. And a proposed noise ordinance that could drastically alter downtown Austin's musical landscape looms overhead like an especially angry thundercloud.
Houston, meanwhile, has its mind squarely on other things, like (from what I can tell) football, theater, museums and money. Mostly money. This does not always bode well for its music scene — Houston's long history of paving over and/or ignoring its rich heritage, musical and otherwise, has been sufficiently bemoaned elsewhere for me to go into it here — but it's not all bad, either. It means that musicians who do choose to stay here — and enough do that Houston has as legitimate a claim to being Texas's second city as Dallas or Denton, and certainly more than San Antonio, Fort Worth or El Paso — can create and operate free of the often-overwhelming expectations that come with plying their trade in an overcrowded, hypercompetitive market like Austin.
Besides, the Houston and Austin music scenes have long since developed a bizarre sort of symbiosis. More than a few Austin bands are made up of members born and/or raised in the Houston area, and those bands in turn count on the Bayou City as one of their primary touring markets, often drawing bigger crowds at their Houston shows than at "hometown" gigs. Otherwise, Houston's sheer size dictates it will be a touring destination for all but the most niche artists, and many of those still drop by just before or after SXSW and ACL.
Houston's reputation as a nest of tin-eared philistines isn't founded, either. Last year, critical darlings like Interpol, Spoon, New Pornographers and Rilo Kiley sold out some of the city's largest venues with little to no commercial airplay. Others, like Wilco, Six Organs of Admittance and Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings are on the way. And last I checked, there's no Austin date on the Van Halen reunion tour.
So let's all just relax, take a deep breath and get ready for 2008. Here's hoping it's as fertile a year for Texas music as 2007. Following are my picks for last year's outstanding Texas albums, more than half of which make me right proud to call Houston home.
Okkervil River, The Stage Names: Now that Spoon's Britt Daniel has relocated to soggy Portland, Okkervil frontman Will Sheff is line-for-line Texas's finest under-40 songwriter in any genre, drawing from several (pop, folk, indie-rock, etc.) for his starkly detailed, emotionally saturated character sketches. On Stage Names, Sheff stops worrying and learns to love life in a band, sailing toward the next gig on a grand refashioning of the Beach Boys' "Sloop John B." See Also: Ian Moore, To Be Loved; Zookeeper, Becoming All Things; Jana Hunter, There's No Home
Lyle Lovett & His Large Band, It's Not Big It's Large: Klein's best-dressed bandleader returns with a CD/DVD combo of Lyle being Lyle, by turns playful, reverent, despairing and pie-eyed in love. Bing Crosby meets bottomland blues, with mentor Guy Clark guest-starring on "South Texas Girl." See Also: Gene Watson, In a Perfect World; George Strait, 22 More Hits
Bring Back the Guns, Dry Futures: Had all gone according to plan, Futures would have made this list in 2006, maybe even 2005. But after one of the worst recording experiences in recent memory — fired bassists, erased hard drives, etc. — the local quartet's debut is a herky-jerky, prog-influenced testament to the power of perseverance. See Also: Octopus Project, Hello, Avalanche; Motion Turns It On, Rima; Explosions in the Sky, All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone
Miranda Lambert, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend: It didn't exactly do Carrie Underwood or Taylor Swift-class sales, but this Lindale (near Tyler) spitfire's second album single-handedly showed that mainstream country can still be down-to-earth ("Famous in a Small Town"), self-effacing ("Guilty in Here") and, if you happen to be the abusive-boyfriend type, downright dangerous ("Gunpowder and Lead"). "Love Letters" was one of the year's better ballads, too. See Also: Patricia Vonne, Firebird; St. Vincent, Marry Me; Hearts of Animals, Lemming Baby (EP)
Insect Warfare, World Extermination: A blood-curdling double-barrel shotgun blast of straight-up noise and information-age rage ("Mass Communication Mindfuck," "Self Termination"). The machines may be taking over, but the local grindcore trio ain't going down without one hell of a fight — even though it's not exactly crystal clear just whose side they're on. See Also: Linus Pauling Quartet, All Things Are Light; Amplified Heat, How Do You Like the Sound of That; Lions, No Generation
Fatal Flying Guilloteens, Quantum Fucking: Houston's long-running standard-bearers of jagged-edge garage-punk crank out their finest set of sloppy, kinetic, stage-destroying songcraft to date. The next time you pass out in the gutter and come to with all sorts of mysterious cuts and bruises, Quantum Fucking probably had something (or everything) to do with how you got there. See Also: Something Fierce, "Teenage Ruins" (split 7"); Teeners, "Hit Me" (7"); Bulemics, ...Still Too Young to Care
Billy Joe Shaver, Everybody's Brother: When he wasn't (allegedly) shooting people in the face, Waco's former official Texas State Musician and eternal outlaw poet laureate toured incessantly behind the best honky-tonk gospel album in a long while. Shaver's religious philosophy may not be the most nuanced ("If you don't love Jesus, you can go to hell"), but after a lifetime of hard knocks, his hard-won faith is hard to argue with. See Also: Willie Nelson, Ray Price & Merle Haggard, Last of the Breed; Johnny Bush, Kashmere Gardens Mud; Asleep at the Wheel, Reinventing the Wheel
Jesse Dayton & Brennen Leigh, Holdin' Our Own: The ex-Houstonian Road King and his Minnesota-born, Austin-dwelling partner genuflect toward all the great country duet tandems — George & Tammy, Conway & Loretta, Johnny & June — but their pitch-perfect stories of shapely short-order cooks and ne'er-do-wells enrolled in the "Two Step Program" hold their own indeed. "I guess we hung the moon," Dayton sings, and they very nearly did. See Also: Texas Sapphires, Roadhouse Gems; Mice & Rifles, All Kites Up; Rachel Loy, Tongue & Teeth
UGK, Underground Kingz: This sprawling, steamy double-length Gulf Coast rap treatise debuted at No. 1 — the only local album to claim such a distinction last year — before tragically becoming Pimp C's (born Chad Butler) diamond-studded, gold-certified, Grammy-nominated epitaph. If indeed "there's a heaven up there for real G's," though, we'll see him again. See Also: Lil' Flip, I Need Mine; Chingo Bling, They Can't Deport Us All; Paul Wall, Get Money, Stay True
Z-Ro, Power: His first album since serving out a parole-violation bid, Power finds Houston's self-proclaimed "King of the Ghetto" in an appropriately foul mood. Vividly reflected in his claustrophobic, minor-key production, Z-Ro's world is an exceedingly bleak place where hustling is the only option and survival is far from guaranteed. Though "Lovely Day" injects a rare note of optimism, Z-Ro knows there's nothing romantic about his life or lifestyle: "Fuck that Hollywood shit, I'm from the corner." See Also: Chamillionaire, Ultimate Victory; Trae, Life Goes On; Scarface, M.A.D.E.
Evelyn Rubio y Calvin Owens Orchestra Azul, La Mujer Que Canta el Blues: Calvin Owens keeps Houston's blues flame burning by recruiting saxophone-blowing Mexico City native Evelyn Rubio for this swinging bilingual banquet that effortlessly relocates ZZ Top's "Francine" and Barbara Lynn's "You'll Lose a Good Thing" somewhere south of the border. In a year when American culture seemed in constant conflict with its Latino neighbors, La Mujer was a welcome fusion of the two. See Also: Doyle Bramhall Sr., Is It News; Texas Northside Kings, Texas Northside Kings; Big Robert Smith, With the El Orbits and Friends
Girl in a Coma, Both Before I'm Gone: This female San Antonio trio can count Joan Jett among their fans — Both Before I'm Gone was released in May on Jett's Blackheart label — and they do love rock and roll. However, they love rock and roll as practiced by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Sleater-Kinney and the Breeders, where wistful pop melodies go hand in hand with abrasive, unruly guitars. See Also: Black Math Experiment, All You Need Is Blood (EP); Paula Maya, Paula; Masonic, Things I Am Guilty Of
Macon Greyson, 20th Century Accidents: Members of this Dallas guitar-beating quartet exorcise their "John Q Blues" with more than a few belts from Uncle Tupelo's whiskey bottle, proving, for the approximately 1,835th time, that turning your amps up as loud as they can go is still foolproof, if temporary, therapy. See Also: Lil Cap'n Travis, Twilight on Sometimes Island; Intodown, Intodown; Mandible, (Here Comes the) Mandible
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