The Bards of Baytown
I'm a sucker for bands that dance around the fringes of twang -- bands that are country-steeped but not country, pop-friendly but not pop, exactly. Anglophile touches don't hurt either, nor do mild tinges of psychedelia. Usually these bands have an exquisite sense of melancholy as well. When it sets aside the Latin stuff, Calexico is one such band; Clem Snide and the Decemberists are two others.
And so too, at last, is Houston's own Scattered Pages, which is now every bit as good a band as any of the aforementioned.
I first saw this trio about three years ago, when it was still a four-piece. The band opened for Clem Snide at Mary Jane's, and I liked what they were trying to do more than what they could deliver at that time. Back then, they sounded like they were striving for a sort of mesquite-grilled late-'60s Kinks vibe. It wasn't there yet at all, but I was hoping they were in it for the long haul.
Three years later, they have arrived. Their new EP, This Is Where the Story Ends, came wafting out of my 14,000-song iTunes library, grabbed me by the lapels and riveted me immediately with its mellow, Harvest-era Neil Young feeling. I had no idea who it was at first -- generally, at work, I play my whole library on shuffle and hope for pleasant surprises, and Scattered Pages was absolutely one of the most pleasant. The title track's brushed snares and breezy, keening guitars forced me to stop thinking of new insults for Blue October or whatever I was doing at the time and pull up my iTunes to find out just who this great new band was. I was as surprised as I was delighted to see it was one of our own.
This Is Where the Story Ends should be where your relationship with this band begins. "Stately Man" recalls Revolver-era Beatles with its backing harmonies and warm, trilling keyboard riff; out of nowhere in the waters of the "Apple Sea" the band launches into a blindingly cool breakdown that could only be termed as "surf-flamenco," while "Before the Last War" sounds like a more ramshackle and rhythmically interesting Son Volt. And "The Boating Party" builds from simple acoustic guitars and plinking strings to a swirlingly dazzling distorted-guitar climax.
Scattered Pages is composed of singer-guitarist Brandon Hancock, drummer Andy McWilliams and bassist Kurt Coburn, all of whom are 28 years old and all of whom have been friends since childhood in Baytown. Over beers at the West Alabama Ice House, I ask the three how their upbringing shaped their music.
"Yeah, you kinda can't get away from country in Baytown," says Coburn. "So that's always there -- it can't be helped."
Hancock's vocals at times, like those of Colin Meloy of the Decemberists, take on something of a British-feeling tinge. As is the case with Meloy, Hancock says it comes from an obsession with Morrissey and the Smiths. The Smiths have always seemed to resonate particularly well with young people here, more so than they do in other American cities. Hancock thinks it has something to do with certain similarities between Houston and Baytown and Morrissey's native Manchester. "They're both industrial cities with bad weather and everybody's dad does the same thing," he says.
Like former Houstonian Greg Ashley, who recently recorded an album near Centerville, Texas, Scattered Pages headed deep into the East Texas pines to record This Is Where the Story Ends. McWilliams's family owns a domicile of sorts near Lake Livingston. "Calling that place a lake house kind of gives it too much credit," chuckles Coburn. "It's more of a cabin, really, and it was January and cold and rainy and we had no hot water, and some of the time there was no electricity either. It was really roughing it."
The band would rise at 10 a.m., eat breakfast, record, eat lunch, record some more, and then start drinking -- a liter of whiskey a night, they say. Then they would get up the next day and do it all over again. Coburn and his bandmates believe that the hassles -- the cold and the power outages -- were outweighed by the benefits. Coburn says that cutting the EP was a welcome distraction from the sessions for their now-finished, soon-to-be-released full-length Lazy Are the Skeletons, which will be out this fall on the San Francisco label Three Ring Records. You can hear a few of those cuts -- which are more elaborate and orchestrated than the EP -- at the band's MySpace page (www.myspace.com/thescatteredpages).
Coburn also believes that the intense, isolated tone of the sessions helped them create a tighter, more focused final product. "By taking yourself out of town, you're able to just focus on the music for a week at a time," he says. "We have seen lots of bands making these records that took a year or two to make, where they would start a song one week, and maybe finish it the next, then do that over and over. And you can hear a lack of cohesion in the finished product."
That consistency is present not just across the span of the album but also within each individual song. The last few years have seen a renaissance of pop songcraft in Houston -- guys like Arthur Yoria, Tody Castillo, Michael Haaga, Lanky and Spain Colored Orange have always rejected the long-cherished Houston notion that musical spectacle trumped actual verse-chorus-verse songwriting, and Scattered Pages are firmly in this new and very welcome vein.
Hancock says that he had that point hammered home to him again and again while reading Bob Dylan's memoir Chronicles, Volume One, and that he's taken it to heart. Still, it's easy to miss the skill in Hancock's lyrics -- the band's music distracts from the substance of what he's singing, though his vocals sound great. He has a very soft-spoken approach on the mike, so you find yourself humming along rather than taking the trouble to learn the words, which often are very dark. "I'm attracted to lore, romantic characters; anything that's ill fated from the outset I enjoy," he says. (Did we mention his dry wit?)
Lately, in addition to their every-other-Thursday gig at Brasil, Scattered Pages has been doing shows with Tody Castillo and Spain Colored Orange, both of whom speak highly of them.
"They're my favorite local band at the moment," states SCO's singer-keyboardist Gilbert Alfaro flat out.
Castillo prizes them almost as highly. "Nobody in town is really doing what they're doing," he says. "They are all really good musicians -- Kurt is one of my favorite bass players, and Andy is amazing both on drums and also all the other stuff he does. People ask me how to describe them, and I say, 'It's this Belle and Sebastian pop thing mixed with like a Tom Waits kind of circus or carnival deal. Very theatrical."
And when I caught the band at Brasil a couple of weeks ago, the final song of their first set reminded me of This Year's Model-era Elvis Costello covering "Jambalaya." Another pithy descriptor that comes to mind is one that Clem Snide used a few years ago: "urban art-country enthusiasts."
But whatever you call 'em, know this: Scattered Pages is poised to become one of those bands you can brag to your grandkids about. And think how superior you'll feel if you're able to tell those whippersnappers, "Hell, I saw Scattered Pages at Brasil. Course that was way before they were famous...Now fetch me that gin and I'll tell you all about it."
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