Tody Castillo's self-titled new CD hits you with the stealth and power of a pot brownie. It takes a while to digest. You put it in and sit there and go about your business. About 15 minutes in, when Castillo warbles "God Only Knows" over and over again during the masterful crescendo of the song of the same name, it hits you like a ton of concrete. "This stuff is really, really good," you realize amid a rush of endorphins.

It's first-class modern pop-rock of a very high order, a lush, layered and melancholy river of sound, comparable to works by guys like Ron Sexsmith, Rufus Wainwright and local Arthur Yoria. Castillo's clear, soaring tenor floats amid streams of guitars electric, acoustic and pedal steel -- courtesy of former Yoria sideman Matt Rhodes -- while Paul "Falcon" Valdez's jazzy drums percolate beneath. Its thrills are gentle as those you get floating on the Pedernales River on a summer afternoon when the water is at medium stage -- you drift along with the flow, at peace with the world, as the bluebirds flit through the tall cypresses on the banks.

It's also great rainy-day music, as his in-store at Cactus on February 26 attested. With a crack band including Rhodes, longtime cohort Valdez on the drums, fresh-back-from-New York-and-L.A. bassist Steve Brown and guitarist Matt Hammon, Castillo wowed one of the largest crowds I have ever seen at Cactus for a local artist, and most of those people and more came to his show later that night at Rudyard's.

"The show went really well, dude," Castillo says. "It was weird -- it was packed!"

The CD release show and the disc itself are a satisfying culmination of about a decade and a half of struggle, both here and in New York, where Castillo spent a good chunk of the late '90s. Castillo had succumbed to the common Houston musician's malaise back then: He got fed up and he left town. Don't look for a repeat performance of that act.

"A lot of people start here, and if they have any talent, or they get some momentum going, the attitude usually turns south about Houston," he says. "It's all 'Dude, fuck this town! I hate Houston!' A long time ago I had that attitude, not because I hated Houston but because I really wanted to live in New York. I did kinda use that as an excuse. And then when I went up there, it was cool. There was a great songwriter thing up there, no doubt about it. But then you realize that town is insane. I'm from Texas, I'm not used to paying $1,200 for a tiny piece of shit."

There were also sordid scenes the Corpus-born Castillo just couldn't get used to. "I lived in Williamsburg for a while. I got a basement apartment, 800 bucks a month, first stop out of Manhattan and right on the East River. That was awesome. Short commute, first stop, there was a lot of art there, fairly cheap. But it was a shithole -- it was all old warehouses, half-Polish and half-Dominican and Puerto Rican. It was funky -- we had hookers in our basement stairwell. My neighbor was this Japanese guy, and every now and then he would go out with a hot pot and fuckin' douse them with hot water. He'd go, 'Goddammit, get out of here,' and you'd hear this splash and this whole big ruckus. And I'd be like, 'Mommy, I want to come back to Houston!' "

Tired of being a little fish in a big and expensive -- not to mention scuzzy -- pond, Castillo returned to Houston in 2001. "Moving back here, I thought how great Houston was. It's under the radar, it's not a quote-unquote music town, the cost of living is great, I'm so happy there's not a huge saturation of people here. You know, in Austin it's pay to play, in New York it's pay to play. Fuck that. Here I can make 300 bucks at The Stag's Head playing original music. In New York, you cannot do that. In fact, I don't know of another town where you can do that. I've been talking to my bandmates, and they say it's great here. Let people leave here if they want. We'll just tell 'em, 'Yeah, Houston sucks. Get out, dude.' "

After three years of scuffling solo on the Stag's Head/Harp pub circuit, Castillo assembled a band and cut this CD last April, and it joins Michael Haaga's The Plus and Minus Show as the second truly great -- and I'm talking "great" in the national sense, not the I'm-cutting-the-locals-some-slack sense -- pop-rock CD to come out of Houston in the last six months. The weird thing about Houston is that neither of these two guys has ever heard the other play on CD or live, and neither have the vast majority of the two guys' fan bases. Each can already pack Rudyard's-size clubs on their own. Were they to team up for a show or two, the results could be downright righteous.

Man, the scene here is booming, I tell you. You've got these two guys doing their sublime, mildly psychedelic pop-rock, John Evans released another hot record, Jesse Dayton put out a career-definer, Hayes Carll's got a killer coming out right now, things are looking up for Mando Saenz. Arthur Yoria's still in town. It's looking like a Houston songwriter's renaissance.

Castillo agrees with my effusive assessment. "You remember the early '90s, when it was guys like Sprawl and de Schmog," he says. "That was a lot of fun, but it was more of a party than it was about songs, you know, like songwriter songs. I moved here then, and it was awesome. I was like, 'Whoa, look at all these bands!' But it was just party rock. Seems like right now there's kind of a songwriter thing going on."

Indeed there is. What needs to happen now? Well, as has been the case for many, many years here, some of these guys need booking agents and managers and publicists. "I'm really not feeling the booking thing anymore," says Castillo, echoing a lament I hear from local musicians at least once a month. "I hope it's not that I'm becoming lazy, but that really is a full-time job." (And it could be a lucrative one for someone else, if anyone's interested.)

But damn those torpedoes -- Castillo's forging ahead full-steam. "We're gonna get busy no matter what," he says. "I have connections, and we're gonna hit Texas hard -- Austin, Dallas, San Antonio, San Angelo, Corpus -- regardless of whether we have somebody booking us. I think this project is good enough to attract some outside attention."

Indeed it is.

Tody Castillo appears Thursday, March 17, at The Stag's Head, 2128 Portsmouth, 713- 533-1199.

March Music Madness

All right, Houston, buckle your chin straps. Polish the strips on the backs of your credit cards and set them to "max out" position. Make ready your fingers to push snooze on your alarm buttons, and invent a few sick relatives to kill off to explain away absences at work, for now is the time to get out and hear some music, and lots of it. Yep, it's not just the locals kicking ass these days. With the rodeo in town and just about every hot band from all points east, west and overseas stopping off here on their way to South By Southwest, it's hard to think of a better place to be than right here, right now. Get out and do it, immediately!

You want legends, stuff that's tried-and-true? You got that over at the rodeo, where, where, shit…Jesus. I just looked at the lineup, and some of my enthusiasm for this article suddenly evaporated.

Maroon 5? I liked them better when they were Simply Red. Brad Paisley? Charlie Robison, who called him a "little moron," had him pegged, if you ask me. Pat Green? No thanks. Rascal Flatts? (Shudder.)

But hell, it's not all metrosexual country and pop-soul all the time over there -- Martina's also coming, and she's a'ight, and Steve Miller is said to be getting his groove back, so good times can still be had there this week. And next week's rowdy and rip-roaring lineup of Lynyrd's Rymnynts, Montgomery Gentry, Clay Walker and Clint Black is stronger from top to bottom.

I cannot remember a time when there were more next big things and "they're huge in England" and even "they're big in Japan" bands in this city than over the course of the next two weeks. We have the rare opportunity to sit and pass smug judgment on this year's contenders such as the Bravery, Ambulance LTD, the Futureheads, Louis XIV and Dogs Die in Hot Cars, not to mention models from previous years such as Kings of Leon, the Music, VHS or Beta, Hot Hot Heat and Ash, any one of which could make good on that promise or not this album/tour around. And then there's the transpacific stuff -- Japan's punk-fueled hard rockers Electric Eel Shock and Guitar Wolf, and Mono, a band more on the weird, psychedelic post-rock, Acid Mothers Temple tip.

And then there's the stuff that probably won't ever change the world, but could were this a just universe -- the stuff like Clem Snide, Of Montreal, the Oranges Band, the Heavenly States, Nashville Pussy, Todd Snider -- the list goes on and on and on, and more are being added daily. Check the listings and Playbill for dates.


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