Somewhere in the refrain of each Frog Hair song, JJ White gives his audience something to hold onto, a brief phrase or a figure of speech we all have in common. Then, once we've swallowed that baited hook of comfort food, he reels us in, plumbing the depths of the human condition with a psychoaffective verse about a life hyper-examined. Each refrain is a palate-cleansing pathway back into his grim and booming business, putting in work at the life of the mind.
Citing Pixies and Butthole Surfers works as a tagline or a shortcut to referencing the sound of White's band as a whole. And that, along with the surety that honky-tonk figures in the mix somewhere, was my first stop along the way to experiencing Frog Hair. But while JJ White will play before, after and on the same flyer as plenty of guys who took a little from GN'R, a little from The Who and generally a lot from the '70s, Frog Hair doesn't really share a lot with these artists. He's informed instead by something older. At every turn, his material is built on the blocks of the primary sources.
And that's why these songs demand repeated listenings. Decide for yourself which primary source White's cloth is cut from, but the few I’d name would be roughly 90 or 100 years old. Whether it's Hank Williams Sr. or Buddy Holly or the gospel stylings of Elvis Presley, Frog Hair seems to be born, screaming wild, of those forefathers, not The Stones. (The last couple of artists White and I discussed were Floyd Tillman and Mickey Newbury, and the first time I ever got in his car, he had just two CDs, Appetite for Destruction and Nevermind.)
After founding and leaving Houston's great Spain Colored Orange, JJ turned to the use of noise, feedback and delayed echo effects on his vocals, which run through an old telephone receiver. He also did this in his second band, Drillbox Ignition, which I first heard 15 or 16 years ago and still listen to. Both Drillbox and White's next band, Dizzy Pilot, got plenty of notice at the time but are sadly underappreciated today. That hardly seems possible for Frog Hair.
With Scott Ayers (Pain Teens, Dead Links) playing noise guitar — ask Ayers if he ever plays the same thing twice, and he says, "Not really" — JJ is free to focus on melody. Meanwhile, in competition with the noise, bassist Michael Haaga and PJ Yruegaz — using a single, haunting, marching band bass drum emphasized with repurposed crescent cymbals and a pair of cymbals with a pedal — harmonize the band’s sound into antiquity even while the lyrics and the noise continue pulling the material to outer space and back again. You can’t just listen to it once.
JJ has been circling this sound for years. Haaga and Ayers certainly know how to mix melody with noise. They’re known all over the world for using every manner of feedback, distortion and guitar effect to mask poetry in wild, chaotic confusion until the tension just about bursts, making the obscured message pop into focus. It’s something millions of guys with cheap Stratocasters valiantly spend their lives trying to achieve. And in Houston we just happened to have the right tradition for breeding this sort of magic. It’s the same alchemy that made the 13th Floor Elevators, The Moving Sidewalks (or ZZ Top, if you must) and the whole Love Street scene, and on into the '80s punk and hardcore scene at The Axiom. (See also anything by Kings X, DRI or the Alternative Tentacles reissue of Really Red’s catalog.)
That’s a fairly reasonable leap of logic so far. That also brings us right into the beginning of both Haaga’s and Ayers's legends. As evidenced by their rehearsal space, which is in the study of PJ’s house, and which PJ has decorated with a deadhorse poster, and by JJ White's telling me, “Michael said he was inviting his friend Scott to jam with us. He didn’t tell me it was Scott Ayers!” the opportunity to perfect the sound he brought to Spain/Drillbox/Dizzy with this band is as important a moment for the Texas music scene as it is for the band.
Michael Haaga told me, "These songs represent JJ baring his soul, completely, for the first time." Scott Ayers told me he fully expects Frog Hair to play Reading and Glastonbury in 2018. They just shot two music videos with extraordinarily high production values, for "My Best Foot Forward" and "Cannonball," with local visual artists Patrick Medrano and Katy Anderson. Their first out-of-town show, last month at Austin's Hole in the Wall, brought out a crowd of the elite Austin underground.
Their album, debut A Long List of Shortcomings, was just released on iTunes. There's a super-double-secret dry-erase board in their practice space with at least two more albums worth of material, and they're already working the new songs into the live shows. The album-release party is September 23 at Walters Downtown. But you can see them tomorrow night at the Satellite Bar before they get famous.
Frog Hair performs with Mark Sultan, Andy Human & the Reptoids, and Silver Blueberry, 8 p.m. Thursday, August 11 at Satellite Bar, 6922 Harrisburg.
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