With its outrageous cowboy boots and fringed pant legs, the cover of Sugar Land native Ben Mallott's Look Good, Feel Good had just enough of the bells and whistles to make me think this could be another Texas music wannabe floating along on his Undecided/General Studies degree and daddy's money. But there was also some ironic thing at work, and we all know those Texas music doofuses don't do irony.
I'm relieved to tell you it was obvious from the first song that Mallott is no Texas music wannabe chasing the ghosts of Jerry Jeff, Robert Earl and Pat Green. By the time Mallott took me to the second track, "Shotgun Suzie," a touching duet with Eliza Gilkyson echoing her "Dark Side of Town," there was no doubt this fellow is a serious, gifted songwriter with an entirely unique vocal style: "Shotgun Suzie got high for the first time Tuesday, and mama she ain't comin' back again / she bites down to pass the time, just another concubine to the long happy wait for the end." (Listen here.)
And by the time Mallott got me over to track four, "I Want It All," I knew I was listening to a major talent. Not many 32-year-old honkies from Sugarland can sing - or write! - a soul song that could make Otis Redding proud. What a mellow voice, filled with equal mixtures hurt and hope. The false stops and drum punches complete a sound that could just as easily have been produced at Stax than at Mark Hallman's Congress House studio in south Austin.
As the rest of the album unfolded with tunes like "The Artful Dodger" I realized that Mallott has musical sophistication far beyond his years. I also appreciated that here was young man doing it on his own dime yet eschewing any kind of pandering success formula, not afraid to mix steel guitars and Stax horns, to mix country songs with songs like "Leaving" that sound like the young man has listened to his share of English folkies, although he channels that stuff through some vocal grit that recalls Ted Hawkins at his most plaintive.
Tuesday marks a homecoming and a career milestone for Mallott, whom Austin Chronicle writer Austin Powell recently tapped as one of nine Austin bands set to break out at this year's SXSW: "This is my first time at Mucky Duck and I'll admit I'm excited to be playing at a marquee venue in my home town at last. Thrilled, really, that so many people from home and high school have said they're coming out."
7:30 p.m. Tuesday, February 24 at McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk, 713-528-5999 - writers-in-the-round with Noelle Hampton, Jackie Bristow, Lise Liddell and Andre Moran.
Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.