Sound Check

When the task at hand is spitting out product for listeners, Houston's music community is nothing if not prolific. Tiny local record labels have multiplied in the last few years, selling their smart-looking wares at live performances, through the mail and in record stores all over the city. Reasonable to dirt-cheap recording rates at popular studios such as Deep Dot, Sugar Hill and Sound Arts have also helped increase the amount of local output, as have the generous ways of Cactus Music, Sound Exchange and other record stores willing to stock the local stuff right alongside the major-label inventory.

Not so long ago, putting out a CD here -- or anywhere, for that matter -- was damn near impossible. Until the mid-'80s, even the major labels had to rely on overseas plants to manufacture the silvery discs in bulk. Now, 12 years after the release of the first domestic-made compact disc (appropriately enough, it was Bruce Springsteen's Born in the U.S.A.), just about any Houston musician with a phone book and some disposable income can go digital.

Lately, the punks and their less aggressive post-grunge playmates have been churning out the most significant -- and visible -- pile of Houston recordings. Compilations have become the most popular -- and economical -- means of releasing music from a wide assortment of different bands. Compilations have become so common, in fact, that the idea behind them is beginning to outgrow its appeal. The trend began on a high note in 1992 with Sound Virus Records' inspired Infected compilation and continued with 1994 collections from Broken Note Records (The Coolest Shit in Texas) and Lazy Squid (Risk Is Just a Part of the Game). Some local labels have been known to foot the bill for production, but usually the musicians handle their own recording -- whether at home, on-stage or in a studio -- and submit the finished song to the label for inclusion. Because of the material's varied origins, the quality of past compilations has veered from wildly inconsistent to just plain lousy.

Well aware of the failures of others, Fuzzgun Records' Marc Reed went out of his way to make the latest addition to the local compilation pool slick and consistent. The 17-song Nothing Is Cool gathers together cuts from some of the most accomplished post-punk outfits in Houston, along with a few from nearby areas to justify the CD's "Texas compilation" subtitle. A few duds aside, the CD proves that, if done properly, a much-abused scene-promoting tool can still pack some punch. Although the contributions to Nothing Is Cool were recorded at different times, at various locales and by assorted producers, the Fuzzgun collection is arranged to flow relatively unimpeded by abrupt changes in style, pace and production quality. Despite thin mixes on a few of the original recordings, the final CD mastering (done at Sound Arts) is close to perfect, giving Nothing Is Cool the feel of a unified work, instead of a mishmash of demos.

Houston's Blueprint provides the compilation's proudest moment with "Duster." Shotgun propulsive and rhythmically precise, "Duster"'s epic hum-along chorus adheres to the brain immediately. There are plenty of other highlights: the South by Southwest-bound Clover donates the space-pop mini-epic, "Under the Surface," from its 1995 Jessica E.P., and the infectious, sand-blasted "Big Cycle" comes courtesy of local thrash fixtures Spunk. On "The Rules," Poor Dumb Basards take an exhilarating stab at fusing the battle-cry choruses of early Clash with West Coast hard-core's offhand nihilism, while Rubbur's "Shame" skips along in a quirky, New Wave-ish trance. On "No One Listens," from Beaumont's Train in Vain, Texas grunge crackles with pop sensibility.

In Austin's Bo Bud Greene, Fuzzgun found a major-label act to lend Nothing Is Cool some commercial credibility. But commercial credibility is all Fuzzgun gets; "Over My Head," Bo Bud Greene's selection, is shrill and awkward. Along with Mumbletypeg's Jane's Addiction rip-off, "Low Day," and drab contributions from god dog and defunct Houston favorite Bleachbath, Bo Bud Greene provides the CD's low point.

Boasting a colorful, silk-screened design by Marc Reed, Nothing Is Cool's cover is an eye-catching triumph. And the music -- for the most part -- meets the high standards imposed by its striking package. (***1/2)

One of the contributors to Nothing Is Cool is high-speed punk pranksters 30footFALL. They handed over the B-grade throwaway, "Damon's Song," a tune most notable for some fine drumming from its namesake, Damon DeLaPaz, who, despite superhuman speeds, is falling off the beat less and less often these days. A better look at what 30footFALL is capable of can be found on Divided We Stand, the group's first full-length release on Fuzzgun. Its 12 songs show a significant improvement in the rhythm section, and accelerate at an unnerving rate and with few hitches. The tossed-off, adrenalized melodies are predictable in their three-chord simplicity, and the lyrical content is largely ridiculous. Cuts such as "Boogers for Brains" and "Tons o' Guns" live up to the silly implications of their titles, and a fit-to-be-censored interpretation of Billy Idol's "Dancin' with Myself" bluntly exposes the original's masturbatory innuendoes.

The kids in town will swear up and down that 30footFALL is the closest thing to Green Day Houston has to offer. Some evidence of that, and of 30footFALL's true fury, can be found in the song "Another Kind of Slavery," which is part of a new local sampler cassette from Houston's Broken Note Records. "Slavery" comes the closest yet to duplicating the band's curious brand of on-stage chaos -- and has a blazing chorus to back it up. Too bad that wasn't on Divided We Stand; it would have given the CD a needed boost. Maybe it was a case of nerves at the time, but Divided We Stand (recorded more than a year ago) sounds like a band holding something back. (**1/2)

Much like 30footFALL, Pull My Finger takes pride in its refusal to take much of anything seriously, though its sound is more indebted to Dinosaur Jr. and the Buzzcocks than Black Flag or the Ramones. Carret, the Magnolia band's area debut, maintains a rapid pace without succumbing to the compulsion to run over any tunefulness in its path. And while band leader Nathan Parsons has miles to go as a songwriter, he has learned that speed is not always the best camouflage for a lack of finesse -- though brevity (Carret's six songs fly by in under 18 minutes) can be an effective weapon. Parsons knows, for instance, that any good song begins with a memorable hook, and the hooks are plentiful on this snappy six-song CD. It's an appealing introduction to a threesome that, whether they care to aknowledge it or not, has plenty to get serious about. (***)

Atticus Finch, on the other hand, could use a injection of frivolity to leaven the material on its debut, Bruised. The band plays the grunge-rock card with authority at times, as toiled-over "epics" such as "Paperboy" and "Love Crime" show, but even the more powerful moments on Bruised are stunted by the band's secondhand sound. Take the ballad-anthem "Martha Mae," for example: its crisp guitar intro is nabbed from School of Fish, its blues-rawk vocal-jam sequence from Alice in Chains, its menacing power chords from Soundgarden and its numbing earnestness from Pearl Jam. Credit where credit is due: Atticus Finch couldn't have recycled better traits from better bands. But what they've lifted has little, if any, trace of a unique personal vision. Regardless of the secondhand ingredients, the production on Bruised (recorded by Bryan Jones at Sound Arts) is impressive -- a stadium-sized mix with crunching, layered guitars and resonant percussion. Perhaps that explains why, with minimal nightclub visibility, Atticus Finch is one of the few local groups to find its way onto Houston's commercial radio. (**)

It's worth a mention that Bruised has the spiffiest packaging and hippest graphics of all the CDs reviewed -- proof positive that the quality of a CD's contents doesn't always measure up to its exterior. For my money though, I'll take the cheap band shot on the front of Pull My Finger's Carret over Bruised's brooding, professionally lit cover photo any day. After all, even the coolest graphics and artwork lose their power to impress if what's inside is a complete wash. Don't let anyone fool you: CDs make lousy Frisbees, and even as coasters, they tend to stick to the bottom of your glass. -- Hobart Rowland

***** Local landmark
**** Worth a small entry fee
*** Sneak in for a peek
** Snap a photo outside the entrance
* Wave as you speed by

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Hobart Rowland