I'll commence on an upbeat note with the Suspects, easily Houston's most devoted acolytes of the Two-Tone aesthetic. Their new How I Stopped Worrying ... and Learned to Love the Ska (note the nod to Dr. Strangelove) is significantly more accomplished than its predecessor, 1995's Ninety-Nine Paid. It's also shorter, which means that every song's a keeper -- or pretty close to it, anyway. The irrepressible "Amnesia," in particular, is the closest this octet is likely to come to airing out ska's stuffy rhythmic and melodic confines while still escaping the wrath of the purists. Like the best recordings of the ska genre, How I Stopped is a breathlessly efficient statement -- fast, fun and out the door before it overstays its welcome.
Brevity is also a characteristic of Houston rapper Rilo Cool's For tha Life of Riley. So why does the CD seem to drone on forever? Maybe because two of the disc's six tracks are alternate mixes of the single "For tha Life of Riley," a numbing, self-indulgent, first person account of Cool's life to date (girlfriend troubles, petty street crime, what have you). The jolting effect of Cool's cocky street patter, backed by a repetitive, mechanized beat, runs its course in the first verse. Then the boasting continues unabated for another three and a half minutes, quickly making the track intolerable. Why Cool chose to include an "instrumental" version of his single is a mystery to me. Stripped of vocals, the rinky-dink rhythmic backdrop sounds like a sound bite from a low-budget police thriller. But then, what can you expect from a CD that's padded out with expletive-laced, self-promotional junk such as "Black House" (Black House being the fledgling label that released Riley)? Trust me, that parental advisory sticker is there for a reason.
Heaps more musical is Cosmic Electric E.P., from the local biracial quartet I End Result. Despite the disc's compressed, low-budget production, the group's tightly wound grooves, dead-on execution and uncanny sense of dynamics percolate through the dull finish. Clearly, I End Result is enamored of its heavier influences, and it shows in the clunky, foreboding lyrics and predictable metal-sludge trappings of "Everyday" and "Face." Sandwiched between those two tracks, however, is the exuberant "Instrum," which evokes the rousing instrumental prowess and lighter pop sensibilities of early Living Colour. Equally good is the disc's closer, "Nothin' to Lose," which is propelled by a simple but unforgettable chorus.
A seasoned songwriter with a knack for clever narrative, East Texas native Mike Sumler reasserts himself with Rain, his first CD in longer than all but his most devoted fans might care to remember. For the most part, it was worth the wait. The 15-song effort deftly combines ethereal, reflective numbers (the title track, "Dreamland," "Billy's Last Time") with spirited, blues-shaded rockers ("Time and a Half") and the occasional honky-tonk shuffle ("Baptist Girl"). While the melange of styles may be the thing that draws a listener in, Sumler's wry, at times hilarious lyrics should be what wins them over -- or else drives them away -- for good. On "Baptist Girl," Sumler sings in a well-weathered baritone, "I was dreaming in a brightly lit pavilion / I was preaching on TV, and then my pants fell down / Well, you were on the front row with the Mona Lisa smile / I woke up wanting you, Baptist girl." Only someone with a twisted wit could finesse a song about a horny minister who's possibly contemplating pedophilia into something that sounds so, well, harmless.
Sensitive young singer/scribe John Egan could learn a thing or two from Sumler. He has all the intensity, but none of the musical invention, needed to lift his debut CD, The Gin Diaries, out of its cumbersome case of the minor-chord blahs. Intelligent, strong-willed sentiments abound on the ten-song disc, and the despair on cuts such as "No Longer Breathing" and "Noise" is almost palpable. But Egan needs to find a less formulaic setting for his angst. There's simply nothing in the way of strong melodies to make his soft strumming and noisy crescendos memorable. And if the tunes don't grab you, then the lyrics don't have a chance to. Perhaps David Rice -- a friend of Egan's who acts as co-producer and plays keyboards and bass on this release -- can aid him in that department. Then again, Rice is probably busy working on his own debut, due out on Columbia sometime -- oh, I don't know -- last year.
Etc.... Drummer Leesa Harrington Squyres has left Carolyn Wonderland and the Imperial Monkeys to spend more time with her daughter. Apparently, the band's incessant touring was making if hard for Harrington Squyres to watch her child grow up. Harrington Squyres hasn't given up playing, though; she just wants to keep it local. Beat Temple/Moses Guest drummer Chris Axelrad is filling her spot in the Imperial Monkeys, and don't be shocked if it's permanent. The band is working hard to keep him.
-- Hobart Rowland