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A Hero’s Death
With borders so narrowly defined, it’s easy to view post-punk as parody. But the common thread has as much to do with adolescence as pretense. For the best of these bands, there’s something gripping about the passionate boredom, the take it or leave it stance. It’s pretty much how they go through life. Fontaines D.C. is made up of students from the University of Dublin (their suffix stands for Dublin City), originally from the “back-arse of nowhere in Ireland,” who coalesced around their love of poetry. When their poetry volumes weren’t getting them attention, they thought music might. Their 2019 debut album, Dogrel, hit like an electric jolt. The group wasn’t breaking the mold. They were just really good at filling it. The Fontaines revered Dublin’s Girl Band and the Pogues (but sounded like neither). Vocalist Grian Chatten did nothing to disguise his brogue as he sang into the floor, fronting ferocious twin guitar interplay and a barely contained drummer. It was a glorious din. Better still, they seemed to have something to say. “Dublin in the rain is mine/A pregnant city with a Catholic mind.” Like any band finding success quickly, their follow-up, A Hero’s Death, was written and recorded between ever-mounting tour obligations. So, a bit less fussed over if no less thrilling, and a little more well-traveled. Nihilism is a given in this genre, but on “Televised Mind,” Chatten seems closer to comfortably numb. “All your laughter pissed away/ All your sadness pissed away/ Now you don’t care what they say/ Nor do I.” “Living in America” finds him geographically adrift. He’s emotionally lost on the opener, intoning “I don’t belong to anyone.” Yet “Love is the Main Thing” on the very next track, while “A Lucid Dream” conjures a romantic, rain-soaked nightmare. The band remains intense and vigorous throughout these mood shifts, which even include a wistful ballad, “Oh Such A Spring”. The title track, a kind of over-amped skiffle with droning guitars, finds Chatten stuck on a new motto: “Life ain’t always empty.” It’s not exactly “What A Wonderful World,” but for this band, it’s pretty damn close.
– Jeff McCord
Purchase A Hero’s Death HERE
Gotta Be In Love
Lindsey Mackin knows how to bare her teeth and snarl with the best of them. All punkish mentality meets girl-group lilt, the Annabelle Chairlegs frontwoman possesses a growl fit for summoning guitar magnetism. Long-awaited sophomore album Gotta Be In Love doesn’t entirely shed the retro-pop sheen of 2015’s Watermelon Summer, but added grit sees the Austin band explore darker, spookier territory. And a penchant for surf and ‘60s psych-rock conjures up something out of The Lost Boys, the 1987 campy horror film about a teenage vampire gang prowling a coastal California town. “Outside” shivers with paranoia of unknown lurkers (“If you’re gonna go outside, should I warn you?”). Raucous rhythms from guitarist Matthew Schweinberg, bassist Derek Vaugh Nunez Strahan, and drummer Billy Wong animate the urgency of “Silent Spring.” Dizzying compact hooks are the group’s specialty, but “Brain Freeze” showcases Mackin’s full-throttle vocal range over a stretched out six and a half minutes. Two minutes in, the barrage of sound evanesces, leaving only minimal keys and a simple oscillating guitar line. Mackin, ethereal and haunting, floats above until she breaks the spell with a shriek, wailing guitars underscoring her moans about a fickle lover’s “ushy-gushy pieces of brain.” “Candy Apple Red” careens with the neon vitality of a carnival ride on the boardwalk as Mackin spirals: “deep brick red, slick cherry red, shiny rosy red, candy apple red, a stellar deep red on your face.” She might as well be a vampire zeroing in on her next kill.
– Annie Lyons
Purchase Gotta Be In Love HERE
Few debuts, certainly none this year, have been as bold, supple and thrilling as Source. Nubya Garcia is a tenor saxophonist, but calling her album jazz is akin to calling Moses Sumney’s grae (on which Garcia appears) rock. It is jazz; it’s just so much more. Most albums that wander this much stylistically are hit or miss; invariably something feels off or contrived. Yet thanks to sure-footed production and grounded performances, you easily go wherever Source takes you. Nothing here is mired in the past. Garcia is a clear Coltrane devotee, but her music is bracing and modern. Cumbias, elements of reggae and dubstep, vocal interludes, and dollops of reverb dominate. Unlike, say, Kamasi Washington, who drives his band hard to their brain-melting peaks, the music here just seems to happen. It’s a subtle sleight of hand, there are no seams. Everything flows through experimentations, shifts in tempo and emotions, all without calling any attention to itself. Without warning, you find her music grabbing you, again and again. Her quick thinking and well-chosen melodic pathways make her an exciting new improviser. Her previous work – with Makaya McCraven, on 2018’s excellent We Out Here compilation, and on her own previous two EP’s – was more than impressive. But Source is something else entirely. Garcia finds a voice, an identity so rarely set for an artist under thirty, and for jazz, she steers a clear roadmap to the future.
Purchase Source HERE
Passion of the Poets
(Organized Cultura Records)
Two standout local projects, bonded by shared players and a celebration of uplifting, old school hip-hop and R&B. The latest full-length album from Third Root follows the pattern of 2016’s Libertad, packaging in new material with previously released singles, while roping in guests like Bavu Blakes, Black Pumas and Kam Franklin. The sonics, by way of DJ Chicken George and producer Adrian Quesada, are enveloping but never overpowering. For Third Root’s emcees, Charles ‘Easy Lee’ Peters and Marco ‘Mex Step’ Cervantes, both educators, nothing stands in the way of their message. Released on Juneteenth in a summer of social upheaval, Third Root’s raps sometimes trip up their cadence, but there’s no denying their intent. Building up culture instead of tearing it down, hard grooves like the title track and “B.B.G.” (the Black and brown guard) move you in every way possible. Mex Step and Easy Lee, along with Quesada and Blakes also appear on Rise Up, a six-song EP for charity, each track featuring a varied lineup with one commonality, the drumming of the project’s curator, Michael Longoria. Longoria and keyboardist Jan Flemming collaborate with a range of lyricists/vocalists, including NOA, Daniel Aaron Fears, and Ange Kogutz. While most tracks lean towards a refreshing take on neo-soul, it’s the two hip-hop entries that command attention. Tee Double, Tray God and Bavu Blakes lock in on “Olvidalo”, while “Soulstice” finds Mex Step and Lee back in the Third Root hypno-groove. “Skin so brown/thoughts so black/rhymes so deep.”
– Jeff McCord
Third Root: 4.25
Universal Seedz: 4
(Double Double Whammy)
Hannah Read understands distance. After growing up in small-town Silsbee, Texas, the folk singer-songwriter attended college four hours away, drifted around (including a stint in Austin), and embarked on long tours with her musical project Lomelda. She relocated to Los Angeles a few years ago. 2017’s Thx wrestled with this expanse of space, full of night drives on highways etched with loneliness. Hannah continues the same threads but turns inward as Read considers the dissonances within herself and how they permeate into her relationships. She seeks reassurance in one of the three title tracks: “Asked you if you knew / Who I was / You said Hannah.” The seeming non-answer comes at the end of a spotty phone conversation, yet even as she questions herself, Read sings her name gently. Deep empathy drives her self-reflections. “Am I shinin’ / I am tryin’ to shine / Hannah do no harm,” she recites at the end of “Hannah Sun.” The song’s eponymous metaphor reverberates throughout, wrapping the record in soft, “light like kisses” warmth. Co-produced with brother and longtime Lomelda collaborator Tommy Read, Hannah’s sonic landscapes alternately sprawl and shush, interspersing quiet twang (“It’s Infinite”), flurries of synth and strings (“Kisses”) and crashing guitar riffs (“Reach”). In “Wonder,” a driving refrain strums with emotional fervor, building up urgency as it repeats: “When you get it, give it all you got, you said.” Sparsely plucked guitar in “It’s Lomelda” highlights Read’s melodic warble as she references a record shelf’s worth of musicians: Sufjan Stevens, Frank Ocean, Yo La Tengo, Solange, Frankie Cosmos. Nurturing connections to the art that sustains her, she finds a way to reconcile her identity.
– Annie Lyons
Purchase Hannah HERE
The Grassy Knoll
I expect even some of longtime Austin resident Nolan Green’s friends don’t know of his alter ego as the multi-instrumentalist wizard behind The Grassy Knoll. Since the nineties, long before he relocated here, Green has quietly sculpted sporadic recordings of (primarily) instrumental gems. Green composes like he’s writing pop songs — short, cohesive pieces with repetitive loops and hooks, imbued with more than a little menace and a love for guitar freak-outs (Thurston Moore and Vernon Reid are among his many collaborators). Part Jack Johnson-era Miles, part Dario Argento, he makes music too slippery for fusion, too thunderous for jazz, too edgy for chillout, too magnetic for soundtracks. After a twelve-year layoff, Green revived the Grassy Knoll in 2015 with Electric Verdeland, Vol. 1 and a stepped-up interest in vocal collaboration. That trend continues with EP01, a collaborative new four-song project somehow assembled in the least collaborative of times. “Reading My Furious Mind” begins with Psycho-like strings, a nerve-ending sax lead, and dramatic vocals from KUTX’s own Laurie Gallardo (!). The other vocal, from “There’s a Place in Hell Where My Nightmares Dwell,” is by My Jerusalem’s Jeff Klein. Klein’s nursery rhyme-like chorus breaks up his sinister narration, tempered by Chris Grady’s disembodied flugelhorn. It’s evocative and dark, but Green ups the emotional ante even higher on the pulse-pounding “Dead Rivers and Smokey Skies.” For better or worse, this is gripping music made for our times.
– Jeff McCord
Purchase EP01 HERE
Angelheaded Hipster: The Songs of Marc Boland and T. Rex
Hal Willner was an aggregator whose brainy imagination brought musical ‘what if’s’ to life. Beginning with 1981’s Amarcord Nino Rota up until his death from COVID-19 this April (he was sixty-four), Willner crafted wildly ambitious and messy tributes, both recorded and live, covering everything from Disney songs to the works of Charles Mingus, from pirate ballads to a retreatment of the Harry Smith Anthology. He cast against-type and cross-pollinated his musicians. Think Todd Rundgren belongs on a Monk tribute album, or Sun Ra would sound great recording music from Dumbo? No problem. He made albums with William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, produced the most interesting (though rarely the most commercially successful) albums for artists like Marianne Faithful, Lou Reed, and Lucinda Williams. One of his two Kurt Weill homages, Lost in the Stars, might be the best tribute album ever made. Everyone wanted to work with Willner. Due to his untimely death, the Bolan/T Rex-themed Angelheaded Hipster becomes his final project. There are many things to admire here. It’s fun to hear Peaches take on “Solid Gold, Easy Action,” as well as Guatemala’s Gaby Moreno, and long-absent singers like Nena (of “Luftballoons” fame) and Marc Almond, cult favorites like King Khan, Emily Haines, and Elysian Fields. Yet partly because Bolan was a pop star, the arc seems less exotic. Carla Bley or Henry Threadgill do not appear. As great as Bolan was, he was not exactly Carl Stalling or even Leonard Cohen. The arrangements of his songs are carefully crafted, yet some of Hipster, particularly among the better-known artists, feels like more pedestrian fare. There’s one glaring exception – Nick Cave’s “Cosmic Dancer.” Stripped from its straightforward rock treatment, this reflective outlier from T Rex’s Electric Warrior album stands as a monument to what makes Willner so irreplaceable. From what is largely braggadocio, Willner and Cave craft an elegiac ballad that becomes a wistful look back. “I danced myself right out the tomb/Is it strange to dance so soon?”
– Jeff McCord
Purchase Angelheaded Hipster HERE
Clocking in at 15 minutes long, the chilled beats of Slug’s debut EP Loot Takers pop open like a Fruit Gusher, jewel-colored and lush, and melt away with a lingering brightness. White Denim’s Greg Clifford, Soul Food Horns’ Louk Cox and No. 18’s Chase Goldman, all alumni of the UT jazz program, with additional collaborators, recorded the EP remotely across four international time zones. The trio’s released a handful of jazzy, lofi instrumentals under the Slug moniker this year, but with featured vocals from Austin rapper Chucky Blk and Los Angeles’ Nafets, Loot Takers crystallizes the vision. In “Stuck In The Stone,” Nafets unwinds inner anxieties over a rippling psychedelic hook, while a shuffling beat in “Hangouts” gives Chicagon trumpeter Noe Mina a warm backing palette. Blk’s slam poetry background shines in the title track’s cadences as he salutes “the loot takers, the bread bakers and the floor of our loom makers” showing solidarity in protests against police violence. “I don’t owe you none of my civility,” he affirms. Much of the EP reflects its environment. If you wonder how a track called “Springtime Blues” made its way onto a late August release, its musings on the calming power of walking outside ring all too familiar, punctuated with muted brass flourishes and bird calls. Yet none of this falls too on-the-nose, and sly wordplay, complete with fantasy video game references, bring a playful energy. Slug filters reality through delectable production to craft an immersive universe within its short runtime.
– Annie Lyons
Listen to Loot Takers HERE
As much as any singer-songwriter out there, Greg Vanderpool’s music places you squarely in a time and place. To me, it’s a West Texas back porch, watching a distant thunderstorm roll in. Vanderpool named one of his previous bands Monahans for a reason. Though he comes from Dallas’ Deep Ellum scene, Vanderpool and his longtime collaborators keep his music full of desolate atmosphere and wide-open space. Vanderpool wears his influences proudly — Neil Young, Townes — but his style is unmistakable: undisguised narratives, a quiet and keen melodic intuition, and a voice that creaks with a lonesome beauty. Years tick by between Vanderpool releases. His earliest work, with his band Milton Mapes, kept a certain guitar menace at bay. Sub Raton, his first release since 2017’s Pilot, is his most restrained to date. In juxtaposition to our turbulent times, there’s a purposeful sense of slowing down and breathing in. His songs reveal romance and its wounded aftermath, and sound out desperation, a weary resignation, and ultimately a determination to keep going. “I’m counting the stars for you,” he sings, “And I’ll watch the night as long as it should linger.”
– Jeff McCord
Purchase Sub Raton HERE
voyage au soleil
I recall watching Radiohead perform a few years back, marveling at the densely layered atmospheres created right before my eyes. Dating back to the first electric guitar, electronic instruments were built to stand apart from their acoustic counterparts. It takes skill and refinement to blend these elements together, and the synthesis can be beautiful. But this is the age-old problem with electronic music, it’s often so alien that it feels almost willed into place. It’s hard to imagine it being played by actual human beings. numün takes a step back from the polish, leaving the cracks visible. The trio (Gamelan Dharma Swara’s Chris Romero and Joel Mellin, with Bob Holmes from the ambient-country band SUSS) accomplish this simply. There’s not a robotic beat, glitch or bloop to be found; instead, the synths are joined by Eastern tunings, banjos, tambourines, and congas. In place of distance and remove, the music is present; you can almost hear being played around a campfire. In a year of music typified by anxious navel-gazing, this tranquil and absorbing set keeps calling me back.
– Jeff McCord
Purchase voyage au soleil HERE
(The Reverberation Appreciation Society)
Halfway through Interloper, Holy Wave reveals a mission statement, repeating it like a mantra: “ecstasy, energy, jealousy’s elegies.” Perhaps a tall order, but it’s an easy enough checklist for the El Paso-born, Austin-based five-piece that has become staples in the Texas psych scene over the past decade. The band’s fifth record hones in on recognizing yourself as a stranger — in a place, in the past, in your own head. Even as the band muses on such existential anxieties, Holy Wave pours sunshine warmth into its sound, taking care to not burn the edges of your mind. The title track soothes with a blurry reverie that disguises harsh truths: “Sleeping with the enemy / lost all of your energy / searching for security / searching for some purity.” There’s an earned clarity to Holy Wave’s experienced songwriting and a penchant for melody that keeps you moored amidst the noise. A metronomic beat propels “I’m Not Living in the Past Anymore.” Galactic synths and jangly guitars keep things humming in the opener “Schmetterling.” Songs unfurl with languid ease. “Escapism” drifts in ambiance, with waves of sound pooling into each other. “Buddhist Pete” goes for the opposite effect — hedonism over meditation — with a throbbing, head-shaking beat. Yet the track takes its time getting you there, stretching out over a trancelike six and a half minutes. Airy and ever-shifting, Interloper paints a desert mirage: it may dissipate at any moment, but the vision’s tantalizing enough to keep you grasping.
– Annie Lyons
Purchase Interloper HERE