Strange Rumblings in Tejas

the soft set
I hit the road Saturday morning for Kerrville Texas. The day before I had undergone a root canal, my first, avoid if possible. I spent the rest of that day loaded up on pain killers watching a batch of new DVD's purchased in a desperate attempt to ward off depression. The Criterion editions of Straw Dogs, Contempt and The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum are all highly recommended. The last being particularly relevant for the sorry reactionary mind state prevailing in America at the moment. I try to tell people that Bush is an aberration especially in regards to Texas, unfortunately this matters less and less as he becomes an increasingly dangerous and persistent one. America, I fear, has lost its collective mind.

So Saturday morning I set off for Kerrville, it's a beautiful day and I'm not feeling much pain but to edge the odds I pop another painkiller (prescription you understand) and stop for a 24 oz can of crap American beer. Kids don't try this at home. I am, after all, a professional of sorts. The ride is nice and easy, in part because I've got Farewell to Fondle Em in the c.d. player pushing the miles along. Said disc is a compilation of Bobbito's (hip hop/basketball free lancer and all round good guy) now defunct Fondle Em label released on El P's Def Jux imprint. Nothing finer than riding the Texas highways with the windows down and the Cenobites' "Kick a Dope Verse" playing at top volume. As the road unfolds and my mind unwinds I play like Jonathan Richman and start thinking about the Austin rock scene. The following is some of what passed through my mind. Let me stress that this account of the Austin music scene, like everything I write, is wholeheartedly and unashamedly subjective. I do not purport to be any kind of expert on Austin music. But I do have my own band, the Soft Set, and in the process of playing around town I have heard several bands that represent in my humble some of the best of what this town has to offer.

Let me also preface by explaining that I have a sort of love/hate relationship with Austin. I've lived here for over a decade so obviously there are things I like which keep me here, along with your run of the mill inertia. At the same time there are plenty of things that annoy and which seem to be getting worse; a town full of kids who think they're destined for greatness can lead to all kinds of problems. As for music, Austin has more often than not failed to live up to its reputation as an important city. Don't get me wrong there are plenty of bands here, in fact too many. Chances are any random yahoo on the street is in some kind of band; pitch a pebble and you'll hit one. But gimmicks are what tend to go over best, as well as the inevitable crap blues bar bands and half assed punk.

Kino Eye
When I first moved here in 1989 white funk bands and sub-butthole surfers inspired groups ruled the roost. If guys in diapers throwing feces and white dudes in afro-wigs, with little knowledge of hip-hop outside of the Beastie Boys, are your thing, then Austin in the early 90's was the place for you. But there was and continues to be a short supply of what I like best, POP music. Sadly I missed the Austin wave of REM influenced jangle rock that was documented back in 1985 by the MTV show The Cutting Edge. The viewing of which made me desperately want to move to Austin in the first place.

Somewhere in the early to mid 90's the garage rock scene began to flourish here, as in other parts of the U. S.. I'm guessing this music must have been a lot more fun to make than to actually listen to, as even a cursory review of the plethora of singles from the period will attest. Austin always seems to be a little behind the times in regards to larger trends in the indie scene. So currently there is an abundance of so called post and space rock, which receives regular raves from this town's cultural mafia the Austin Chronicle. The Chronicle is a somewhat insular and incestuous bunch with a propensity for expressions like "world class musician" when writing about people like Eric Johnson and Jimmie Vaughn. To their credit, I suppose, they seem doggedly loyal to those whom they take into their fold.

With all that said here are a few Austin bands, which to my ears are doing interesting things. Some of these bands I've heard recordings of, others I've only heard live. Knife in theWater are the most well known of the bands I'll mention. They have a sort of Texas Gothic feel, in the literary sense of that word and without becoming as cartoonish as say, Nick Cave. Their songs deal in dark themes (drunkenness, adultery, murder etc.) usually taken at a codeine pace with the accompaniment of pedal steel. In the right mood it's hypnotic but if you're not feeling patient enough to let the music unfold at its own pace you might find your mind wandering or becoming impatient. Their best stuff has the appeal of a well-written short story. Somewhat similar in feel but with a touch more of a band like Yo La Tengo are the Hidden Persuaders. The Soft Set has played several shows with the Hidden Persuaders all of which have been quite enjoyable. The addition of an electric piano player rounds out their sound in a unique fashion.

Hydroponic Sound System

Two other bands that I've enjoyed seeing live are Kino Eye and Black Before Red. Kino Eye can conveniently be lumped in with the whole retro early 80's post punk movement. But two things set them apart: they tend to avoid the more kitschy elements that plague similar bands and they actually have an appreciation and knowledge of the more obscure bands from this period that informs their music. Unlike Interpol, they know who Josef K are. Black Before Red, on the other hand, has the most affinity with my own band. They make guitar based pop music in the classic sense of those words. Their music is catchy and familiar without sounding derivative. They currently have a three-song e.p. available for download at their website. Not surprisingly all of this music is currently self-released with the exception of Knife in the Water, who are signed to a label out of Chicago. There doesn't seem to be an Austin label that really deals consistently in pop music. This may change though as the fine pop label Misra, the home of many worthwhile bands, has just relocated to Austin from New York.

Finally stepping outside of Austin for a minute, there's a hip-hop collective out of Dallas called Hydroponic Sound System that offers the finest in hip-hop, downtempo and future shock. Based around producers Jeff Wade aka Skinny Fresh and Ruben Ayala there's really no one else in Texas that is pushing boundaries in hip-hop like these two. Even better Fresh and Ruben have just started their own label alternate take records whose first release is an ace compilation of instrumentals called Southern Soul Construction featuring Hydro and other like minded outfits all straight outta Texas. You can check all of this here.

Epilogue: As for my trip to Kerrville I arrived safely and in time to trade some tales with the local yokels at a neighborhood bar. Sunday morning I woke up with no way to hold my head that didn't hurt.

William Crain 2003