Featured Music: Wednesday, November 5, 2003
Killer or Filler?

Why Cowtown’s bereft of adventure and some local c.d.’s that prove it.


Scanning Fort Worth’s lush pop music landscape — buzzing with madmen like Tony Diaz and John Price in their fast cars with no brakes, filled with the delicately opulent yet sturdy skyscrapers of longevity built by bands like Bertha Coolidge and Flickerstick, resounding with the battle cries of modern-day warrior poets like Mr. Aggravated Foe and 6two — you’ll notice that this universe is getting smaller and smaller for certain bands. Not only can I not remember the last time I saw the always unfamiliar and always great Benway play live, I can’t recall seeing their name on any marquees over the past few months. (If they’ve broken up, forgive me: I didn’t get that memo.) My last encounter with a fringe act must have been when I stumbled into the Moon a couple of weeks ago and heard some guy with a big dip in his mouth, some sort of trucker ballcap on his dome, and blue jeans tucked into workboots struggle to pluck the riff to “Copperhead Road” on his mandolin. Other than that, I just can’t recall one really outré band or performer that’s gigged recently.

The explanation (I think): Times are tough, and the decent-to-big draws seem to be the only bands worth a club owner’s or booking agent’s time (or so the club owner and booking agent suppose). You’d think that from the rubble would come at least one big, great, sloppy outfit of noisicians or avant gardists or at least one big, great, sloppy noisefest. Nope, not in this town. Apparently, when the going gets tough, the tough — club owners, booking agents, and live local music buffs — cling to accessibility’s safety and warmth like an old blankie. Is it any wonder Bill Pohl and Underground Railroad’s “Prog Night” at the Ridglea Lounge is about as healthy as a crack baby? No one wants to listen to that challenging shit, that shit that might actually make our souls think. Just bring on Exit 380 and keep your mouth shut.

It’s just sad. And everybody seems to be playing along. My in-box contains pretty much a lot of similar-sounding stuff, only under different names. (Could the dearth in adventurous c.d.’s on my desk be blamed on the movers and shakers’ reluctance to book adventurous acts? Follow the logic: If these musicians aren’t gigging — e.g., if they aren’t making any money — how in the hell could we expect them to be able to afford studio time?)

I don’t believe that outré rock could actually appeal to people raised on Looney Tunes and Mickey D’s and become a Next Big Thing. All I’m saying is that without some challenging music there’ll never be any good new, not-so-challenging music. Never forget that it takes an aggressive outfit like Benway or a pAper chAse to open a mind to a non-mainstream-yet-accessible act like The Theater Fire or The Engine of the Ocean.

Now, since you asked, the reason Nirvana et al. were the last NBTs likely springs from a little phenomenon called the fractured listening audience. See, there’s a radio station (and glossy magazine) for nearly every type or genre of music known, and each station has its own little portion of the listening population. The overall listening audience is now too splintered for one segment of listeners to constitute a majority and thus move the market. Another possible explanation: We could have this NBT all wrong. Maybe it’s not the artist or band that sells the most records or appears on the most glossies who should be crowned “NBT”; maybe it’s the artist or band or genre even that effects the most change in the overall sound of popular music.

If that’s the case, then we could point to underground dance music as a Next Big Thing, one that’s happening right under our noses. Underground dance’s influence is beyond expansive. You can’t find a Top-40 song or an important mainstream pop album of the past five years that didn’t in some way depend on a hallmark component of underground dance, like repetitive rhythms/drum loops or overly rhymed and staccato lyrics or — most importantly and most ambiguously — urban flava. (The connection between the ’hood and dance music goes back forever.) You may be able to name one recent non-dance-related disc after a while, but I bet you’ll rack your brains first.

No two decades really sound alike, and this is because as instrument and production technology improves (or worsens, depending on your taste) popular music changes. Why then, you ask, does every frickin’ rock band rip off the MC5/The Stooges/The New York Dolls, bands from 30-plus years ago? Well, for one thing, the ’70s seem to be happening all over again — the genders are a-warring heatedly, the country has its grimy mitts in other people’s shit (and pockets), the gap between rich and poor is growing acres by the day, the world economy is sucking. And, for another thing, the people who are running The Industry — if they know anything about popular music and rock (and they may very well not) — vaguely recall when their older brothers used to lock the bedroom door, kick out the jams, and do something that resulted in a weird aromatic haze in the hall. “Garage Rock” or “Stoner Rock,” whatever you wanna call it, is simply the perfect soundtrack to a perfectly fucked-up world. You can hear the suits say, “I remember that shit! Let’s market the hell outta it!” Hence: The Hives, The Vines, The Strokes, etc.

And, for another thing, we’ve pretty much hit a wall: Even the casual observer thinks everything’s already been done — in pop music, classical music, visual art, architecture. It hasn’t, but it appears this way, because we’ve gotten dumber and have lost whatever little ability we had to embrace the new. As long as local club owners are more scared of scheduling a good-but-untested band than they are of wearing steak underwear in a lion’s den, we’ll remain content in Cowtown with the same interesting but innocuous bands we’ve been seeing every day for the past six months. The names, they just run together, don’t they?

Return to Forever ... Again?

Chances are, if you’re reading this column, you likely have some interest in local music. You may also have spent a recent weekend or two on the town seeing live local music. Chances are also that you’ve come across a slip with a CD-R and a postcard of some oldish-looking dude standing by a body of water inside. These discs are everywhere — bathrooms, on tops of newspaper racks, next to the drink coasters at the bar. The name of the guy is Russ Walton, and he’s like Jandek but better — and I mean that in a good way. Lemme explain ...

I believe Russ. I believe he’s seriously disturbed. Like, really fucked up. The disc is just him, an acoustic guitar, some alternate tunings, and a few spacey sonic FX. The music’s dark, moody, impatient, dissonant, amorphous, and indecisive. Reminds me of Oar, a record Moby Grape’s Alexander “Skip” Spence wrote in the late 1960s while in an insane asylum and recorded in 1969, playing all the instruments. Talk about fucked up: Nothing’s in tune, everything’s off beat, and Spence’s voice is all over the map — from a haunted, precious falsetto to a smoky, far-away groan. But the shit works. Unlike anything you’ve likely every heard before. It’s gospel, blues, rock, psychedelia, everything in one. You’d have to be one crazy bastard to pull off something like that. Crazier than a clown who blankets an entire city in CD-R’s. I’m talking ka-ray-zeee.

This same spooky vibe emanates from Russ’ drink coaster. He may be a bit too self-serious and consequently come off as just another talentless anti-establishmentista, but if you listen closely enough you’ll discover that Russ, like other great acoustic impossibilities of yore (including Jandek and Spence), is merely picking through the remains of a fragmented, decimated city of styles and holding the most interesting objets up to the light. Glassy-sounding acoustic guitar, off-key singing that’s closer to talking than actual singing, and impressionist, nearly unintelligible lyrics that are best experienced in the gut rather than understood in the head. These phenomena get mixed by Russ into a promise you just know won’t be kept but will go on believing in anyway. It’s not as if the guy avoids being accessible. But by keeping the proceedings improvisational, Russ allows his songs to exist as half-developed ideas, à la Jandek. “Music” or “sonic art”? Who’s to say? All that matters is whether or not it’s “truthful,” honest, not gratuitous. Russ’ stuff is. Truthful, that is.

Wilco fans, stay away. Same goes for anyone whose idea of “experimental” involves symphonic renditions of Metallica songs. (Whoever let that happen needs to be shot, BTW.) Folks who wanna take their ears a little further from the norm but who still refuse to go past the place where hooks and harmonies dare tread; folks who gaze on Ornette Coleman’s saxophone of a thousand buttons in abject horror; folks who never leave their Cheap Trick or Beach Boys records too far out of reach might find a kindred spirit in Russ — he’s definitely out there, but not that far. In one gleaming moment, “Pockets of Proof” pushes Russ over nervous acoustic strumming and some randomly plucked acoustic lines into a haunting chorus that begins as something Dave Matthews might have sung at his poppiest and ends in orchestrated mini-cacophony. And dig the eerie guitar echoes on “Sense of Urgency” — they shake the entire foundation over which Russ tries in his weakest, most disassociative hush of a voice to warn us of ... something, I dunno. If it weren’t for the melancholy and — dare we say — “catchy” vocal melody, “Sense of Urgency” would be one helluva frustrating listen, especially if the song’s erratic, unnerving textures never culminated in any sort of catharsis, like the emotional rewards I love so much. Thankfully, I got my rocks off here, and you will, too ... if you’re open to this kinda stuff.

So in this, the day of recycling once-new styles, the old soul like Russ Walton who makes simple (not simplistic), edgy, nearly timeless music is just another reason we shouldn’t give up completely on new ideas or new ways of looking at things. He’s no rock savior, that’s for sure. But he’s a testament to the idea that it’s OK for someone ’round here to get a little ka-razy. You go, Russ. Grade: B

Please Shoot Me

This should be enough to make you spit your lunch up into your lap: On their new e.p., Stop Rock and Roll, local punkers The Charismatics cover The Who’s “Baba O’ Riley,” Fugazi’s “Public Witness Program,” Blondie’s “Rip Her to Shreds,” and The Ramones’ “I Wanna Live.” (Go ’head, take a moment and clean your mess up. ... Welcome back.) Actually, nothing’s really that offensive or egregious. But you know these guys could have had so much more fun here if they had altered the tunes, even just a little. The covers are almost so perfect and so honest to their source material that they’re generic. I can’t see why anyone would plop down good hard American currency to hear these songs. Might as well drop some coinage in the jukebox and punch buttons all night.

Which brings me to a point. The Charismatics aren’t newbies; they’re vets of the Texas rock scene. They’ve earned whatever cred they have. The point: Covering classics is a cheap way to generate fans. It’s like saying, “Well, even though my little sister’s mac-and-cheese may not taste like Boston Market’s, it sure does look like it!” Eh, no. I’ve had your little sister’s mac-and-cheese, dude. One dose was enough, especially when the real deal is available at the nearest strip mall.

The moral of the story: Nothing against covers, but don’t waste your time investing a lot of elbow grease getting them into c.d. form. Spend your time honing your craft by writing new original shit. Please. For the children. Grade: C

You Missed

Awww yee-ahh. Fort Worth ain’t called “Funkytown” for nothing. This here’s the club capital of the world. We got dance clubs and reggae clubs and live PA bands rocking big-ass tents filled with ravers and ...

Uh, yeah. The truth is that there’s actually no good reason why Fort Worth was given the nom de plume of Funkytown — unless, of course, you mean that Fort Worth is a little weird because it’s sohhh devoid of any sort of alterna-urban culture; then, yeah, we’re “funky.”

When I think about what my man DJ Iglou must do for fun on his weekends, I can only come up with the word “Dallas” (even though I have no real idea what goes on in that wretched land; I’m guessing there’s more alterna-urban culture there than here; there has to be at least one club where a guy who likes spinning records could feel at home, but ... I dunno). Here’s this young guy who by virtue of his new and eponymous solo full-length knows how to patch a few beats together in party-happy ways, chilling in the Fort. Like, what’s he supposed to do for work? Dee-jay weddings for X-popping teenagers? There’s nothing here! Iglou’s continued use of an 817 exchange just baffles me.

Anyway, his new disc. Pure synthetic, right-up-in-your-speakers, terribly mixed dance that’s not as bad as you might think. The DJ’s at his best when he’s slowing things down and going for a more musical vibe (“Styles”) as opposed to a simply trippy, dreadfully repetitive, and painfully tinny one (“Hello ... Who’s Dare?”). All Iglou needs is someone who knows how to work a mixing board and create some depth in his sound choices to really shine. Grade: C+

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