Featured Music: Wednesday, August 27, 2003
Side Show

Horses isn’t Jordan Richardson’s main project, just his soulful diversion.


There’s a well-worn musician’s joke that goes like this: What were the drummer’s last words? Answer: “Hey, fellas. Let’s play my song.”

The quipster who originated that one obviously didn’t know Jordan Richardson.

“Somebody should draw a caricature of Jordan playing the drums as a big dog with his tongue hanging out,” said Bart Rose, the drummer’s boss at First Street Audio. And it’s true: When you meet Richardson, anchor of the TCU jazz band for four years, co-founder of local rockers Soviet Space, and now a staff engineer-producer at First Street, he comes across like a big friendly pup — albeit one who can kick the traps like nobody’s business.

As well-known as Richardson’s talents have been around the Fort, a lot of people were still surprised last fall when he debuted a new outfit, Horses, featuring three-fourths of Soviet Space — himself and the Spacemen’s bassist-turned-guitarist Jim Keith, indulging his affinity for the sound of the Fender Rhodes electric piano. Cliff Wright on bass (now doing double duty with the Spacemen) and talented youngster Cooper Heffley (Green River Ordinance, Jerry) on drums complete the band. So if Heffley was sitting behind the traps, where was Richardson? Up front, of course, behind the mic, singing and rendering solid guitar damage on a semi-hollow turquoise Epiphone Casino.

Once Richardson got through apologizing for being a drummer (a habit he’s since gotten out of), Horses’ music was an even bigger surprise. While undoubtedly rocking, the songs were more than just a continuation of Soviet Space’s emo-punk thunder. Nor were they the kind of Steely Dan-ish stuff that sophisto musos tend to essay when trying to let their hair down. Instead, Richardson’s new songs were redolent of nothing so much as the immaculate pop-in-rock’s-clothing of late ’70s-early ’80s masters like Elvis Costello (before delusions of Bacharachian grandeur kicked in) and Squeeze.

Since that inaugural show at the Moon, Horses has played a scant handful of gigs, including one at Dallas’ Barley House where the band received big love from members of sterling Big D pop-rock outfits like Deathray Davies, Chomsky, Sorta, and the Sparrows. More importantly, they’ve recorded a six-song e.p., Surviving the Tradeshow, at First Street Audio (of course).

The songs have a big, expansive sound, with intricate melodies buoyed on waves of crunching guitar and burbling piano. Richardson’s a strong, assured singer, and the band’s performance, while energetic and aggressive, never steals the spotlight from the tuneage. Moderate tempos predominate — these Horses, uh, trot and canter more than they gallop.

Trumpeter Daniel Hardaway adds some spice to the proceedings, playing a Harmon-muted solo on “Heaven in Seven Steps,” a tune in 7/4 time that Richardson wrote as a tribute/homage to Miles Davis — like “Seven Steps to Heaven,” dig? The trumpeter also blows open horn on “Keep You Close,” a song written and sung by Keith, which has the sleek contours of an old Chicago hit from the ’70s but with a chopped guitar hook straight out of Queens of the Stone Age.

“We’re a really silly band,” said Richardson of his new project. “Some guys go home and play video games; we have access to a recording studio. Although sometimes, what starts out as angelic inspiration winds up as drunken off-key New Kids on the Block.” But to the discerning ear, Horses’ sound, which Richardson calls “indie soul,” really represents a new step in his — and Jim Keith’s — maturation as musicians.

“In this band, things are really loose,” said Richardson. “We’re not worried about where it’s going.”

“We don’t need to rehearse a lot,” said Keith, who’s spent time lately flexing his musical muscles with former Brasco leader and new San Franciscan Kevin Aldridge. “We all feel comfortable improvising.”

Lyrically, the happy drummer takes on bleak subject matter, like the death of a relationship (in “Impressed,” with music by Wright that, in a just world, would be blasting out of radios everywhere), the Laci Peterson murder through the eyes of her unborn child (“Heaven in Seven Steps”), and the Wedgwood Church shootings (“The Prophet”).

Both Keith and Richardson emphasized that Soviet Space remains their main musical priority. But back in spring of 2002, Richardson was getting tired of the modern indie-rock scene and the tendency of bands to emulate the current flavor o’ the month. He started going back and listening to the soul music of Motown — particularly Stevie Wonder — and Sam Cooke. That influence, along with a little Wilco and Son Volt, inspired him to write a set of songs that he didn’t feel were a good fit for Soviet Space. Besides, he wanted to play guitar. At the same time, his bandmate Keith was just discovering the joys of the Rhodes, an instrument he says “you can’t sit down and play without coming up with something good.”

The decision to recruit Keith for Horses was an easy one for Richardson: “He’s my best friend.” Richardson remembered Wright from high school, when they played in rival bands (“West Coast ska versus rap metal”), and he knew of Heffley through the city’s jazz community. While busy schedules resulted in all the parts on Surviving the Tradeshow being tracked on different days, Richardson gives Heffley credit for the record’s cohesive “live” sound.

The e.p.’s title is a gentle dig at Collin Herring’s Avoiding the Circus and, according to Richardson, at the “exclusive and fraternal” nature of the Fort Worth scene. “We’re all band geeks who became cool rock ’n’ rollers,” said Richardson, who once started a “renegade” high-school jazz band that met before classes to rehearse, in defiance of their band director. Said Wright: “We’re not the kind of guys who need to hang out at a bar six days a week. We’ve got wives and girlfriends and stuff.”

As if to prove the point, the members of Horses actually admit that one of their earliest (pre-Heffley) gigs was a three-year-old’s birthday party, where they played versions of Soundgarden and Pearl Jam songs with new lyrics about the birthday boy. “Profitwise,” said Keith, “it was the best show we’ve ever done.” As good as Horses’ music is, that should be a temporary condition.

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