Featured Music: Wednesday, August 25, 2004
Killer or Filler?

Same as it ever was, same as it ever was.


The most recent c.d. by Dentonites Sheffield Drive, Who the Hell Loaded These Dice, Anyway?, begins like most pop-punk-garage discs. A big riff rings over crashing cymbals before giving way to staccato pounding and a singer whose inability to hit a single note is gratuitously highlighted by the band’s eternal-slacker ’tude and disaffectedness. No one would blame you for thinking you’ve heard this tune before — 30 years ago.

Every era has its regressions and advances, but only this one claims retro as the favored popular style. Maybe artists have nothing left to explore? Maybe every sound has been recorded in every timbre? Even our most vaunted undergrounders — Martin Sexton, The Roots, The Fiery Furnaces — can’t sing a bar without taking a bite of their forefathers. Maybe originality is dead?

The evidence for this is daunting. Big Radio keeps fans in a sugar coma by shoving down their throats moldy oldies and rotten produce on the major labels’ tab, while the mass media paint everything in a dapper shade of welcomed distraction. And you wonder why punk charlatans Green Day are popular.

Some young local artists acknowledge the problem. The good ones also sing about it. Local pop-punk trio Swilley does both. They allow their frontman’s father to handle band publicity (how un-cool cool is that?), and they write songs full of contemporary takes on true old-school themes. The band’s first recording in nearly a year, the three-song Swilley, moves to classic punk steps, accompanied by doo-wop-ish background vox and unrequited-love letters. The most certifiable whine is addressed by singer Caleb McQueary to a loved one, who could be another punk rock musician. “I’m saying / Stop complaining / About everything, you don’t know who you are.” A tacit admission, the line is ignited by smoldering frustration. These boys aren’t afraid of admitting to anything, including fear and social impotence. “It’s another endless night,” McQueary sings on “Designated Loser,” “and if I’m lucky, I just might / Make out with someone three years younger than me.” How pathetic and right on. Burning with a steady rhythm that appears to drive the band forward, the lyric indicts both false hope and the self-deprecating musician’s typical plight, the perpetual holding-out for the sun in a storm.

Grunge, lots of folks say, was the last original musical style. Not true. Simply heavy metal in D instead of E, grunge was the last Next Big Thing. The most recent original pop music style was rap. Arriving at a time when frivolous $80,000 dance songs lorded over both the radio and popular consciousness, rap was made by young, impoverished African-Americans from the detritus of the increasingly pervasive popular culture: the instrumental breaks in disco platters, record players, nursery rhymes, tv commercial jingles. If dance music was sequined polyester gleam, rap was the gray of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. The black community, which because of de facto segregation embraced art as a vehicle for expression, clung to the new sound, making it a hit. Sub-styles — gangsta, West Coast, crunk — have come and gone. A uniqueness remains.

You might be inclined to toss rapper D’Mac’s latest mix c.d. into the “strictly underground” pile for sounding nothing like the handiwork of Ludacris, “Fiddy” Cent, or any other Hot 97 star. But that’s not saying he’s completely non-catchy. The Fort Worthian honors the past not by milking it but by turning his back on today’s radio rappers. His sound is underground gangsta that’s mostly “Screwed,” or slowed in tempo to a molasses-like consistency. Popular among underground scenesters, “Screwed” music was created by the legendary Houston turntablist DJ Screw in the mid-1990s. The style is OK after some getting used to, but in its pure form is too inaccessible for commercial radio. D’Mac knows this.

The disc opens with an intro, followed by a stripped-down head-spin on top of Missy Elliot’s “Work It,” in which the wheezing siren and bounce rhythms remain but the lyrics are changed to D’Mac’s original words. Music, this song seems to say, is not merely an abstraction but a ton of just-poured concrete, heavy yet easily malleable.

Most underground rappers or rockers wear street cred like a badge without risking anything, neither obsolescence nor being ostracized. They could — with the right amount of chutzpah, analytical English, and an honest melody in their hearts — come up with something new. Instead, they often spit up a chunk like Live at the BPL, by 25 %toby, a side project of The Polyphonic Spree’s Toby Halbrook. The album is straight outta the suburban garage: buzzing lawnmower guitar, rhythms with the propulsive force of a heated argument with the mailman, splashy above-ground pool cymbals, everything smelling of lazy-day heat and the blunt reality of social isolation. It’s all pretty cool but not original, not by quality garage-rock standards. A real shame, since nuevo lo-fidelity sparkle occasionally percolates to the top.

A little less than half of the 14-song album rocks well. “My Baby’s Clean” is 45 seconds of lip-smacking fury, while “Ready Slow” (at 1:45) proudly sports a melody lifted from some Stone Temple Pilots jam. Equally spirited are the anthemic “I Go Down,” a young man’s inner stud released from its husk of decorum, and “Junior High,” a hilarious, mellow acoustic reading of a teen-ager’s emotional confusion.

Live, produced by Todd and Toby Pipes at the titular studio (Bass Propulsion Laboratories), does achieve a hint of newness via yesterday’s proto-punk. An old-timey fudged note or two (or 12) relieve the disc of being simply one big Top 40 wink. The fleeting moments of inspired, believable rockery consequently land in your lap like gifts.

The problem is that most of the c.d. is too haphazard, too referential, too cool for cool’s sake. The band tries to write off excessive sloppiness as creativity unleashed, but too much is too much. The songs about killing loved ones and/or yourself are handled with large gobs of sarcasm, but when you’re dealing with one of the greatest creative themes in all of art, fear equals avoidance, equals dishonesty. A little bit of honesty would have done wonders for this record.

Leaving us with some (largely rhetorical) questions: Is there something new, something original happening? If so, how do we hear it? Or maybe all of this stuff around us is truly original? Who’s to say? If a twentysomething Green Day fan hasn’t heard it, it’s new to him, right? l

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