Featured Music: Friday, September 29, 2004
Killer or Filler?

Just lookin’ for one honest sound — and lookin’ and lookin’


Insincerity is everywhere. Fakery, slickness, always trying to fit a preconceived mold, lying — it’s sickening. In interpersonal relationships, insincerity serves (arguably) an important function; it sometimes saves others from big hurt over otherwise insignificant stuff. (“Yes, dear, that dress looks good on you.”) In music, however, it’s always devastating. While I expect a friend to lie to me occasionally, I don’t expect fibs from what I pop into the car c.d. player. Music’s supposed to be beyond our all-too-human afflictions. It’s supposed to represent the best of us. It’s supposed to be honest, right?

Well, it’s supposed to be, but it ain’t always. Now keep in mind that by saying “honesty,” I don’t mean “true-to-life.” Musicians are allowed — expected even — to essentially make up stories and personalities in the forms of songs. What I mean is “artistic honesty,” which you can read loosely as “originality.” I don’t care if the music is out of tune, mildly formulaic, or both, if the artist manages to look inside himself and reveal emotions, thoughts, or ideas specific to him — original and non-clichéd — then he’s achieved Music-with-a-capital-M and is thus worthy of a tip of the hat.

This is very important. When all we are surrounded by are “songs” full of insincerity, lies, and poses, we start to believe that there’s nothing else worth writing about or listening to. Then pretty soon, every singer is yelping about the same stuff. In rap, it’s all about how much cash you have or how many suckas you’ve killed or how many “bitches” you’ve pimp-slapped. In C&W, it’s about how faithful you are to America or your pickup truck or how many Texas cities you call home.

And we just eat it up.

The ramifications for the real world are myriad and scary. We all know that it’s natural to define ourselves through our tastes, in the way that wearing a Clash t-shirt says, “Hey, I’m anti-authority.” But we also know that the more likely we are to force ourselves to, say, actually enjoy The Clash’s music — when our hearts are really pining for Kenny G. — the more likely we are to live frustrated, inadequate, jaded lives. The result: destruction — of ourselves and the world around us.

Most musicians, including many of Fort Worth’s, are flat-out charlatans. They’re either too dim to think for themselves or they’re so cynical about what sells that they try to sound dim — and they pack shows and sell heaps of c.d.’s because insincerity, of course, is what sells. Honesty? Artistic integrity? No one wants to listen to that shit.

Triple-A C&W local Earl Musick is a talented guy. He can craft and arrange relatively catchy tunes, marshal the talents of some of the most gifted pickers and grinners in the Metroplex, and twist phrases into neat little shapes. But after listening to his self-released full-length, Privateer, you may wonder a) if Musick’s listened to the radio in, like, 20 years, and b) if he’s ever parsed a thought deeper than what’s for dinner.

While not “over the hill,” good ol’ Earl ain’t no teenybopper. He should know better. “It’ll Take a Little While” is a “We Are The World”-ish ballad that would make a starving Ethiopian want to puke. By the sounds of the saccharine, heavily acoustic-guitar-inflected instrumentation, it’s obvious that Musick’s heart is in the right place, in the position of trying to get us off our asses to do something about this fucked-up world. So why the singer himself resorts to shop-worn sentiments to get his point across is consequently baffling. “It’ll take a little while,” he sings. “To say enough is enough / And it’ll take a little while / Just to get off our butts / And it’ll take a little while to set things right.” Then the kicker: “Changes don’t come overnight.”

On a literal level, you’ve got to wonder: What’s the point of saying we must do something when no matter what we do, we probably won’t change a damn thing? On an artistic level, you just got to marvel at the clichéd lyrics. See — insincerity. More specifically, the absence of honesty. Privateer, as crisp and musically accomplished as it is, is pretty much devoid of anything that you haven’t heard a zillion times before.

Yes, there’s a song called “San Antone.” Did you even have to ask?

Not as bereft of artistic honesty but equally predictable is Back 40 Star, the spring release of country-ish rockers Jasper Stone. The songs are orchestrated well enough, the playing is snappy, and even the lyrics sometimes reveal songwriters with something to say, but when it comes to musical direction and ideas, this Azle trio is one billboard-sized belt buckle short of a bad Pat Green cover act. There are some inspired moments, such as on “Let the Blues Play Again,” when frontman Ed Voyles twangs breathlessly through a vocorder over a break-down of rim shots and open-chord acoustic-guitar strumming. There are more when the subject of “Trust Fund Drifter” is given his walking papers, followed appropriately by a lusty fiddle riff, and when the heavy “Ashes & Grounds” reaches full gallop, a Steve Earle-ish Southern gothic number that’s darker and wider than the bottom of the Mississippi.

It’s just too bad that these moments are so infrequent. Most of Back 40 Star lays on the Lone Star syrup thick, with little regard for anyone with a taste in anything other than what goes on in East Texas ice houses and honkytonks on weekends.

On the complete other end of the insincerity spectrum, where everyone is the same in their supposed individuality, is this guy called Cave-dweller. A long-time North Texas music scene denizen, the mononymic enigma (a.k.a. Dirk Michener) goes for that un-cool cool thing, and while he often succeeds, he occasionally falls flat on his face. His Achilles’ heel: smugness. Most of the songs on his massive debut, Sugary Glue and a Bow of Bees, are almost too good to be true; they’re soft in some places, hard in others, but always, always perfectly medium-rare. Sounding sloppy, it’s true, requires a lot of precision. Listen closely enough, and you’ll hear the truth.

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