Tuesday, August 24, 2010

REPRINT SERIES: Hating on Blue October (5/17/10)

[Ed. Note: Yep, it's the infamous Blue October article. Presented without edits, it's a bit less harsh actually. Still, I think Furstenfeld fans will still have plenty to hate me for while reading this.]

When I heard Blue October was playing a hometown show here in Houston at Sam Houston Race Park, I laughed. When 94.5 The Buzz pushed, promoted, and prodded me about the show, I laughed. When my best friend's girlfriend played Blue October in the car, I laughed. When 29-95 sent me an e-mail with the question "who wants to see Blue October?" I laughed. After all, this is the same show that had been something of a running joke among me and my friends. But I am the sort of person that loves the whole meta-ironic hipster bullshit enough to actually jump on an opportunity like that. So of course, in between laughing, I threw my hat in the ring to go to the show. I didn't actually think I'd get to do it, but sure enough come Saturday I was strolling up to the race track to pick up my press pass.

The whole thing was a bit of a crazy experience for me. I've never been a member of the press before, not officially anyway. This was the legit sort of thing I had always heard about but had never been a part of before. When I arrived, my name was on a list and instead of a ticket, they handed me a green cloth sticker to put on my shirt to identify myself. Then, through much asking around, I found out about a secret security tunnel where I was loaded up in a golf cart and driven to the VIP area in front of the stage and told I had access to the holy grail of concert seating: the area between the barricade holding back the front row of fans and the stage itself. The place where the security stands. This was the scene behind me:

It's a bit breath-taking to say the least. I took it in stride of course because you always have to keep your cool when doing something amazingly cool. So I stood around, looking amazingly out of place among the photographers with my old torn skinny jeans, filthy old Chuck Taylors that have been through at least three near-death experiences with me, my ever-present hoodie that I will wear even in humid, awful Houston weather, and my complete lack of a real camera. This even earned me a questioning about whether I should even be allowed in that area since I wasn't actually shooting the show, to which I simply pulled out my trusty iPhone and reassured everyone that I was indeed taking pictures that night.

(picture of the Black and White Years)

So I did take pictures, snapping away right when the opening band hit the stage. The Black and White Years are a band from Austin that could probably more appropriately be called "the Reagan Years" given the music they play. These guys fit right in with the current wave of indie new wave bands resurrecting that 80's danceability the kids all love so much. They're a direct product of false nostalgia by a generation that has no identity of its own and wants the identity of a previous generation. So they're basically your average iPod commercial band these days. Being a bitter, cynical, hipster doofus, I wanted to hate them but they were rather fun. Yeasayer and Phoenix are two favorite recent bands of mine and the Black and White Years are like a less weird, less imaginative, less inventive, even more radio friendly version of those bands' sounds mixed together, so there's something shamefully enjoyable about them like fast food. Actually, to be completely honest, if you were to judge just off the two band bill on Saturday night, you might walk away thinking Austin still has a leg up on Houston for good music, even though that's not true at all. The Black and White Years are a general representation of what Austin's music scene has become nowadays, whereas Houston's hometown heroes are, let us admit it, the worst possible representation anyone could ever judge Houston's music scene by, which I assume is where the New York Times went horribly wrong recently.

Blue October are one of the most shamelessly commercial bullshit bands to ever come out of the entirety of Texas, but they try to maintain a sort of image about themselves, or at least frontman Justin Furstenfeld does. Take, for example, what you can see in this picture of the man. Black eyeliner and black fingernail polish to connect with a sub-section of kids that enjoy getting beaten up in high school. Scuffless, probably brand new Chuck Taylors because that's what punks wear and there's literally nothing more punk than post-grunge radio rock! Of course, I saved the best for last, the mohawk. The mohawk is a hairstyle that could not be any less rebellious today if it tried. The evolution of the mohawk traces back hundreds of years, but is perhaps most relevant in the last fifty years thanks to Travis Bickle and punks of the 1980's. Today, it doesn't so much represent them as it does Green Day fans.

The problem here, of course, is what you can't see. Picking up on the Green Day comparison, at least when they sold out, they did it in a way where it's fun to sing their songs while drunk on karaoke night (I defy you to deny singing along to "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" at some point in your life), whereas Blue October's particular brand is to be as absolutely dark as possible while still connecting emotionally with preteens. Justin Furstenfeld isn't a happy man and he'll be the first to remind you of that by constantly mentioning it at concerts, something also known as the sympathy vote.

What you can't see in the pictures are the band's bizarre attempts at being all things to all people. Their songs range from your typical post-grunge, Papa Roach-biting "curse and yell a lot because it's edgy and man I hate myself and want to die" tactic to some truly baffling dabbling in other genres. Normally I wouldn't be against a band experimenting, but it's sad to watch when a band is so clearly incapable of pulling off their own experiments. Occasionally, Blue October have decided to explore such genres as cash-grab adult contemporary influenced by Peter Gabriel, complete with violin gimmick, which works about as well you would think it would. At other times, Furstenfeld has chosen to start speaking in a British accent, which is very odd considering how insistent he is that Blue October is FROM HERE (also known as the hometown cheap pop). Then there's the "we have a sensitive side too" songs which are like the AC songs except slightly less vapid because they occasionally have a real sentiment behind them.

The nadir of the show was one such experiment where Furstenfeld dedicated the following song to his daughter, Blue. That's sweet and all, but the song was just punishingly awful. With a chorus of "up down, up down, up down, up down, yeah, cause it will get hard, remember, life's like a jump rope" it's the sort of thing you imagine that started as something Furstenfeld sang to his daughter in a tender father-daughter moment that has misguidededly taken on a life of its own as a real Blue October song.

But I could sit here and gripe all day and all night. This clearly isn't for me. I'm not the target demographic for music like this. The target demographic is the audience you saw above. Take a good long look at it. That's just what I could show with the limited capabilities of my iPhone's camera. That's just the front of the VIP section. Sam Houston Race Park was FULL. Filled to capacity. How many people were actually there, I can't say. I can, however, say that it explains why Blue October is a platinum-selling band when nobody even buys albums anymore. Something about them resonates with a great deal of people out there that are not me. So while Blue October is a running joke between me and my friends and I can write paragraph after paragraph about what a truly terrible band they are, they connect with enough people to populate a small country. You can make your arguments about what that says about those people or what it says about Justin Bieber fans or the people that keep the guys that make parody movies in business, but that gets into something entirely more philosophical and misanthropic than the point I'm trying to make. The point is that Blue October is doing something right because people like them for some reason. I don't know what that reason is and it's not for me to know because, like I said, I'm not the person they're trying to connect with. So kudos to them on possessing that certain something that captures the ear of the majority of people. Live and let live, eh?

Saturday, August 21, 2010

REPRINT SERIES: KTRU compilation release show (4/19/10)

[Ed. Note: Continuing in our coverage of the demise of KTRU, here's another reprint, this one from the KTRU Live Vol. 2 CD release at Avant Garden. Presented without edits as always.]

It seems like just last week I was at Rice University, enjoying the KTRU Outdoor Show. Probably because it was just last week. One week later, KTRU held another event, not quite on the scale of the Outdoor Show but eventful all the same. On Friday night, KTRU threw a party at Avant Garden for the release of the second volume of their KTRU Live series, featuring live on-air performances from some of Houston's best local bands. Three of those bands turned out at the release party to play their songs from the album and more.

Not quite Listenlisten, but Ben (vocals and guitar) and Shane (horns and banjo) showed up to play some Listenlisten songs acoustically. It had a slightly more laid back feel to it, but since Listenlisten isn't an upbeat electric band to begin with, only having half the band just gave a different, not a better or worse, look at some of their songs. They covered some of their best material, but it was a very short set so it was missing a lot of favorites. Still good to hear these guys anytime they play.

Now in this smokey coffeehouse environment soundtracked by folk music, it's hard not to be reminded of my dad's stories of the 1960's cafe scene with all those legendary folk singers playing to tiny audiences in much the same surroundings. That's exactly what the Literary Greats brought to mind. When the duo busted out the harmonica, I instantly got flashes of a young Bob Dylan and their harmonies seemed directly inspired by Crosby, Stills, and Nash. Maybe it was just the atmosphere, but there was something extremely cool about their entire performance. The only thing missing was the coffee.

That atmosphere sadly faded for the last band of the bill, Doggebi. Throwing out the structured folk music of Listenlisten and the Literary Greats, Doggebi jumped straight into highly experimental improvisational music consisting of a distorted flute and percussion instruments. It was a little bit uncomfortably out there and it went on entirely too long. In fact, it was the longest set of the night. It's music I respect, but there's not much to latch onto. I went through a phase of listening to music like this, but I find myself needing hooks in my music these days. Admittedly though, Doggebi are good at what they do and for the group that's into this sort of thing, it was probably their favorite band all night.

The Secret Prostitutes were supposed to play, but canceled so the night ended a bit early and abruptly. Those KTRU Live CDs were on sale and I of course bought one which has already been proven to be rewarding in itself. As for the show, it was a bit slight but still fun, especially for that long lost folk vibe that fascinates me to this day.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Roky Erickson and Okkervil River - True Love Cast Out All Evil (2010)

True Love Cast Out All Evil is Roky Erickson's first album to get any significant attention in a number of years, primarily because of Erickson's return to touring and the album being a collaboration with indie folk superstars Okkervil River. Unfortunately, it suffers from a lack of thinking outside the box. Erickson is old and respected enough to simply write boring folk music and not to get any flack for it, least of all from his starry-eyed collaborators. Will Sheff is a master of this sort of thing and probably saw that this wasn't turning out to be anything particularly special, but he's also an ardent fan of Erickson and probably wouldn't say it even if he didn't like the music on the album.

Make no mistake, this is a Roky Erickson album, not an Okkervil River album with Erickson singing. Erickson dominates the show and the only touches of Okkervil River you can hear are in the playing. They're clearly the same band that made Black Sheep Boy and The Stage Names, but they're playing sidemen to Erickson and they never try to force any of their sound into it. Erickson isn't a bad songwriter mind you, so the many acoustic songs on this album really only suffer for a lack of much to say. Look at the title. "True Love Cast Out All Evil" is such a basic, pedestrian thought and that is where the songs suffer. Erickson doesn't have much of a statement to make. He's making music because it's fun and he knows nothing else. There's nothing inherently wrong about that, but it means the album is far from experimental, revelatory, or even a significant comeback album.

As these sorts of albums go lately, this album skews less towards the direction Gil Scott-Heron took with his acclaimed recent "old guy struggles through life and makes a comeback album" I'm New Here, which was highly experimental and intelligent, and more towards the direction of Daniel Johnston's comeback last year Is and Always Was. It's a statement of simply still being here, making music, rather than any sort of relevance as an artist. It's enjoyable on a few levels though and there are highlights of course.

The opener, "Devotional Number One", and closer, "God is Everywhere", which incidentally owe quite a bit to Johnston's early work, are fantastic and if the whole album had continued in the pained, lo-fi direction of those songs it would've been significantly more interesting. Instead, the rest of the album's songs are overproduced and thereby made generic. The other highlight is rocker "John Lawman" which actually sounds like the Thirteenth Floor Elevators.

Overall, it's worth listening to at least once, but it's nothing that will actually count towards the legacy of either Erickson or Okkervil River much in the long run. It's a feel good late career comeback album that is ultimately nice but fairly forgettable. (C+)

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

My Fondest Memories of KTRU Rice Radio

It was announced yesterday that Rice University is selling KTRU and it's going to become a news/classical station. This is horrifying news for serious music listeners in Houston. For your casual listeners, the other big stations might be fine. For people that just want to put on Sunny 99.1 at work and veg out while doing reports or something, it works for them. But for those of us that are into more eclectic music, local music, or just want to hear something different, there's only one radio station and that's KTRU. There's a petition to save it, but this seems to be a done deal. With KTRU gone, there will be no outlet in Houston for "weird" music and that's a sad, sad thing for a city with the music scene and the history that Houston has. So with the apparent passing of KTRU, I would like to share some of my fondest memories of it.

For me, it really has been the only station worth listening to for a long time. I remember years ago putting it on early in the morning. I'm not an early bird, so I was tired and in a bad mood. The first song that came on, which was just ending, was the Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds classic "The Mercy Seat," one of my favorite songs of all time. As it ended, I heard something revelatory. The opening drums and acoustic guitar strums of a strange vaguely 80's but still modern sounding pop song. A deep, sighing voice quickly came in, singing lyrics that resonated with me more than most songs ever had before. "Driving in your car, I never, never want to go home, because I haven't got one anymore..." coupled with the upbeat refrain of, "If a double decker bus crashes into us, to die by your side is such a heavenly way to die. And if a ten ton truck kills the both of us, to die by your side, well the pleasure, the privilege is mine." That song, of course, was "There is a Light That Never Goes Out" by the Smiths. I had somehow spent my life up to that point never having heard their music. It struck deep. Soon after, I was an obsessive Smiths and Morrissey fan, living and dying by that man's poetry. It was a life changing moment hearing that song for the first time.

Years later, I was going through a rough patch in my life. My dad was in the hospital very ill with a fifty-fifty chance of survival. He pulled through thankfully, but at the time we weren't sure. I was working sixty hours a week, trying to make money, not knowing what was going to happen in my life. I was driving to visit my dad and there was a song on playing on KTRU. It was bizarre, a sort of electronic, hip-hop, indie rock mish-mash, something I had never really heard anything like before. Afterwards, the DJ came on and said that it was a song by Ghost Mountain off their then-new album Siamese Sailboats. Despite being obviously upset at the time, there was something that hit me about that song. It was so happy and uplifting, strangely catchy and appealing. I loved it. In short order, I became a big fan of Ghost Mountain, then I wanted to see them perform. I made my first trek to Mango's on Westheimer, which would lead me down a path of gradually discovering Houston's amazing music scene and eventually writing for this very website, another life changing moment thanks to KTRU.

There were others, of course, other great bands I discovered, other great moments soundtracked by the station, but those are the two biggest that stand out in my mind. KTRU has been on in all sorts of strange, wonderful, depressing, exciting, and bizarre moments in my life. Its presence has been so greatly appreciated and yet taken for granted up until now. Now losing it is like losing an old friend. Apparently it will still broadcast online, but there's nothing else like it to play in the car which was where most of my listening took place, so it's a bit of a disappointing consolation prize. I only wish there was something that could be done to change the minds of those behind the sale, but it looks like this is the death of worthwhile radio in Houston.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

REPRINT SERIES: KTRU Outdoor Show (4/12/10)

[Ed. Note: Posting this one, without edits as always, in remembrance of KTRU, which today it was announced has been sold and will be gutted and turned into a goddamn news/classical station (isn't that what NPR is for?). Go to these websites for more about that.


For nineteen years now, KTRU Rice radio has held their annual Outdoor Show, a free festival of bands, local and otherwise, food, and free St. Arnold's beer. Given that I will never be smart (or rich) enough to go to Rice University, the Outdoor Show is a perfect opportunity to lounge around campus and pretend like I'm a student while enjoying all of the aforementioned amenities. In other words, I can have my cake and eat it too.

This year it rained so things were running a bit off-schedule. The first band made it to the stage at around 2:00 PM starting a rapid fire succession with a semi-tangible theme running between each band.

The first one, the Homemade Band, led by Rachel Buchman, was apparently for the kids. Playing a sort of classic rock 'n' roll throwback style, Buchman herself reminded me of one of my elementary school teachers and led the children attendees in renditions of mind-numbing kiddie songs. If only there was something on the level of "Bananaphone," recent Apples in Stereo, or, hell, Yo Gabba Gabba, here. Instead, these songs drilled phrases like literally just "cockadoodledoo" over and over again. I'm not sure I would've liked this as a kid.

Next up was the grown up parallel of the Homemade Band I suppose, Office Party. They lived their name, jamming on stage with full suits on like they really just left the office. It reminded me of the old Drew Carey Show episodes where the guys (and Joe Walsh for some reason) formed a bar band after work. They do sound a little bit like that with their classic rock influences, but with a somewhat new wave twist and a singer whose vocal melodies reminded me of Gerard Way. Sound weird? Well there's always the wild card at these sorts of things and that was Office Party, closing out their set with a cover of the classic "Poker Face," yet somehow it was less charming than when Faith No More did it last year.

After that, Wasp and Pear reminded me why I usually don't listen to KTRU non-stop. Much as I love the station, I can't take the droning electronic bands. Wasp and Pear might appeal to some, but I just can't take this sort of thing. Their entire set was one long noise epic which I mostly couldn't handle.

Continuing the experimental tilt of Wasp and Pear, Space City Gamelan did something a little more to my liking. Like their name suggests, they're a gamelan band. But beyond that, they make some very interesting, forward looking music, combining the tradition of the gamelon with beats that I could honestly hear in an electronic/hip-hop song. It's something old that feels new which fascinates me on the level of a musician and as a listener it's just pleasing to the ear.

As if in combination of the electronic and prototypical beats of the last two bands, next up was one of my personal favorites, Ghost Mountain. I actually discovered them through KTRU and that pretty much started everything in my listening to Houston's local scene. A typically awesome show, they ran through songs from the Summer Tapes EP and their full length Siamese Sailboats. They also played a new song that gave some insight into what they've been working on lately. No idea when that will come out, but it seems they're forging a great path ahead.

Ghost Mountain's bizarre form of hip hop infused electronic music gave way to a more traditional form of hip hop when Fat Tony stormed the stage. He performed a short but firey set that for a moment turned a weird music festival into a straight up party.

Finally there was the headliner, Rafter. KTRU has gotten a great deal of criticism over their choice here, but hear me out. Rafter's blend of indie pop isn't anything revolutionary, but it is fun and they actually proved their worth, at least to me. Yes, it's mainstream and the sort of the thing you'd hear in a soundtrack along with the Shins and the Freelance Whales, but I personally have no qualms enjoying that for what it is. It's fluffy, but the choruses are undeniable.

For all the blogger clamor lately, you'd have thought this year's Outdoor Show would be a massive failure, but I say they still pulled it off. While I wasn't a fan of everything and I was initially disappointed there wasn't a more exciting headliner, there were still some great performances by local artists and Rafter, while not quite as great as some of the headliners, was still a solid band with the potential for a bright future. Basically if you didn't have fun at the Outdoor Show this year, you probably weren't doing it right.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

REPRINT SERIES: Shaking off the SXSW jealousy with News on the March (3/22/10)

[Ed. Note: Presented, as always, without edits in the original form I wrote it. Better, worse? You decide.]

Yesterday I woke up and looked at my calendar to see what day it was. March 21st, 2010? Perfect! Having hibernated through SXSW, I was right on schedule to stop being bitter about not being able to get to Austin and meet the return of music to Houston. At Mango's, News on the March was just back from SXSW and what better time to kick off their upcoming tour? But first up were some of their friends (and other projects).

Drummer Ryan Odom's other band, Smoky Mountain started things off with some country infused indie rock, fairly typical of the bands playing that night. They had some good hooks that left me wanting to hear more, but unfortunately I'm not sure they have anything out yet. Still, continuing the current trend toward this sort of Americana indie rock could be a formula for success.

The Candeliers from Milwaukee, WI, took the stage second. With a seven member line-up adding horns and a banjo to the usual band configuration, their sound was that of upbeat jangle pop. The interplay between the guitar, the banjo, and the trombone and trumpet gave me a somewhat unsettling ska country feel that I didn't much appreciate. I did enjoy the male/female duo vocals between their two singers however, something that reminded me (in a positive way) of one of my local favorites, the Wild Moccasins. They also did an excellent cover of "Don't Worry Baby" by the Beach Boys, which not many could do so capably. They did mention that their side-projects, which were also on sale at the merch table, were more psych rock in nature, which I honestly would probably enjoy more, knowing me.

Right in the middle was Buxton, who turned in an awesome set as usual. The recent addition of Austin Sepulvado (from, you guessed it, News on the March) on accordion and guitar sounds really nice over the new songs. I must admit, I'm somewhat disappointed they no longer play anything from A Family Light, but if the new songs they've been playing lately are any indication, they're working on topping that album.

In all the way from Albany, NY, Sgt. Dunbar and the Hobo Banned are News on the March's tourmates so they played second to last. Even bigger than the Candeliers, the Hobo Banned really does give you the impression that they're a junkyard band of hobos that picked up every instrument they could get their hands on. Mixing in a full horn section, an accordion, a violin, musical spoons and sawing, a banjo, and two percussionists, they go above and beyond just adding new layers to a typical rock band. Every instrument is fully integrated and completely necessary to complete their sound. That sound being something almost completely unique, the kind of rock you could only imagine being made by a band of drifters really. All those instruments together in one place, played completely straight, not in a gimmicky way at all. Whatever that conglomeration could be, that's what they were. But not just content with that, they also pulled off another trick: every band member seemed to know how to play every instrument and did at some point in their set. It was damn impressive.

News on the March finally came on at about 12:15 and I was pretty tired again by that point. I was determined, however, to see their set. It was worth it. Though they ran through mostly the same set of their classic heartland music last weekend at their Cactus Music instore performance, they seemed to be having a lot more fun last night. Enthusiastic even after a week of Austin shows, they played their hearts out for about forty-five minutes. News on the March, to me, is something like what I had hoped Monsters of Folk would sound like before I heard them. While that project, in my opinion, came off a bit boring and plasticy, the hearts they played out are what set News on the March apart. The feel-good music could even come off as hollow despite the dark lyrics of suicide and death if not for their intense dedication to it, playing on even in the face of a broken bass amp in the middle of their set. I have to hand it to them for that and wish them good luck on their tour. I'm pretty excited also for their upcoming album, even though there is as yet no release date. Just judging by the songs they played last night though, it's gonna be a brawler.