Songs of the Year
True, recording technology has become cheaper over the past decade, and even the most antisocial or horrible local singer-songwriter can put out a record. But that ease of access just explains the numbers of records coming out of the Fort, not the quality, and the quality around here is pretty damn good.
Why is so much good music –– good, progressive music –– being made in Fort Worth now? Three or four years ago, only about a half-dozen decent-to-great progressive CDs were hitting the streets annually. Now nearly triple that number is released.
I suspect that way too many people outside of North Texas still think of Fort Worth as just a redneck backwater. Wouldn’t all of those foreigners be floored to know that red-as-red-can-be Tarrant County is also home to some of the most progressive music in the state? I don’t have to trot out names, but I will: Burning Hotels, Pinkish Black, Calhoun, Skeleton Coast, Telegraph Canyon, Quaker City Night Hawks, Secret Ghost Champion, the list goes on. Why haven’t they all picked up and moved away to cities whose coolness and artist-friendliness never come into question? I guess you could say there’s actually a solid scene here.
This city has clubs whose owners treat musicians with respect, writers who take local music seriously, and even some radio stations that spin local music (The Good Show, Local Edge, The Paul Slavens Show).
’Tis the season and all, and if you’re a local-first kind of person, then you need to open your ears (and your pocketbook) to some local music. I guarantee you that the sounds coming out of the trenches –– now I’m talking about local scenes from here to Dubuque and everywhere in between –– is as good as if not better than most of the stuff on commercial radio (or in movies, TV shows, and car commercials).
A lot of musicians and scenesters suggest that Fort Worth’s scene is exceptional. A possible reason, they say, is the Fort Worth Way. Not to be sullied by ex-Mayor Moncrief, who made money off urban gas drillers while voting on whether or not to allow them to operate within our city limits, the Fort Worth Way remains a manner of conducting business –– privately, artistically, or commercially –– in which empathy for your fellow man and encouragement reign. Maybe I’m being Pollyannish. Maybe I’m being provincial. But with only a few exceptions, most of the artists here –– musicians, painters, and every kind of creative type in between –– support one another. Bands don’t go around poaching other bands’ standout players. Bands don’t go triple-booking themselves, looking for the highest offer. Bands don’t talk shit behind other bands’ backs. (Well, most of the time.) Everyone, for the most part, gets along, and the level of friendly competition –– scenes always breed competition, friendly or otherwise –– drives the quality of Fort Worth’s music skyward.
A lot of crap has come out over the past year, but life’s too short to worry over letdowns. Please enjoy this loosely numbered reflection on some of the best, most progressive-sounding music to have come out of the 817 over the past 12 months or so.
12.) “Hold It Down” by Smoothvega, featuring Paul Wall: Despite the standard ghetto-issued synthetic beats (lots of splashy snare and cymbals), the song flows at a head-bobbing pace, and Vega, uh, holds his own on the mic against the big dawg from H-town.
11.) “Strange” by Derek Larson: First heard ’round these here parts on our 2011 Fort Worth Weekly Music Awards compilation CD, the song has been re-recorded for Larson’s wonderful new album, Blood on Blood, and sounds even better: cleaner, crisper, and more melancholy. (The comp song was recorded live.) Why “Strange” is not on regular rotation on The Ranch is a mystery.
10.) “Layin’ Around” by Kevin Aldridge: Oh, nuthin. Just another badass, catchy alt-Americana song by one of the hardest-working singer-songwriters in Texas. Off his first solo album, The Viper Sessions, produced and featuring contributions by two members of superstar Hayes Carll’s backing band, “Layin’ Around” navigates that oft-neglected territory where Fleetwood Mac and The Eagles mingle. (However, mountains of coke were not snorted and orgies with groupies were not conducted during the creation of Aldridge’s record. As far as I know.)
9.) “Room of Strangers” by Year of the Bear: Blissful garage-rock from a newish outfit consisting of scene veterans: bassist Josh “Bear” Browning (Lift to Experience) and the husband-and-wife team of Robby and Jennifer Rux, who own and run Dreamy Soundz, a Near Southside analog studio and record label (Fungi Girls, Skeleton Coast, The Longshots). “Room of Strangers” sounds like it was recorded in a tin can, which perfectly captures the tubular early-’60s vibe that the trio is going for. The supreme loudness betrays the influence of contemporaneity, conjuring up fantasies of V.U.-era Uncle Lou fronting My Bloody Valentine. Over a propulsive beat, a simple, steady guitar riff clangs methodically, hypnotically until every instrument begins to swirl in a maelstrom of artful noise. All that’s missing are some kaleidoscope sunglasses and, of course, some White Lightning.
8.) “Big Whig” (demo) by Sonic Buffalo: Damn, this young band is loud and reckless and can set your hips to shaking –– kind of like if The Phuss and Quaker City Night Hawks jammed onstage together. During a meth binge. “Big Whig,” a furious blast of proto-punk rawk, is emblematic of the Buffalo’s small but growing oeuvre.
7.) “What Is Good in Life” by Vorvon: Bone-crushing bombast, replete with slowly resonating gong bashes during the ceremonial-sounding, intentionally bloated intro, this slab of heaviosity finds the Fort Worth super-stoner rock group (and super stoner-rock group) channeling Conan the Barbarian. When confronted with the existential question “What is best in life?” in the comic book hero’s sweeeeet 1982 action flick, Conan stoically answers, “To crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of de wimmin.” Yep. That’s the song’s chorus. The thunderous riffage and driving beat will force your head to banging as if the massive hand of Conan himself had you by the hair.
6.) “Pick a Family” by Missing Sibling: Another slice of genius from Spaceway Productions and in-demand producer/owner Will Hunt (Burning Hotels, Calhoun, Holy Moly, The Hanna Barbarians), this title track to the new Fort Worth trio’s debut EP should put a smile on any mid-’90s rock fan’s mug. The whispery voice of frontman and current Fate Lion Drew Gabbert is a little J Mascis, a little Evan Dando, and the fuzzed-out guitars and swaying tempo make for a groovy trip down Hazy Memory Lane.
5.) “She Ain’t Got a Care Now” by Foxtrot Uniform: First of all, frontman Kenny Uptain has to have the sickest guitar tone around. It’s as steely and fuzzy as a buzzing chainsaw and always employed in the service of trad-blues riffs that leave cheese at the door. Bo Diddley would be proud. Uptain also has a smoky-smooth set of pipes. Imagine if Quaker City Night Hawks’ co-lead singers, Sam Anderson and David Matsler, spliced together their DNA in a shot glass of Jack. Just one of several kickass tracks off Foxtrot’s delicious debut album, Haj! Haj! Hajrah!, “She Ain’t Got a Care Now” is a quiet, slow-burning, classic-rocking track gussied up by a falsetto R&B-ish ooh-OOH’ing refrain and some cowbell-inflected funk that calls to mind Southern Californian in the 1970s and tricked-out El Caminos. Killer stuff.
4.) “Me or California” by The Longshots: Clangy, splashy, bratty, and catchy, this song is all grooving grit from another local super-group. Featuring two Hanna Barbarians and two young, burgeoning singer-songwriters, The Longshots have just wrapped up recording with Jordan Richardson (Ben Harper, EPIC RUINS, Son of Stan, Skeleton Coast). The popular producer/drummer reached out to The Longshots after one listen to this tune. What makes the song even cooler is that for all of its catchiness and awesomeness there’s probably not a mainstream DJ alive who would dare spin it on air. It’s too rowdy and too wheels-off. And too punk.
3.) “Wild River” by We The Sea Lions: With a gorgeous, heart-wrenching chorus and steely hook sung by frontman Jon Badillo in his sumptuous, yawning baritone, this song off the band’s auspicious self-titled debut rattles and hums, a delirious blend of early R.E.M. and U2. Amazing and electrifying.
2.) “Bodies in Tow” by Pinkish Black: Sinister. Just evil. Above a deep synthetic bassline that growls like a Panzer, drummer Jon Teague bangs out a militaristic beat, pounding the ride cymbal steadily with his right hand while skipping across the snare with his left. “Ambling on to the dawn, to the morning, frozen in time, a life never ending, standing in line, counting down, move along these bodies in tow,” frontman/keyboardist Daron Beck chants, his baritone hollow and stoic, delivering the lyrics as if they were one long word. (One morbid image that may spring to mind is the beginning of Gravity’s Rainbow, in which shell-shocked Londoners are being huddled into a dingy hotel basement to escape the Luftwaffe.) The first track off the duo’s self-titled debut lurches forward to an opening, a light at the end of the proverbial tunnel, when the synths soar and Beck’s voice shifts from recitative to artful. His crooning is desperate and borderline beautiful. Heavy, ponderous, and tightly performed, “Bodies in Tow” is simply masterful.
1.) “Way Down” by The Hanna Barbarians: Wow. What an epic suite. Sort of like “November Rain” but without the pretention, piano, and AquaNet and with a lot of balls. The song starts off with a punch, a bruising bluesy riff and stomping drums, but at the midway point, the waters calm, leaving frontman Blake Parish and lead guitarist Alex Zobel to duet gorgeously in a funereal semi-waltz. Spellbinding. The track was recorded at Spaceway with producer Hunt as part of a series of Barbs EPs to be released over the next several months. To anyone who thought this band had lost its edge, “Way Down” is for you. Right in your face.
Next week, I’ll serve up my favorite local albums of the past year. Try to keep your pants on.