Matthew McNeal’s Compadre
The opening electric guitar lick on Matthew McNeal’s new debut album grabbed my ear from the get-go. The lick sounded kinda country, kinda rock, and I was wondering which direction we were about to head. McNeal’s Texas twang and the inclusion of pedal steel guitar pulled things toward country, but distorted guitars and crashing drums tugged it back rockward. Songs from Compadre stretch their legs in this hybrid world. What’s consistent is the heartache that spills through the speakers.
Pain and country music go together like beer and jerky, but this Fort Worth artist might have trouble cracking into the country market. Those fans will love “Alonely” with its upbeat take on misery: “I’m a handful, I’m a drifter, I’m a sinner, I’m a mess / That’s why I’m all by my lonesome with a pain in my chest.”
But McNeal will alienate that same crowd with ambitious efforts such as “Bigger Things to See,” “The Wind,” and “Wash My Wounds,” with its doubled and distorted vocal tracks and gnarly guitar tone nestled atop a lush Hammond B3 organ. The sound is more Bad Company than Big & Rich, but who gives a shit about categorization? Recorded at Redwood Studios in Denton and produced by two guys from Midlake, Grammy winner McKenzie Smith (Midlake, St. Vincent, Sarah Jaffe) and Joey McClellan (Israel Nash, The Fieros), Compadre is a well-written, well-performed, and wonderfully produced collection of songs.
McNeal’s lyrics reveal a self-doubting, psychically scarred man, but he sings with swagger and confidence, giving these tunes a slightly schizophrenic feel –– in a good way. Lyrics wrought with woe could be overkill in many people’s hands, but these arrangements vary so much that the theme never wears out its welcome.
McNeal, still in his early 20s, makes an adventurous foray beyond the musical norms that constrain less adventurous Americana songsmiths. Doing so at such an early age bodes well for his future as a writer and singer. Plenty of fledgling artists around these parts could learn a thing or two from him. –– J.P.
The Vandoliers’ Ameri-Kinda
On Ameri-Kinda, the debut album of recently minted country rock super-group The Vandoliers, the honkytonk DNA is as palpable as the smell of sawdust in a barn. On top, though, is the sound of a bar band having a blast getting sloppy. Does that kind of remind you of watching a Holy Moly show or listening to J. Charles & The Trainrobbers? It’s kind of hard not to lump The Vandoliers in with those two and other similar groups. All parties concerned come from musical places not far from punk rock’s avenues and alleyways. But after a couple spins, you start to notice that Ameri-Kinda, the descriptor coined by songwriter and singer-guitarist Josh Fleming (The Phuss) is about as apt as it comes.
Think of it like this: Let’s say you sheepishly like a song or part of a song by John “Formerly Known as John Cougar” Mellencamp. Maybe you can give him a pass on the ol’ “suckin’ on a chili dog” line because “Blue Collar Heartland Ford’s Fall Sales Event” or whatever that song is called makes you feel kind of sad for the subjects of PeopleofWalmart.com. The Vandoliers kick their record off with a song that keeps the parts of Mellencamp songs that actually manage to rock without making you embarrassed for liking it. And liking it, you likely will, especially when the album switches gears into Stockyards hardwood dance-floor territory. Yet even when the tunes are swingin’ like a bottle dangling from Hank Williams’ hand (specifically on album mid-point “Hank”), The Vandoliers sound like their own band.
Chalk it up to Fleming’s delivery. He can wear as many Stetsons as he wants, but this is a guy who fronts a hard-rock band. That punk rock sneer is hard to wipe away, but on most of these tracks, it fits the material handier than a metaphor about cowhands wearing calfskin gloves. And even when it sounds a little mismatched, like on the choruses of “Wildflower,” Fleming kind of sounds like Rod Stewart, underscored by Cory Graves’ Tex-Mex trumpet. The Vandoliers’ sound puts them squarely in the middle of a newer iteration of North Texas’ alt-country scene, but their songs don’t sound like anyone else’s. Ameri-Kinda is an excellent document of how that scene has evolved. –– S.S.
Shadows of Jets’ Grow
Shadows of Jets made a splash two years ago with their self-titled debut album, the brainchild of Taylor Tatsch, a longtime sideman striking out on his own and setting up at a studio in Colleyville. They quickly became known for a slick, eminently listenable sound reminiscent of 1990s jangle pop. That sound is once again in evidence on their new EP. The group is less effective in the minor-key, rhythmic title track, but they soar in the yearning opener “Amanda” and the rueful “Katie Girl.” When Tatsch hits the high notes on the ecstatic track “Feel,” he hits the pleasure centers in your brain. This still-developing band seems to be growing into its groove, and you can hear more from them during their CD release show with Gollay and Dead Vinyl at the Boiled Owl Tavern this Saturday. We certainly hope to hear more from Tatsch and his crew. Grow is certainly a move in the right direction. –– K.L.