Featured Music: Wednesday, September 10, 2003
Killer or Filler?

Another installment of our writer’s grievances and his opinions on really sincere local bands.


One of the “perks” of writing about local music for a small alternative newsweekly, in a large-but-homey city in Texas, is that you can spark conversation the moment you turn your back. Most of the time, this talk — from what I’ve heard from others, later — revolves around things like how Johnny, you know Johnny, took his car into the shop to have a sparkplug replaced and how he spent three fucking hours loitering in front of the Taco Bell next door before the cops were called and he was hauled in for “thinking terroristic thoughts,” which reportedly were written in the various scowls on his face and in his repeated kicking of stones. Other times, however, talk revolves around stuff like how great and easy it would be to have a job like Anthony Mariani’s — “Shit,” the misanthropes say, “I can get drunk in bars, listen to music, and then write about it. Then show up for work the next day at noon, have a three-margarita lunch at one, go back to work at four — smelling like smoke and booze — e-mail cheesecake to friends, and then party till the sun comes up. Hell. Anybody could do that.”

While it’s true that your writer has a great job, it would be wrongheaded to think that any aspect of said job is “easy” or that “anybody” can do it. I bet that not many people know what it’s like hanging out with musicians and groupies until six in the a-m and being fed drinks just to hear that one juicy piece of gossip that will set the whole scene — all seven of us — talking. It ain’t easy, ’specially when you got a massive blister on your hand that no coozie or amount of Jagermeister can comfort. And I bet that not many people can imagine what it’s like being inundated with free c.d.’s constantly. Have you ever opened 50 big brown envelopes in a single day? I bet you haven’t (bastard). I have, and — lemme tell you — it ain’t fun. I got the paper-cut scars to prove it. (“It places the lotion on its skin.”)

And another thing: I’m sure not many people can fathom the idea of actually writing sentences that make sense grammatically, syntactically, and intellectually while an editor is pointing a gun at their heads. (She just made me remove three — oops, four — carefully crafted and totally creative cuss words from this column, for instance.) Some people have to fly planes or chop down trees to live; I have to hunker down on bar stools, suck on Miller Lites, listen to great music, and then spin fascinating, heartwarming, profound yarns to stay alive. Like pimpin’, it ain’t easy.

Lastly, and on an unrelated note, big shout-out to Danny “Dream” Weaver of the Moon and the Aardvark for coming up with the idea of having local rock stars unplug and jam under the banner of Acoustic Mafia. The monthly event celebrated its one-year anniversary last week, at the Aardvark (’cause the Moon wouldn’t have been able to contain all the folks Weaver knew were going to show up). The highlight of the night — aside from John Price’s version of Morrissey’s “Suedehead” — was when all the well-lubricated musos jumped on stage before closing time and performed something that sounded like Mazzy Star’s “Fade Into You.” What was great wasn’t the fact that a bunch of sloshed young folks were tipping their hats to a wonderful pop song; it was that a bunch of sloshed young folks were, unintentionally, letting everyone know what goes on here, in this town — kickass music by kickass musicians who all actually like one another ... or at least don’t sucker-punch one another in their sleep. Viva Acoustic Mafia!

To Helen Back

Any band that calls itself Dirty Helen deserves to be poked repeatedly in the abdomen with a splintery hockey stick. It’s not that the name is, I dunno, sexist; it’s that it’s sophomoric, like something your seventh-grader brother would think of, develop a logo for, and then draw repeatedly in his social studies notebook. It’s not real. (No one names her kid “Helen,” anymore, anyway.) So Dirty Helen: Silly name and, ah, well, let’s talk about the music, shall we?

There’s a guy out there, maybe a Rolling Stone editor or Clear Channel PD, who somehow — between selling rusty nail clippers on eBay and playing air drums with rulers to 2112 when he’s alone in his bedroom — convinced everyone that it’s OK to wanna sound like Creed. I admit: I like a couple of Creed songs. I don’t care that Creed sounds like Pearl Jam but cleaner, crisper. I don’t care that Creed is Christian (so is U2 — you don’t see people raising a stink over that). I don’t care that Creed is popular among teen-agers who wash their hair with Log Cabin syrup, weep remorsefully into their algebra books when confronted with a word problem, and refuse to nod off during Sunday sermons. And I don’t care that Creed is popular among sexually frustrated prelates. So. There’s someone brainwashing every wannabe musician into thinking that sounding like Creed or Nickelback or 2 Doors Down (or is it “3” Doors Down — not that I give a shit) is healthy behavior for adult males. Me, I wonder what the hell these Dirty Helen guys are thinking, representative of this movement as they are. Isn’t the big question always: Are you trying to sound like everybody on the radio, to get radio play, or are you really mining your muse and having fun? By virtue of the two Dirty Helen e.p.’s sitting on my desk, these guys are serious ... serious about sounding like Nickelback.

I get into catfights all the time because I admit to liking certain bands or certain songs that no one in my circle of friends (mostly musicians and groupies) would deign to endure two seconds of. That Nickelback song, “How You Remind Me”? That’s a great pop tune. Strong vocal melody, complicated but not too complicated song structure, pretty rocking beat. Yeah, the lyrics are typical angsty drivel, but there’s nothing wrong with the way that lead singer who looks like Sammy Hagar delivers them. The moral of the story: Sounding like Nickelback may not be such a bad thing. And I’m not giving Dirty Helen a backhanded compliment by likening them to Nickelback. I guess I’m giving them a compliment.

Still, it’s gonna take awhile, I bet, before Dirty Helen can walk two Canadian blocks in Nickelback’s motorcycle boots. Any trace of being able to continually concoct good vocal melodies just isn’t there, and the structures of most of the songs are weak — differentiating between the chorus and the bridge is nearly impossible; they sound so similar to each other. The bright spot on the one e.p. comes in the form of “Beautiful” (not the Flickerstick song). Soft beginning, just a snappy drum beat over which lead singer Greg McCormack, ya know, moans melodically, followed by a heavy breakdown in which the guitars and drums bang on a few notes simultaneously, followed by a mellow yet intensely rich flattening out, which leads to the chorus, which is really catchy and substantive. “Beautiful” is a great piece of work and is proof that any time you get professional musicians together in a room, something good will likely come out of it. As my buddy Ken Shimamoto says, sometimes even a blind squirrel gets a nut.

Sweet Lou and the Ranger

This c.d. is great already, and I haven’t even listened to it yet. On the cover of Teksus’ hmm ... interesting is an image of two white dudes who would pass for rap rockers — backward baseball cap and goatee on one, visor on the other — if it weren’t for the smiles on their faces. You remember the last time you saw a DJ or live-PA musician (or rap rocker) smile?!? Never. These jerks are usually too busy worrying whether or not they’re ever going to be taken seriously as actual musicians to let their guard down. Not these Teksus guys, DJ Space Ranger and Iglou. (How much you wanna bet that Iglou’s real name is “Lou” — heee-larious. The only folks named Lou these days are mechanics, mafia hit men, and barflies. And the play on “Igloo” is great, ’cause, you know, it’s Texas and he thinks he’s too cool for school. Greatness.) These two are all smiles — and they have good reason to be all happy and shit. hmm ... interesting, just to let you know, isn’t just that annoying boom-siss-boom-siss-boom-siss crap (though a lot of that is here). It’s spacey, slightly melodic, lightweight techno, in the most complimentary meaning of the term. Call it “old school” trance, before trance was the industry it is now. My favorite part: “8.0,” a hip-hoppish paean to, you guessed it, the downtown meat market of the same name. I’m not sure if I like the tune because it’s, well, an OK song or because it’s so sweet and so sincere — and these two guys seem to be so cool, in a friendly way — that to dislike it would kinda be like kicking a puppy. Whatever. It gets points for marking the first time local musicians ever tried to suck up to a club by penning a song about the place. (Or maybe Sweet Lou works there — who knows?) My bet is that any rocker in town who wrote a positive song about the Aardvark or the Ridglea or the Wreck Room would be strung up by his feet to a West Seventh Street lamppost and then pelted with empty plastic cups. How DJs can get away with something similar is one of those mysteries that nobody should bother trying to figure out, like why chicks are psycho and guys are retarded. Just leave it alone.

Steel-Eye Spam

The guys of Magneto Combo have listened to wayyyyy too much Steely Dan — not that that’s a bad thing, but when your music comes out sounding like something Donald Fagan would have whipped up with one hand tied behind his back, blind drunk, and happy, you gotta regroup. The sound is lo-fi emo but bright and poppy. You can just imagine all the record store geeks and TCU DJs going crazy over this shit. “I’ve got shot-glass eyes,” from the track “No Cinnamon,” is one line — of a couple — that’s worth keeping, though. (Good job, kinfolk.) Plus, when you write a song called “Shampoo Girl,” you’re gunning straight for my heart: One of my lifelong dreams has been to have a shampoo girl on call. Basically, I hate showering, but that’s another story for next month. (I see you shiver with antici ... pation.)

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