January may seem a bit early to declare the best record of 2009, but I am prepared to set caution aside and predict that this time next year UME will be topping best-of lists. The band’s new EP, Sunshower is at once beautiful, brutal, flawlessly executed, and completely unpretentious. It’s the type of record that grabs the listener immediately and demands repeated listens. It’s the whole package – as close to a perfect rock record as has come out of Austin (or anywhere for the matter) in quite some time. Like all great bands, UME’s sound is impossible to nail down in simple terms. They are shredding guitars and vocals that shift from beautiful whispers to raspy growls. They merge the anthemic and with the intimate — sometimes delicate and sometimes explosive.
Perhaps a quick history lesson is in order. Long ago, in the very distant past, there was a magical time when you couldn’t walk into a club without hearing a Riot Grrrl band. We’ll call this era “the late 1990s.” In those years (the tail end of third-wave feminism), Riot Grrrl bands sprung up in massive numbers, with idealistic (if sometimes convoluted) messages, and ambition that usually far outweighed their musical ability. They made it from show to show by shamelessly copying predecessors – the Bikini Kills, the Sleater-Kinneys, the Bratmobiles. The best of the early Riot Grrrl bands continued to evolve into new and better things (see: Le Tigre’s self-titled debut and Sleater-Kinney’s “One Beat” and “The Woods”), while other, less talented musicians drove the movement off a cliff, and into musical oblivion (see: Hole). It is impossible to listen to Follow That Bird’s new EP without referencing the Riot Grrrl context, as so much of what Follow That Bird does is rooted there (whether consciously or not). Thankfully, however, Follow That Bird combines indie rock and punk rock in a way that breaks with a lot of the cliché’s that brought down the Riot Grrrls. In doing so they have delivered a gem of an EP – one uses a vintage basement-lofi sound to capture the charming aesthetic of an old Kill Rock Stars vinyl.
In many ways, the singer-songwriter has become a cliché. Maybe it’s too easy - pick up an acoustic guitar, pen a few flowery lines about heartbreak, add some recycled melodies, and voila! Thankfully, Sarah Jaffe breaks that mold. At 6 songs and 21 minutes, Even Born Again, Jaffe’s proper debut and produced by the Paper Chase’s John Congleton, is a mini-masterpiece. The Denton artist’s mournful melodies are wholly original yet comfortably familiar and every element of the EP, from the unique vocal delivery to the haunting strings, is emotionally gripping in all the right ways.
It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Zest of Yore has a shrine dedicated to Robert Pollard. The Guided By Voices influence permeates every aspect of their new record Quality Of Life (down to the liner notes - Doug Gillard of GBV produced and played on some of the tracks). There is a difference, however, between a band that is unoriginal and one that simply wears their influences proudly. Zest Of Yore is definitely the latter, taking the best schizophrenic-pop elements of GBV records like Alien Lanes and Isolation Drills, and mixing in their own sweet-voiced, jangley guitar-pop. The result is a sound wholly their own - a sound built on unpredictable melodies and structural weirdness, but one that never strays too far from the traditional rock aesthetic (think of the power pop giants of yesteryear like The Knack, Big Star, The Replacements, and so on).
From the opening notes of Osaka Cocka Rocka, The Rockland Eagle’s modus operandi brings to mind the rock giants of yesteryear - think AC/DC meets Motorhead, with all the catchiness of Cheap Trick. It is a record of fist-full-of-beer-in-the-air arena rock, of shredding solos, of tight rock hooks, of high-energy riffage, of huge choruses. If imitation really is the sincerest form of flattery, then every song on this record is both a parody of, and a tribute to, rock and roll. But I must confess: in the beginning I missed the joke.
At first listen, it can seem like unoriginal, derivative, immature and formulaic schlock rock. Sometimes, however, first listens can be deceiving. The problem, for those unfamiliar with the Rockland Eagles over-the-top live shows, is that the band plays the cock rock card so well, that it is sometimes hard to tell when they are joking and when they are not.
If you follow the Austin music scene pretty closely you may have already noticed one line keeps popping up over and over in liner notes: “Recorded by Erik Wofford at Cacophony Recorders.” Wofford’s fingerprints are on some of the best records coming out of Austin recently - The Black Angels, What Made Milwaukee Famous, Explosions In The Sky, Voxtrot, Brothers And Sisters, The Octopus Project, Zykos, and dozens more. His records are starting to be recognized for their unique aesthetic - a vintage rock sound, often awash in natural reverb. That natural reverb is a result of Cacophony’s recording space, a beautiful loft on Austin’s east side with 28 foot ceilings and a view of the lake. I had the pleasure of sitting down with Erik Wofford a few weeks ago to discuss his philosophy on recording and a few of the details of how things work at Cacophony Recorders.
Remembering is a mixed-blessing. Even in our happiest memories there is an inherent sense of loss - a longing for a moment buried in time, unable to be relived. In that respect, Annabella’s Say Goodnight is like a stack of faded photographs. Each track has the fragile beauty and melancholy of an old picture: a snapshot of a sunset, a day at the beach, or a lost love. On this, their third album, Georgetown’s Annabella has reached a new peak and delivered an album as smart as it is emotional, as playful as it is haunting, and as beautiful as it is tragic.
Most listeners will draw a quick comparison to artists like Mates of State, Mazzy Star, and The Sundays - observations that are generally appropriate. The band blends the best elements of their influences, without simply recycling them: the pop sensibility of Mates of State, the darkness of Mazzy Star, and the melodic, indie sheen of the Sundays.
Darkness is key. Every writer who attempts to wrap their head around the Black Angels mentions the music’s eerie darkness, but most fail to realize that this goes to the very core of what the band is about. The band’s gothic quality is often haunting, sometimes apocalyptic, and always the factor that sets the Black Angels apart from other psychedelic bands. Most reviews reference Heart of Darkness or Apocalypse Now and, upon listening, the analogy is obvious. The music and lyrics draw the listener into a world that is hostile and unknowable. Indeed, the band’s music is almost literary in its unrelenting gloominess - a quality that puts them as much in line with bands like Bauhaus and The Jesus And Mary Chain as with their self proclaimed psych-rock influences.