Two Words, Maybe Four
By Raoul Hernandez
JANUARY 11, 1999: Nineteen Ninety-Eight resounded with two words and two words only, musically speaking, two words tattooed on Austin's collective psyche like some bumper sticker slogan payed lip service by a city that couldn't care less about its thriving music scene (Kirk Watson, this means you). Local music fans repeated those two words to the clerks at Waterloo Records so many times over the course of the year, in fact, that when word made it back to the label brass in New York, they sat up and took notice. That same label, Mercury Records, later had to cut a sizeable check to Austin City Limits when those two words didn't like how they sounded on the long-running PBS television program, but then one suspects that even the Lone Star beacon must have been thrilled to say those two words over and over and over. All together, Austin: L-U-C-I-N-D-A W-I-L-L-I-A-M-S.
Though not necessarily her career-defining masterpiece, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, Williams' fifth album, was nevertheless the undeniable landmark in a year awash with so much musical flotsam and jetsam. A backroads Southern roadtrip through time and memory, traveling from childhood into adulthood while striking a disarming, sometimes precarious balance between strength and vulnerability, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road was a unique, deeply personal statement resonating with that which makes the most powerful artistic statements timeless: the truth. Taking six years to finally reach record store shelves, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road felt well-worn by the time it got to retailers like Waterloo -- comfortable, familiar -- like a time-honored classic that sits on a shelf collecting dust until one of the uninitiated discovers its magic. If it does not yet evince the luster of Williams treasures like Lucinda Williams, magnificently reissued by Koch this year, or Sweet Old World, give it five or 10 years and watch it age with grace and distinction.
Of course, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road wasn't the only deeply personal statement from an individual artist in 1998. The best albums of the year came from individuals rather than groups, many of them women. Former Austinite Sue Foley (Ten Days in November), Cheri Knight (The Northeast Kingdom), and Gillian Welch (Hell Among the Yearlings) all made strong showings with their respective singer-songwriter efforts; Foley's smooth, sexy Shanachie debut and Knight's mature "alt.country" debut for Steve Earle's E-Squared imprint being particularly impressive. Cannuck Neko Case also had her fun little frolic in the land of the modern West with her kicking, bucking The Virginian, put out by Chicago's self-proclaimed "Home of Alternative Country," Bloodshot, while that city's now-defunct precursor to Austin's Damnations, Freakwater, weighed in with a beautiful Carter Family bouquet, Springtime. Liz Phair (WhiteChocolatespaceegg) and PJ Harvey (Is This Desire?), in the "alternative" arena, also made notable albums, but if Car Wheels on a Gravel Road was the best rock & roll album of 1998, then it also symbolized the fact that "roots music" -- "alt.country," "singer-songwriter," "folk" -- was nothing if not the dominant force in popular music in 1998.
Thus, the roots boys made memorable music as well. First and foremost was Dwight Yoakam, whose flawless A Long Way Home served as a reminder that "alt.country" is really just rock & roll with twang; Yoakam's tour de force was real country, nothing "alt" about it, and even smoothed over as it was with pop production, hooks, and feel, there was no mistaking which genre its legacy belonged to. Billy Bragg and Wilco tapped into another American legacy, taking unrecorded songs by the father of modern folk music, Woody Guthrie, and fashioning them into Mermaid Avenue, a buoyant, often moving collection of populist anthems begging to be sung along to. Other notable twang 'n' bang fare ranged from the feral Appalachian cry of Denver's Sixteen Horsepower (Low Estate) and the primitive acid-country stylings of Texas native Johnny Dowd (Wrong Side of Memphis) to the more mainstream non-"Nashville" country of Nashville's Paul Burch (Pan-American Flash and Wire to Wire), as well as Knoxville's answer to the Crickets, the V-Roys (All About Town), and Nashville's avant-country booty stompers, Bare Jr. (Bootay). Kansas City's Mike Ireland & the Holler recorded an outstanding beer weeper for Sub Pop, of all labels (Learning How to Live), while Lambchop, a countrypolitan collective from Nashville (finally that city is producing good music), unself-consciously erased lines between country, soul, and Arizona (What Another Man Spills). The singer-songwriter category seemed once again to belong solely to Richard Buckner (Since) and long tall Texan Lyle Lovett, as always, was his own category on Step Inside This House, a tribute to Lone Star songsmiths of the first order. And lest we forget, Ralph Stanley, who gathered many of the top names in music for the sprawling 2-CD Clinch Mountain Country, reminded everyone why there's a picture of him under the definition of bluegrass.
With roots music resurfacing in such strong fashion after this decade's "alternative rock" revolution, it's no wonder people payed little attention to ho-hum releases by Hole (Celebrity Skin) and Smashing Pumpkins (Adore). As a matter of fact, "alternative rock" are two words likely to become mere footnotes in the rock & roll history books before too long, as the now-unmasked mainstream rock genre (the Nineties answer to the REO Speedwagons of the Seventies) is fading from memory as quickly as Austin's short-lived second alternative rock station, "The Planet." While the English continue floating promising new acts across the pond, the retro Soul Hat-sounding Gomez (Bring It On), for instance, it was the Asian Theatre acts like Cornelius (Fantasma), Buffalo Daughter (New Rock), and Zoobombs (Welcome Back, Zoobombs) that washed up on our shores with hard, gritty, sometimes mind-bogglingly clever rock & roll messages in a bottle.
Just as fresh, Latin American "Rock en Español" acts like L.A. hip-hop funksters Ozomatli (Ozomatli) and Mexico City rap duo Plastilina Mosh (Aquamosh) spearheaded a movement that, like the Japanese version of rock & roll, continues supplying a new take on old ideas. Unfortunately, outside of South by Southwest and the occasional roadshow, Austin has seen very little of either Japanese or Latin American acts; Argentina's Los Fabulosos Cadillacs near-sellout at Liberty Lunch in April was every bit the affirmation of "Rock en Español," and one would think Texas would be ripe for such acts to pass through.
And "electronica"? Short circuited. Another marketing scheme with no market share. Other than the Propellerheads, who went off like the Armageddon at La Zona Rosa during SXSW, and their super disco-breaking debut, Decksanddrumsandrockandroll, whose best cut featured Sixties Goldfinger icon Shirley Bassey (new ideas?), there wasn't much electrifying going on in a genre that's become synonymous with studio-made dance music. Northwesters Perfume Tree continued to beguile (Feeler), as did Curve (Come Clean) and Morcheeba (BigCalm), but that seemingly left only DJ Shadow and James Lavelle, under the guise of UNKLE (Psyence Fiction), to stoke up Austin's burgeoning DJ culture; no doubt there were dozens and dozens of other underground phenomena bubbling under, but as Chronicle chronicler Marc Savlov documented in his cover story for this publication earlier in the spring, that's where they're likely to stay -- underground. Besides, just how many people still own turntables to play all those 12-inch remixes? Trip-hop, too, stumbled with releases by Tricky (Angels With Dirty Faces) and Massive Attack (Mezzanine) coming and going without leaving any real lasting sense of dread.
As usual, Austin itself was both ahead and behind the national curve. No notable "electronica" releases here, but if it was roots you wanted, music fans would be hard-pressed to find a better batch than what was released locally. Joe Ely's weather-warning Twistin' in the Wind died on the vine both locally and nationally when he was dropped by MCA mid promotional push, but the album was nevertheless his strongest effort in years. The Meat Purveyors Bloodshot Records debut, Sweet in the Pants, was perhaps not quite as good as their raunchy live sets, but theirs was still a mighty solid roll of quarters in them thar trousers. Labelmate and No Depression "Artist of the Decade" Alejandro Escovedo put out a sterling silver solo career live summation, More Miles Than Money 1994-1996, and as always, local singer-songwriters got the job done; Michael Fracasso led the way with World in a Drop of Water, while James McMurtry (Walk Between the Raindrops), Billy Joe Shaver (Victory), and Robert Earl Keen (Walking Distance) all walked the walk with their usual aplomb. Lest anyone forget the ladies, newcomer Terri Hendrix (Wilory Farm), Ingrid Karklins (Red Hand), and the trio of Marcia Ball, Tracy Nelson, and Irma Thomas talked the talk.
If it was "alt.country" you wanted, there was no better release locally or nationally than the Gourds' typically galvanizing Stadium Blitzer, followed later in the year by the raucous live EP gogitchyershinebox. Real country has always gone down like Shiner beer here in Austin, and in that genre there was no disappointing, with Dale Watson releasing perhaps his best album yet (in his case that's saying a lot), The Truckin' Sessions, accompanied by impressive major label bows from Bruce and Charlie Robison (Wrapped and Life of the Party respectively), Don Walser (Down at the Sky-Vue Drive-in), and longtime local always-the-bridesmaid baritone Chris Wall (Tainted Angel). Over-hype of the year went to Mary Cutrufello for her forced twang anthems (When the Night Is Through). Houston can keep her.
The Bad Livers continued to surprise locals by making every new album released leaps and bounds better than their last; to date, 1998's Industry and Thrift is the pinnacle of their long, distinguished career. Ralph Stanley would do well to include ol' Danny Barnes and Mark Rubin on his next all-star outing. Note also that Rubin's other musical endeavor, Rubinchik's Orkestyr, distinguished themselves with a festive fandango for the Klezmer set, which doubled as the group's eponymous CD debut. And the Tex-Mex trixter himself, Doug Sahm! Still partying strong on SDQ '98. Other local veterans putting out new material were Jimmie Vaughan with his treading-the-blues second release, Out There, and W.C. Clark, whose high-water mark, Lover's Plea, was a sweet and soulful R&B album not outdone by many national releases in 1998. Roots sticking close to the bone (home) notwithstanding, it was "alternative rock," ironically enough, that distinguished Austin music in 1998. Here, it boiled down to one word and one word only: Spoon. While Fastball became only the third act from Austin to go platinum (one million units sold) with a new release in the past two decades -- and deservedly so, All the Pain Money Can Buy being a polished, song-strong second effort for Hollywood Records -- it was Britt Daniel and his local trio that made a raw, compulsive album, A Series of Sneaks, which laid to waste anything even remotely "alternative." Stringing together a batch of short, sharp bursts of angst, jagged as broken glass and as unsettling as a homicide, A Series of Sneaks deserved much better than to be fumbled badly by Elektra Records; the album was easily as good as that of Daniel's hero Elliott Smith, whose own 1998 release, XO, was emotional turmoil wrapped in the perfect pop of the Beach Boys. Together, these albums were high points of 1998, A Series of Sneaks the hands-down Austin Album of the Year.
Sixteen Deluxe also deserved better than to be dropped ignominiously from Warner Bros., but their major label bow, Emits Showers of Sparks, did just that, while Davíd Garza's flawed Atlantic debut, This Euphoria, was also aptly named (this guy's got talent to burn). Prescott Curlywolf, meanwhile, who'd been pronounced dead after their own ugly run-in with a major label, pulled the proverbial rabbit out of the hat with a hard-rocking thing of beauty, Funanimal World, for a local indie label that keeps churning out one great release after another, Freedom Records. Another Freedom act, Beaver Nelson, also did label head Matt Eskey proud with his gutter-prophet-goes-Stones debut, The Last Hurrah. El Flaco (el pee), Brown Whörnet (Stoke the Apechild), Big Foot Chester (Tabernaclin'), and perhaps most notably Enduro (Half Rack of Sugar) all put out strong, hard rockin' albums as well. Pushmonkey finally put out their major label debut, a Wal-Mart sort of metal album that should advance the career of these local stalwarts in the national scene, but Vallejo, on the other hand, failed to deliver on the promise of their TVT debut with its follow-up, Beautiful Life. The real deal hard 'n' heavy-wise were releases from Sangre de Toro (Hold Yer Breath) and Tranfixr (Tincture) -- and yet-to-be-heard year-end sneaks by Daddy Longhead and Honky. Oh, and if it was searing guitar you wanted, the reissue of the Electromagnets sole, long-out-of-print release, featuring a young, hungry, fire-breathing Eric Johnson, was the last word in pyrotechnics.
So, there it is, right? The year in albums 1998, give or take 29,950-or-so releases. Not quite. There were two other words besides "Lucinda Williams" that defined the second-to-last year of the century: Chucho Valdés. Or maybe it was four words: Chucho Valdés and Afro-Cuban. If it was trends and movements you were looking for in 1998, there was no hotter, more exciting musical movement than what was coming out of Cuba. As a matter of fact, as a whole, the all-encompassing catch-all genre "world music" pushed the boundaries of popular modern music further than just about any Western form. Whether it was the stunning, primal cry of Brazil's Virginia Rodrigues (Sol Negro), the Senegalese soul of Baaba Maal (Nomad Soul) or the roiling island rhythms of Boukmans Eksperyans (I Revolution) -- even the tried and true but scorching reggaeisms of the Skatalites (Ball of Fire) -- global sounds were infinitely more provocative than anything from these shores (except maybe Lisa Gerrard's bewitching Duality, but then the former Dead Can Dance chanteuse is English). And few of those sounds were more out of this world than those that Chucho Valdés brought with him from Cuba.
An album of astonishing complexity and passion, Valdés' Blue Note debut, Bele Bele in La Habana, is a creation of jaw-dropping wonderment. A pianist whose every solo is a universe of sound and ideas, Valdés plays as if he were literally on fire, the churning Cuban rhythms driving his sometimes frenzied chording or smoothing out a romantic heart of the most idealistic proportions. Very probably the best living pianist, Valdés is everything you were ever looking for in a musician -- dexterous, inspired, and totally unique. While jazz overall made a strong showing in 1998, Leon Parker (Awakening), Dave Douglas (Charms of the Night Sky), Uri Caine (Gustav Mahler: Sound of Love), Dave Holland (Points of View) standing out in particular -- and almost anything on the ECM label -- it was Bele Bele in La Habana that made jazz afficionados sit up and take note.
A labelmate and countryman of Valdés, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, made his own mark in '98 with a more progressive, modern Afro-Cuban release, the challenging Antiguo, while Rykodisc released another in its series of Cubanismo! albums, supported locally by a show at La Zona Rosa that few in the full house will ever forget. Cuban collections are just now beginning to hit stores in mass quantities -- look for the Hemisphere collections put out by Metro Blue -- but the definitive releases in the genre so far continue to be the series of albums New York intellectual indie Nonesuch released in the two years: Buena Vista Social Club, Introducing Ruben Gonzalez, and the Afro Cuban All-Stars' A Toda Cuba le Gusta. Keeping up in 1998, Nonesuch also put out the debut of another Cuban export, 91-year-old crooner Compay Segundo, whose Lo Mejor de La Vida is a timeless collection of lush Latin ballads from the Twenties that will make you thirst for a bottle of rum, a hammock, and two palm trees.
Nothing purely Cuban to compare locally -- Tosca's tango came close -- although Ta Mère's festive debut, Ta Mère, was well-executed "world music" jazz with a capital "W," and overall, homegrown local jazz made a stronger showing than usual: Elias Haslanger put out his best album yet, Kicks Are for Kids; Tina Marsh & CO2 finally followed up their excellent 1995 showing The Heaven Line with the equally strong Worldwide; bassist Edwin Livingston showed considerable promise on his eponymous debut; and Pam Hart surprised locals with smooth jazz on May I Come In. Golden Arm Trio's frenetic debut (Golden Arm Trio) was a local highlight for jazz fans of the more experimental sort.
If it was straight Latin sounds you were looking for, a trio of good releases came from Ruben Ramos, on both his El Gato Negro solo release and the all-star knockout Los Super Seven, featuring old-time South of the Border classics as covered by Freddy Fender, Flaco Jimenez, Rick Trevino, Joe Ely, and a couple of ringers from Los Lobos. Finally, Manuel "Cowboy" Donley made a comeback after 20 years of silencio with the authentic Tejano sounds of Manuel "Cowboy" Donley y Las Estrellas.
And if trends in Cuban music and jazz were not in tune to your rock & roll palette, then perhaps a couple fine Trance Syndicate releases were. Both Monroe Mustang (Plain Sweeping Themes for the Unprepared), and Paul Newman (Only Love Will Break Your Heart), the former with its precise, melodic, Syd Barrett-influenced pop, and the latter with its more progressive metallic tension and release wallop, treaded territory in the vicinity of Tortoise (TNT) and Gastr del Sol (Camfleur), two smart, heavily-instrumental based groups floating in the waters of post-rock. If these groups are not directly influenced by the improvisational, free-form precepts of jazz, then they embody the intellectual mindset and spirit of the music; Sonic Youth's A Thousand Leaves being case in point. Bands like Tortoise may well be the future of rock & roll as it is known in the latter half of this century, unless it all goes Planet of the Apes and reverts back to modern heavy metal: Monster Magnet (Powertrip), Nashville Pussy (Let Them Eat Pussy), and Queens of the Stone Age (Queens of the Stone Age).
Until something as exciting as Afro-Cuban music comes along to galvanize rock & roll, maybe something along the lines of tongue and cheek keepers like the Cuban/rock synthesis of guitarist Marc Ribot y Los Cubanos Postizos, bands like Tortoise, who crammed something like 700 people into Emo's in May, and their ilk, are the ones to watch. While you're waiting for the revolution to sound, however, you might as well put on your well-worn copy of Lucinda Williams' Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. Again.
RAOUL HERNANDEZ'S AUSTIN TOP NINE1. Spoon, A Series of Sneaks (Elektra)
2. Bad Livers, Industry and Thrift (Sugar Hill)
3. Gourds, Stadium Blitzer (Munich)
4. Los Super Seven (BMG)
5. Dale Watson, The Truckin' Sessions (Koch)
6. Michael Fracasso, World in a Drop of Water (Bohemia Beat)
7. Prescott Curlywolf, Funanimal World (Freedom)
8. Fastball, All the Pain Money Can Buy (Hollywood)
9. Monroe Mustang, Plain Sweeping Themes for the Unprepared (Trance Syndicate)
Honorable Mentions: Enduro, Half Rack of Sugar; Davíd Garza, This Euphoria; The Golden Arm Trio; Terri Hendrix, Wilory Farm; Sixteen Deluxe, Emits Showers of Sparks.
RAOUL HERNANDEZ'S NATIONAL TOP NINE1. Chucho Valdés, Bele Bele en la Habana (Blue Note)
2. Lucinda Williams, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (Mercury)
3. Dwight Yoakam, A Long Way Home (Reprise)
4. Billy Bragg & Wilco, Mermaid Avenue (Elektra)
5. Elliott Smith, XO (Dreamworks)
6. Madonna, Ray of Light (Maverick/Warner Bros.)
7. Lauryn Hill, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (Ruff House)
8. Compay Segundo, Lo Mejor de la Vida (Nonesuch)
9. Monster Magnet, Powertrip (A&M)
Honorable Mentions: AIR, Moon Safari; Lambchop, What Another Man Spills; Leon Parker, Awakening; Marc Ribot y los Cubanos Postizos; Virginia Rodrigues, Sol Negro.
AUSTIN NINE YOU DIDN'T HEAR1. Ingrid Karklins, Red Hand
2. Manuels Womens Festival 2
3. Tina Marsh & C02, Worldwide
4. Edwin Livingston Group
5. Joe Ely, Twistin' in the Wind
6. Bukka Allen, Sweet Valentine
7. The Horton Brothers, Roll Back the Rug
8. Sangre de Toro, Hold Yer Breath
9. Tranfixr, Tincture
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