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Austin Chronicle Record Reviews

AUGUST 2, 1999: 

THE SCABS More Than a Feeling (Shockorama)

BOB SCHNEIDER Songs Sung and Played on Guitar at the Same Time (Shockorama)

As befits their standing as Austin's most popular band, the Scabs have become something of a local cottage industry. Last year's live-in-the-studio debut, Freebird, and this year's follow-up, More Than a Feeling, have been both big bandstand sellers and Waterloo Records/Shiner Bock Texas Top Ten List chart hogs. The live souvenir business has been good to the Scabs and the Scabs are pretty good about their live souvenirs. Part of the Scabs' strategy for keeping large crowds coming back week after week is a deep, ever-changing set list and More Than a Feeling reflects frontman Bob Schneider's prolific songwriting well with 18 new tunes. Better still, with the exception of a handful of hokey XXX-oriented tunes such as "Don't Be So Stingy With Your Pingy" and "Fuck Me," there's more PG material here than not, including three real gems: the under-two-minutes Bosstones blur of "I'm Not the One You Love" and a pair of sultry slo-funksters, "Sell Your Head" and "Magnetic." Even as they genre-jump between funk, rock, punk, spoken word, and swing, it's hard not to notice how surprisingly tight and cohesive a band this big (nine pieces) has become in the studio, thanks in large part to the consistency of the ubiquitous Grooveline Horns and the straightforward production of bassist Bruce Hughes and engineer John Croslin (!!). The results, like the rest of the Scabs/Ugly Americans catalog, is nothing brilliant, groundbreaking, or vital, just fun. And more than anything else, More Than a Feeling serves its master well; if you haven't seen the Scabs, it gives you reason to go, and if you have, it's a solid reminder of why you keep going back. Meanwhile, more and more people are checking out Schneider's low-key singer-songwriter side project, Lonelyland. A proper Loneyland album is reportedly in the can and nearing release, but that hasn't stopped the charismatic Schneider from releasing a low-budget guitar/vocal solo set using several Lonelyland tunes. And surprise, surprise, the man responsible for "Pussy Fever" is indeed capable of a well-crafted and remarkably edgy album. Not only is Schneider a better singer than any of his group efforts have suggested, he's also a better songwriter; his wordplay is clever and his narratives compelling. While Tom Waits and Cat Stevens comparisons are easy and plausible, Schneider's remarkable ability to balance dark imagery and genuinely beautiful melodies hints at something more unique: a work-in-progress closer to the depth and spirit of a Patti Griffin or Paul Simon. As casual and straightforward as it is, Songs Sung and Played on the Guitar is the stuff KGSR playlists and long careers have been built on.

(More Than a Feeling) 2.5 stars

(Songs Sung ...) 3.5 stars -- Andy Langer



MC OVERLORD House of Funk (Lordship Entertainment)

Questions: What kind of hip-hop album does a guest list from the Steamboat side of town, zero booty calls or odes to weed, and a distinct lack of ruff-ryder/gunslinger posturing make? Can an MC whose credo is "Spread love, stay above pullin' out gats" keep it real? And would his House of Funk be a place worth kickin' it in? Answers: A damn good one, damn straight, and damn right. Damn. As has been the case with his previous self-released local discs, House of Funk finds Austin's MC Overlord possessed of mad lyrical skills equal to his physical stature, like Eightball, Big Pun, or Goodie MoB's Cee-lo, with rhymes clean enough for his little nephews to rap along. Overlord doesn't represent himself as a thug, a G, or a baller, because he's an entertainer, so when he says "Bounce Yo Ass," this experienced local club security man is 86ing playa haters, not issuing a Lukesque strip-joint directive. As far as crews go, he's shouting out the Good Lord and his family. Producer Yoggie gets his props too, well-deserved for his rubbery, funkacized grooves; "Bones" (where he makes clear "I ain't tryin' to be the one with no Ally McBeal"), "That Was Then," and the title track are especially bangin'. There are even some nifty deep-soul background vocals from Patrice Pike, Malford Milligan, and Lisa Tingle, of all people. The album's a bit long (74 minutes), but name me an album since Nas' Illmatic that isn't. So one final question: Could such positive, life-affirming rapping possibly be embraced by today's materialistic, mack-heavy hip-hop mainstream? MC Overlord's answer: "Tell Dr. King we've all got dreams."

4 stars -- Christopher Gray



TEXAS TORNADOS Live From the Limo Vol. 1 (Frontera/Virgin)

When you live in Austin, there are times that call for Fonda San Miguel and there are times when only the Tamale House will do. Sure, the appeal of fine interior cuisine such as Fonda is undeniable, but how does it compare to the joy of a $1 taco? The Texas Tornados seem like Tamale House guys: no frills and all good. Considering this Tex-Mex supergroup has been around for almost a decade, releasing five studio outings in that time, a live album is certainly in order. Recorded over two nights last December at Antone's, Live From the Limo Vol. 1 serves up 14 of the Tornados' most popular songs with "the national anthem of San Antonio," "Hey Baby Kep-pa-so," leading off. While it's a bit of a mystery when and how "Hey Baby Que Paso" was changed to "Hey Baby Kep-pa-so," the Tornados' first live recording is a more than respectable offering of the band's tasty oeuvre. With Doug Sahm, Freddy Fender, Augie Meyers, and Flaco Jimenez taking turns stepping into the spotlight, the group's shows often resemble songwriter circles, which is why a swamp pop-flavored ballad like "South of the Border" fits so neatly next to a traditional Mexican polka like "Soy de San Luis," and the country croon of "I Don't Want to Be Lonely" is right at home with Sahm's rock & roll past in "Mendocino." The title suggests there's a sequel in the can, but rumors of in-fighting may mean a questionable future for the TTs, so get 'em while they're hot. See you at Tamale House.

2.5 stars -- Margaret Moser



BRUCE ROBISON Long Way From Anywhere (Lucky Dog/Sony)

For better or worse, there are few -- if any -- instances in which comparisons to James Taylor are good. Thus, when Bruce Robison's light tenor smoothes itself over a gentle acoustic guitar and dreamy steel in decidedly Sweet Baby Jamesian fashion mere seconds into this Austin singer-songwriter's second release for Nashville-based Sony imprint Lucky Dog, you're already making polite excuses like "nice" and "pleasant." Even the album's press release cites Taylor. Certainly, Robison is as accomplished a songwriter as JT (was?), the album's second and arguably best track, "Just Married," playing out poignant and pastoral. It's a moving song one could easily hear, say, Robison's wife Kelly Willis singing on country radio. Unfortunately, it also betrays the discrepancies between the Bandera native's gifts as a songwriter and his limitations as a singer. As the latter, Robison is possessed of a "nice," "pleasant" voice: bland, with little range. As the former, Robison's "Trouble" could be a hit for any hat act. Combined, these incongruous qualities make Long Way From Anywhere sound more like a Music Row calling card rather than a convincing follow-up to a promising major-label debut. Too many sad-guy songs puddle up by the time the string-laden, maudlin "Emotionally Gone" reaches for its hanky at album's end, and with the feebly rocking "Red Letter Day" lacking conviction and "The Good Life" sounding like fratboy fodder, it becomes apparent that Robison' light, airy voice ultimately robs his songs of any emotional resonance. In that respect, Long Way From Anywhere lands in familiar terrain: James Taylorville.

2 stars --Raoul Hernandez



ROGER WALLACE Hillbilly Heights (Texas Round-Up)

First off, make no mistake; this isn't alternative country, Americana, No Depression, contemporary country, or y'alternative. This is pure-D country, honky-tonk, down-home cry-in-your-beer stuff à la 1963 or so. Relative newcomer and Knoxville native Wallace rounded up some top-notch Austin talent like Lisa Pankratz, Erik Hokkanen, Jim Stringer, and Marty Muse for his debut, and the result is some polished, soulful stuff. Wallace easily assimilates forebears like Merle Haggard, Hank Sr., Dwight Yoakam, and Lefty Frizzell, and makes them his own. With production and playing that's top-notch but never overbearing, good songwriting that's never too cute for its own good, and Wallace's smooth versatility, Hillbilly Heights is brimming over with material that ought to make its way onto country radio rather than the Nashville machine's Tracy of the Week. A shuffle or two, some uptempo boot-scooters, and well-chosen covers of Jerry Reed and Kris Kristofferson songs make this a release to be reckoned with. Yup, this is the sound and style that country wannabes aspire to but hardly ever touch. Keep an eye on Roger Wallace.

4 stars-- Jerry Renshaw



RAY WYLIE HUBBARD Crusades of the Restless Knights (Philo)

Throughout the Nineties, Ray Wylie Hubbard has strung together one fine collection of songs after another. Starting with 1992's Lost Train of Thought through 1994's Loco Gringo's Lament and 1997's Dangerous Spirits, Hubbard has chosen to work a field of soul and spirituality spiced with his inimitable wry humor. Crusades of the Restless Knights continues the streak in admirable fashion, combining a musical palette that includes folk, rock, blues, and country with a talent for crafting songs that has rightly earned him his near-legend status. The centerpiece here is the clever talking blues, "Conversation With the Devil," a tune that revels in such clever wordplay it could replace "Redneck Mother" as Hubbard's signature tune; in it, the songwriter encounters cops on the take, mothers who spank their children at K-Mart, country radio programmers, and the devil, who is fond of God and oddly vulnerable to flattery. Elsewhere, Hubbard attempts a self-described mythological bluegrass Buddhist Gnostic gospel hymn, "After the Harvest," a song inspired by the Dalai Lama, "Crows," and a description of his own baptism in a muddy river, "This River Runs Red." Hubbard is on a spiritual quest, yet never becomes preachy or sentimental, a fine line to walk, yet one he accomplishes with a nimble touch. Add to all this that some of Austin's finest musicians take part in the proceedings -- Paul Pearcy, Glen Fukanaga, Stephen Bruton, Lloyd Maines, Patty Griffin, Lisa Mednick, and a bunch more -- and one can understand that Hubbard has produced another classic album of pure Texas music that defies description and one that will be listened to for decades to come.

3.5 stars -- Jim Caligiuri



LYLE LOVETT Live in Texas (MCA)

Lyle Lovett's Large Band is, without a doubt, a well-oiled machine. For proof, put Live in Texas on the stereo and just listen to it hum. Fine-tuned, fuel-injected, and sharper than a box of thumbtacks. Lovett and his 17-piece backing band roll effortlessly through a diverse set, sashaying from the stop-time snapbean funk of "Penguins" to the syncopated shuffle of "I've Been to Memphis" to the brassy swagger of "That's Right (You're Not From Texas)," and that's just the first three songs! Recorded four years ago in Austin and San Antonio and sprinkled liberally with Lovett's hits and near misses, Live in Texas is the work of a band in the collective groove. It's so well-oiled, in fact, that the show starts to sound a little canned, with every humph and trill immaculately in place: a studio album on stage. But what a fine album it is; Lovett is divine, and those folks can flat-out play. If you caught one of Lovett's shows two weeks ago at the Backyard, you might get the feeling you've heard this before. Then again, if you were at one of those shows, you probably want to hear it again. This is your chance.

3.5 stars --Jay Hardwig



THE AMERICAN ANALOG SET The Golden Band (Emperor Jones)

The American Analog Set make ideal music to sleep by, it's true, but that doesn't mean close attention to the Austin band's third and most recent release doesn't offer its own rewards. The simple, line-drawing tunes that drift together like leaves in a pool pile up layer upon delicate layer of ethereal mood music that's as stirring in its persistence as it is narcotic in its slight modulations. The sound this local quartet has been working on with the patience and steadiness of a diamond cutter over its previous two strong albums is perfected on The Golden Band, shuffling drums skittering along the hazy organ drone and perambulating bass line, as the lead guitar pecks out slow and unforgettable melodies over and over, over and over. Subtle and periodic additions of piano and vibraphone only amplify the narcotic sublimity of the songs. The subject matter of Amset's lyrics has become more immediate, as in their pointed jab at pop culture, "Weather Report," and perhaps even narrative at times, as on their anti-L.A. "New Drifters" parts I-IV. The mood, however -- introspective, somber, achingly pretty -- is what it's all about.

3.5 stars -- Christopher Hess



ANTIFADE Black Panel Mix (Dank Disk)

Antifade is the modern industrial progeny of the progressive school, namely the British triumvirate of Fripp, Eno, and Gabriel. On Black Panel Mix, the Austin duo's 38-minute debut of percussion sounds and guitar hues, Fripp is interpreted by guitarist Travis Hartnett. Eno and Gabriel's sonic sculpting comes via the loops, drones, and treatments by technical manipulator and timekeeper Jon Coats. Hartnett, guitar behind the experimental, improvisational local trio Futura and the one-man ambient band Tik Tok, goes on tape with his characteristic volume swells, loops, and other tonal palettes, such as the swirling Frippertronic patches of sound on the opening salvo "Waav." Like Eno's Nerve Net rhythmic experimentations, Jon Coats percolates a funky somber drum mix on "Ambush." Together, the duo's "Oil Drum" conjures the spirit of Gabriel's atmospheric soundtrack to the 1984 film Birdy. The basic structure of guitar and electronics creates a deceivingly simple sonic mix; like black and white photos, the focus is on the gestalt, not the constituent parts. Mood is the key here. If the eight tracks of Black Panel Mix were not the duo's first product, some of these electronic explorations might come across as meandering, but as a debut, Black Panel Mix signals engaging things ahead.

3 stars -- David Lynch



SILO M Temple of the Embrace (Eco-Disaster)

This trance-inducing set of compositions written and recorded by Jeff Thomas Potts has the same conditional appeal as a drum circle. You can scoff at its pretentious, quasi-spiritual underpinnings, or you can steep yourself in its rhythmic hypnosis and come away refreshed; the listener's degree of involvement with the music matters almost as much as the music itself. While this local venture never fully expands upon the concept of being far out, Temple of the Embrace does pit plenty of disparate musical styles against one another to create a sideways sort of harmonic convergence. "Ephemeron" prevails on the combined strength of an eerie, Tubular Bells-style rhythm on top of deep, dark chanting, and despite its somewhat morbid tone, the song still sounds just a bit playful, especially when Potts uses John Bonham's drum intro to "When the Levee Breaks." Likewise, "Panta Rhea" plays two rhythms against each other, one fluid and tribal, one rude and mechanical. Silo M also alludes to Middle Eastern and Far Eastern musical traditions, but these tangents are mere accouterments on the greater electronic/trance landscape. Ultimately, you're either in the circle or you're out.

2.5 stars --Greg Beets



MONTE MONTGOMERY Mirror (Heart Music)

Until now, Austin's Monte Montgomery has been most notable for wrangling his way onto Austin City Limits as a complete unknown. With Mirror, Montgomery seems to be attempting to establish dual recognition: a) as an acoustic guitar hero that can fit a solo into any song; and b) as a new age balladeer sensitive enough to sing alongside Abra Moore. Mostly, though, he comes off as a posterboy for safe, middle-of-the-road, wholly inoffensive songs. Sure, he plays tone-for-tone like Eric Johnson unplugged, while snarling awkward phrase-for-awkward phrase like Dave Matthews, but that's no compliment. Instead, it illustrates that Montgomery's songwriting is more craft than passion and his playing more technique than soul. Worse yet, otherwise well-written fare like "When Will I" and "Took Too Long" drown in dizzying and horribly overwrought solos. That's fine if you want to reach Acoustic Guitar magazine subscribers, but not so good if you're trying to hold the common man's attention across a 52-minute disc. While the Montgomery/Moore duet, "I Know You by Heart," might have benefited from a verse of her own instead of just a shadow chorus, it's a promising enough slice of schmaltz and a fine CD centerpiece anyway. The difference lies in temperance and taste, the song's best interest coming before the pyrotechnics. Even if Mirror's solos are just there to suggest a blistering live show and insure a Matthews-style touring base, it comes at the sacrifice of a listenable or cohesive album.

2 stars -- Andy Langer



HOT CLUB OF COWTOWN Tall Tales (Hightone)

Tall Tales may only be the Hot Club of Cowtown's second release, but it possesses the sound of seasoned veterans. The time and touring between albums has served this Austin trio well. Their instrumental prowess has grown more assured, and if possible, more impressive. Each solo turn by guitarist Whit Smith and fiddle player Elana Fremerman is a winning episode in technique and inventiveness, while bassist Billy Horton carries the rhythm so well, you swear there's a drummer in there somewhere. There isn't. The Hot Club has developed their own brand of cowjazz, a heady mix of Bob Wills, Django Reinhardt, traditional fiddle tunes, and Tin Pan Alley standards. Here it's presented in all its glory, captured live in a New York City studio by producer Dave Stuckey (Dave & Deke Combo) using vintage microphones and recording equipment. One difference from the band's 1998 debut are the guest appearances by Peter Ecklund on cornet and Joe Kerr on piano, both adding some distinctive sonic color to the mix. Another is the appearance of some Hot Club of Cowtown originals. The jiving "Emily," with its hooky chorus, and "You Can't Take It With You," featuring Horton's earnest vocals, don't sound out of place next to such standards as "Polkadots and Moonbeams," "Sally Goodin'," and "There'll Be Some Changes Made." Those who've seen the Hot Club recently have come away raving about the sheer musicality of their performances. Tall Tales is an accurate reflection of their sizzling live shows and a testament to one of Austin's most exciting and innovative bands.

3 stars -- Jim Caligiuri



THE DANGLERS Bon Temps Rouler (Ah-Love)

The Danglers' second full-length CD was recorded live from a radio performance last year, and the spontaneity of the event shows through on tunes like "The Pain," "Fireball Mail," and an energetic cover of Fats Domino's "I'm Walkin'." The Austin fourpiece's originals fall somewhere between Buddy Holly and Big Star, with echoes of the early Beatles heard here and there. They introduce a banjo and pedal steel on a couple of songs for a rootsy feel, and stinging slide guitar on a song or two as well. Unfortunately, they don't quite pack the punch of Hamburg-era Beatles; the chops are there, the songwriting is there, but the whole package is just a bit too cautious-sounding. With just a little more push behind the playing and vocals, this could be some pretty compelling stuff. As it is, it's competent but a little on the sterile side. C'mon guys, rock!!

2.5 stars -- Jerry Renshaw



SONS OF HERCULES Get Lost (Get Hip)

San Antonio punk quintet Sons of Hercules have been making their Texas-style roadhouse punk rawk for so long that the idea of change has to be more ludicrous than frightening. Even though a couple of major cogs in the works have been overhauled since the band's last outing, 1996's Hits for the Misses, this is still the same machine, still spitting out the two-and-a-half-minute rockers like they were The Replacements Stink-era 'Mats. Like they say, if ain't broke, don't fix it. Nevertheless, the Sons do flirt with progress: The title track as well as "Hard Time" inject some rudimentary piano into the mix, dancing on the high keys like a scratched Jerry Lee Lewis record. For the most part, though, Get Lost is all about hard and fast rhythms that guitarists Dale Hollon and Dan Hoekstra cover tune after tune, solo after solo, with some of the best stick-and-move riffs you're likely to hear. Then there's Frank Pugliese's reliable Joey Ramone-meets-Mick Jagger-meets-Herman Munster lead vocals, mostly unintelligible as always save the ever pivotal chorus ("Don't wanna be like you!," "Too-late too-late too-late!"). A cover of the Byrds' chestnut "Feel a Whole Lot Better" is an interesting choice, but the Sons, in wonderfully predictable fashion, make it their own.

3 stars -- Christopher Hess



512 Tymes Runnin Out (Pawn Shop)

A few short years ago, the thought of anyone in Austin making a hip-hop CD that could contend with the big boys in Atlanta, New Orleans, or the Big H was as patently absurd as Gibby Haynes being named Drug Czar. In fact, the Buttholes' cameo in Chris Rock's CB4 movie still stands as Austin's chief contribution to hip-hop culture. Not anymore. 512's Tymes Runnin Out gives the lie (and it's about time) to the long-held assumption that Austin is not a rap town. This local trio speaks the truth when they announce "Texas Is the Spot." 512 is Young Man, Skeeta, and Lotion, and they may be playas, but they ain't playin'. Their two-guys-and-a-girl chemistry is often electrifying, and the album's pronounced Southern-styled production (coupled with Outkast-like guest vocals from Boyz Unda Stress) is equal parts steely and languid. If anything, Tymes Runnin Out is a little heavy on the midtempo cruisers ("Ballin'," "If You Down Wit Me") and could use a couple more fast-paced booty-quakers. Some more line-by-line tag-team rhyming from the trio would be nice, too -- they certainly seem capable. Ultimately, it's probably too soon to tell if this is a watershed moment in Austin hip-hop, or if 512 has the juice to blow up nationally, but it's certainly encouraging. After all, what else are the kids at Reagan, Lanier, and Travis Highs listening to? Play on, playas.

3 stars -- Christopher Gray



LONNIE BROOKS, LONG JOHN HUNTER, AND PHILLIP WALKER Lone Star Shootout (Alligator)

When Bruce Iglauer formed Alligator Records in 1971, he promised "Genuine Houserockin' Music," and immediately made good on that promise with some Hound Dog Taylor albums that truly rattled the walls. More recently, Alligator's been a bit uneven, putting out releases as likely to whimper in the corner as rattle the walls, but with Lone Star Shootout -- an album Iglauer calls one of his best releases in years -- the Chicago-based indie is again on the road to some serious structural damage. The houserockin' here is courtesy of Lonnie Brooks, Long John Hunter, and Phillip Walker, prominent names on the blues marquee and all veterans of the raucous roadhouse blues scene that flourished on the Gulf Coast in the Forties and Fifties. All three turn in some gutbucket guitar here, turning up, turning loose, and trading licks like dockworkers in a Friday night bar fight. Highlights include Hunter's "Alligators Around My Door," "Two Trains Running" (Muddy Waters by way of Hunter and guest Ervin Charles), and Walker's stellar "I Met the Blues in Person," a woeful tune that makes you wanna pull the liquor bottle down from the top shelf and sit at the kitchen table and just get moanin' drunk. Piss and whistle, holler and moan: Lone Star Shootout rocks the house.

3.5 stars --Jay Hardwig



SWITCHHITTER Academy (Framed!)

Good, good noise. The abrasive, recycled riffage that comprises the bulk of SwitchHitter's first and probably last full-length, Academy, is often a step back in time to when loud, loosely tuned, distorted guitars, driving bass lines, and a reckless stagger were ingredients of post-punk stardom. The songs are primitive, to say the least -- so much so that at times you might swear the guitar player doesn't really know how to play his instrument. Then, he hits a riff like a right cross to the chops that'll make you reconsider that opinion, mister. Occasionally, the songs get mired down in familiar post-punk posturings -- the disjointed sections of "Tap Dancin' for P" sounds like part of a Jawbox or Jesus Lizard tune -- but for the most part the noise is good noise, rock & roll pursued for the unadulterated joy of crashing drums and tortured electric guitars. Academy is well worth your time, if only for the fact that power trios like Austin's Switchhitter are hard to come by nowadays.

3 stars-- Christopher Hess



WAYLON JENNINGS Honky Tonk Heroes (Buddha)

Remember Buddha Records? In their Sixties and early-Seventies heyday, the label was home to the Lovin' Spoonful as well as a handful of other AM radio bubblegum bands. Buddha has recently resurfaced as a reissue label, boasting an eclectic catalog that includes Frank Sinatra, the Flamin' Groovies, Graham Parker, and Captain Beefheart, among others. 1973's Honky Tonk Heroes teams the world-weary songs of Austin's Billy Joe Shaver with the world-weary delivery of Littlefield's Waylon Jennings; along with Tompall Glaser and Willie Nelson, they would help break down the rules of the Nashville establishment. Indeed, Shaver sums up the outlaw/ modern cowboy mindset with the lyrics to the magnificent "Willie the Wandering Gypsy and Me," written for friend Nelson. As the story goes, Shaver threatened Jennings with bodily harm if he didn't give a listen to his songs; in turn, Jennings was ready to lower the boom on Shaver if he didn't leave him alone in the studio to do them! Jennings' smoky baritone had come into its own by 1973 and was the perfect complement to Shaver's melodies and lyrics. The humor and wisdom of songs like "Old Five and Dimers (Like Me)," "You Ask Me To," and "Black Rose" (still a Shaver staple) are the words of a man who has fought the good fight several times over and come out bloodied but unbowed. As good as these songs are individually, they demand to be listened to of a piece because Honky Tonk Heroes really holds together. This is a collection of outlaw anthems, and "You Ask Me To" became a Top Ten hit; Waylon Jennings has had a good body of work but he never quite topped this effort. Along with Waylon's voice and the Waylors' in-the-pocket backing, this is pretty close to a perfect country album and some of Jennings' strongest work.

4 stars -- Jerry Renshaw



WAYNE HANCOCK Wild, Free, and Reckless (Ark 21)

The title of Wayne Hancock's new release aptly describes both the artist and his third CD. With its combination of country swing, rockabilly, and of course, honky-tonk, Wild, Reckless, and Free is the closest "the Train" has come to capturing one of his live performances, which can be exhilarating, impromptu affairs. Throughout this set of new songs, Hancock calls out the names of his backing musicians ("Wakefield!"), exhorting them to perform their best and giving the listener the impression that what they're hearing is happening right before them, completely unrehearsed. A little wild and very reckless. The most impressive thing about Hancock's talent is his ability to write songs of simple emotions and themes, while simultaneously capturing traditional musical styles and melding them into something that's undeniably his own. "Back To Texas" is a prime example, a road song with a riding-down-the-highway beat and a boogie woogie piano that captures the moment with glee that's hard to resist. Vocally, Hancock has never sounded better, as energetic and confident as can be, sliding from crooner to yodeler to a bopping cat with an ease never before achieved. Special mention must be given to the band that was used for this recording; Dave Biller, Jeremy Wakefield, T. Jarrod Bonta, Lisa Pankratz, and Bob "Texaco" Stafford are certainly among the best players in Austin, if not the world, and here they prove once again why that is so.

3 stars -- Jim Caligiuri



ROBERT SKILES Flowers: Wild (Cool Blue Pool)

Like the works of famous ivory tinkler George Winston and former Duke Jupiter frontman/local pianist Marshall Styler, the latest by Robert "Beto" Skiles is a work of solo piano. But like the works of these other two, Flowers: Wild is not solo piano in the rigorous western art tradition of Beethoven. Neither is it the insipid, gummy new ageisms of John Tesh. Released on local indie Cool Blue Pool, Flowers: Wild is somewhere between the two. An educated and seasoned professional, Skiles is the leader of Austin's Latin jazz institution, Beto and the Fairlanes, but these 16 impressionistic interpretations of the region's feral flora are a stark departure from the Fairlanes' work. This doesn't mean, however, that tracks like "Honeysuckle" are stimulating for extended stretches. Then again, this isn't music for a Saturday night rave-up. Songs like "Morning Glory" are better suited for brisk fall afternoons with nary a clock to be found. Or imagine "Mountain Laurel" as suitable accompaniment for those time-lapse films of flowers blooming.

2.5 stars -- David Lynch



TOWNES VAN ZANDT A Far Cry From Dead (Arista Austin)

When Townes Van Zandt died on New Year's Day, 1997, he was reckless enough to leave behind some unfinished tapes, and sure enough, his wife, a mob of Nashville studio musicians, and "a travelling tin of Townes' ashes" have gone and made an album out of 'em -- one that's set the purists to howling and understandably so. The strength of Van Zandt's songs is their understated elegance, and too often, A Far Cry From Dead drowns that simplicity in a wash of overeager drumming and electric guitar. The result is an album that's much too crowded. Of most interest to Van Zandt fans are two previously unreleased songs, "Sanitarium Blues" and "Squash," but they're hardly worth the price of admission. "Sanitarium Blues" is a low-mumbled jumble of talking blues, dark and dire in the Van Zandt style but decidedly unfinished, a fetus of a song that plays out more turgid than tragic. For its part, "Squash" fares about as well as the roadside armadillo it takes as its subject. A Far Cry From Dead has its moments -- a nice take on "For the Sake of the Song" is one -- but it's hardly his best testament. It's a shame Townes couldn't hit the posthumous media circuit with some more representative sides; purists will be upset and newcomers underwhelmed. Better to stick with albums the Dean of Texas Singer-songwriters made when he was still around.

2 stars -- Jay Hardwig


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