Junior Brown

When I've tried to turn people on to Junior Brown, I've settled on this description: imagine Jimi Hendrix playing old traditional country. Of course there's more to it, from the instrument he invented himself to his unique baritone voice, to the touches of surf, jazz, rock(abilly), and even Hawaiian slide that flavor his music. Junior is one-of-a-kind, and should not be dismissed by those who have a predisposition to not liking much country music. From the bio on his site: "A lot of people tell me they don't like country music, but they like what I am doing. I hear that line more than anything else." As a side note my wife is often stunned at my knowledge of old country (from my dad). She can't fathom how after decades of not hearing some of those songs I'm still able to sing along to each and every one, like on the Time-Life country oldies collection commercial. It's because a lot of them just had real feeling, and real playing and songwriting which explored the language of country music rather than relying on the same gimmicky phrasings of today. No other modern artist has taken country music further than Junior Brown.

The instrument he invented (after dreaming about it) is called a guit-steel, and has a regular guitar neck on top and a slide guitar built in below that, and when playing live he switches seemlessly between the two. He plays super-fast, and it's always highly inventive and slightly improvised and it's truly a thrill to watch and listen to him magically finger pick his way up a guitar neck (often with this characteristic chinka-chinka sound) and pull out his slide to finish off a run, or lay down some jazz chords, or play a string by de-tuning and tuning it back and forth, always somehow tuning it right back to the note it needs to end on (see "Brokedown South of Dallas" at 1:05, 1:40, and especially 2:28). His backing band (often in suits) is a stand-up bass, a drummer who often has little more than a single snare drum and cymbal (and usually brushes), and an acoustic rhythm guitar - and together they lay down the rhythmic tracks for Junior's enjoyable explorations of melody. I've seen an old guy and a young guy on bass, an old-timer named Pete playing drums (and one night at Floore's outside stage when Pete couldn't play, opener and Texas legend Johnny Bush sat in), and that's Junior's lovely wife Tanya Rae strumming the acoustic and smiling at him much of the time (with the rest of the crowd), though they have had a different guy strumming lately.

Junior is definitely in my list of top guitarists of all time. He plays tight licks but has a loose style. He doesn't take himself too seriously, writes great, often funny lyrics, and his concerts are some of the most entertaining I've ever seen - these pics are mine from the first Junior show I saw ('96) at Floore's Country Store in Helotes, just outside San Antonio, where Willie once played weekly shows. One NYE in the late 90's me and two guys drove a few hours away to see Junior play at the Cabaret in Bandera, TX (best NYE ever). It was the most energetic and electrifying of the half-dozen or so shows of his I've seen. I think. I was a little out of it, but I do remember that Junior was, too, his (slightly slurry) New Years countdown drawl of "uh, what time is it? Aw, hell... 3, 2, 1 Happy New Years!", and he launched into Auld Lang Syne, and he brilliantly peppered that song into others for the rest of the night. I cannot stress the fact enough that you have got to see him for yourself - if you're on the US West Coast, luckily he'll be coming your way this month.

Junior was born in Arizona, spent time growing up in Annapolis, Maryland, but now calls Austin his hometown. After working bars and clubs in obscurity from the late sixties on and then teaching some guitar in Oklahoma, he moved to Austin in the late 80's and became the house act at the storied Continental Club. His first album was released in '93, and Junior has steadily gained a growing legion of diverse fans. The following show was a homecoming for Junior at a small dinner-type theater, an intimate venue which didn't hold a lot of people, at least not on this night: "Better not try hecklin', 'cause we got you outnumbered," he jokes. "But we're gonna try and make a good time out of this." And dagnabbit that's just what he does. Don't miss an epic "I Hung It Up".

Check Insound for some great prices on Junior Brown albums. "Semi-Crazy" and the newest, "Live At the Continental Club", are highly recommended, the latter pulled from two smoking shows at his old stomping grounds in Austin.


The Best of the Rest in Austin

So to not make this drag on forever, I'm going to finish my list of essential Austin bands with some videos:

GvB loves these next guys, White Denim (myspace) "the best new band at SXSW 2007." I'll call it dirty, anthemic, stomp-on-the-floor electro-psych-rock jams. I also really enjoy their desire to explore the song, to let it meander. They have a couple of Austin dates coming up - with fellow Austinites What Made Milwaukee Famous Oct. 5 at the Parish and at Fun Fun Fun Fest at the beginning of Novemeber (see you there, dudes). The debut EP for the following song is available now through iTunes, and as a 7" single with CD insert, direct from the band on their myspace (the lips pic).

White Denim "Let's Talk About It" - new video released a month ago

Another Austin band hitting their stride this year, with an s/t album out on Peek-A-Boo Records (Octopus Project, Palaxy Tracks) earlier this year is Peel. In them I hear some Pavement, some Flaming Lips, but in their own danceable messy distortion and keyboard-laden groove, can't wait to see these guys live. Check their site for mp3s and to buy the debut CD and their myspace for other golden tunes, and listen to the whole new album here.

Peel "Oskaloosa"

Peel "You're Gonna Miss Me" - Here they are performing the signature tune from Austin's own 60's icon Roky Erickson

And here's Roky himself at his 45th birthday party, 1992:

While some Austin bands are moving up, others are moving on, like the beloved Sound Team, whose performance at ACL the other weekend was their last.

Sound Team "Your Eyes Are Liars"

Another of Austin's more famous exports, And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead, came back from the brink of their own extinction last year with their comeback "So Divided". It was a return to form but also an apt statement, as while Jason Reece opened up the Austin branch of Beauty Bar, Conrad Keely now resides in NYC. And everyone who likes any band always says "it was better in the beginning", and I can't help but keep that feeling after witnessing a landmark Trail of Dead show in San Antonio, where the night manager of (the now burned-down) N. St. Mary's St. Brewing Company didn't realize what his booking guy had scheduled: Trail of Dead, I believe around '97, before the launch of their debut album. It was a pure noise-thrash fest... the manager demanded and shouted for them to quit playing and even tried to grab the cymbals, which were quickly hilariously bashed until he had to let go. And before he could finally pull the power and call the cops, which he did, a cardboard cutout of Jenny McCarthy had been full sodomized with a guitar and the band truly exorcised some demons. Although equipment has still been known to spontaneously combust in their hands, they're overall a bit more focused now, and even in this clip, from earlier this year playing a song from their last album, downright sunny.

...Trail of Dead "Eight Days of Hell"

... and here they read and act out the Motley Crue book "The Dirt", pretty funny:

Another Austin band that for the most part likes its sound big, epic, and moody is Explosions In The Sky. But whereas Trail of Dead mostly builds its noise around hooks, Explosions In The Sky seems more likely to crest and roll like the sea, although like Trail of Dead this can often end in a beautifully violent cacophony of wailing. Don't forget to shop at their store.

Explosions in the Sky - "The Birth and Death of the Day" (Seattle 2007)

Clap! Clap!'s debut album is on the way, and they seem determined to do their part to make Austin the best city in the country for dance-rock. Check out the songs on their Myspace, and if it's your thing keep your eyes peeled for their debut so you can be at the front of the dance line, although apparently their recognition is coming fast, as they announce on their myspace "Yes, our songs are played in Forever 21".

Clap! Clap! - Interview at Couture De Amore Fashion Show

American Analog Set have been providing beautifully cool music for over a dozen years. They've always kind of reminded me of Yo La Tengo a bit, comforting pleasantness with just the right touch of artsiness. They are originally from Fort Worth but have called Austin their base since '96. They have for the most part ceased touring since 2005, choosing to focus on other projects, but haven't ruled out another American Analog Set collaboration in the future.

American Analog Set "Punk As Fuck" (7/2/03)

And speaking of arty, I'd be remiss not to include some of my favorite Austin art-rockers, Brown Whornet (myspace). The only comparisons I can think of are Ween, Thinking Fellers Union Local 282, and Frank Zappa, so of course I fell in love the first time I ever saw these guys live, playing with virtuoso chops, tongue firmly in cheek, and costumes. They jump genres and ideas like a good band should, and everything, even throwaway studio and late-night motel recordings that make their way onto albums (like TFUL 282), sounds like it's the most beautiful that lo-fi trash could ever be. Make your music collection a lot more interesting at the Brown Whornet store, and listen to other tunes at their site.

Brown Whornet "Schway" Emo's, Austin 3/9/03

Brown Whornet "Family Reunion" Emo's, Austin 9/8/00

And if you're going to truly appreciate Austin music, you gotta look into some roots country. And some of the finest purveyors of Americana in any city just happen to live here in austin: Asleep At The Wheel. From the sassy female leads to the familiar but well-played old-school country trade-offs to all the old music and Bob Wills Western swing tradition they keep bringing out, always with the musicianship and jazz flourishes to make it stay fresh, they'd make the soundtrack to any Sunday outing in or outside Austin a bit more authentic.

Asleep At The Wheel "You Don't Know Me" (Austin City Limits)

And of course when Ray Price, Willie Nelson, and Merle Haggard toured together as "Last Of the Breed", who was their backing band? That's right, AATW. And of course Willie has his own place in Austin music hall of fame, leaving Nashville to start his own thing in central Texas, where hippies and country guys could both get together and drink beer and smoke a joint together at the Armadillo World Headquarters. Check out my Willie post if you missed it, some great audio and video of Willie.

And two more of my favorites on the local country scene are Don Walser, the most yodeling yodeler and high-voiced country gentlemen this side of the Mississippi, whose first album (at his ripe age of 60) was produced by Ray Benson, leader of Asleep At The Wheel - and Redd Volkaert (who often plays lead guitar alongside Merle Haggard), a maestro who can seemingly noodle his way through any jazz composition yet remains true to his country roots, whose voice is as soulfully deep as his guitar playing

Don Walser and the Texas Plainsmen - this is a great slideshow put together by Don's son Al featuring some classic Walser*

Redd Volkaert "Home in San Antone" (Continental Club, Austin - hard to get more Austin than that)

*Walser sadly passed away last year of diabetes. I had the pleasure of meeting him and his wife once, and they were some of the nicest people I've ever met. To make another Austin connection, he was doing some vocal commercial work at Tequila Mockingbird for Danny Levin: composer, violinist, keyboardist, multi-instrumentalist, Grammy-winning, producer extraordinaire, who does commercials for Southwest Airlines and the Texas Lottery amongst many others and was a one-time fiddle player for Asleep At The Wheel. The Walser video above was put together by Walser's son Al for his dad's viewing last year, and by request he's graciously posted it on youtube along with other rare Walser videos, hope to see more coming, check his username, alwalser. Many Austin legends have left for good (Townes Van Zandt), some still need to be remembered (Poi Dog Pondering - still crazy after all these years), and some are at the forfront of creating today's scene. "Austin band" isn't quite (yet) the buzzword "Seattle band" was in the 90's, but "The Live Music Capital of the World" isn't Austin's official slogan for nothing.

Townes Van Zandt

Poi Dog Pondering "Natural Thing"

Single Frame "People Are Germs" (Nick Skinner remix)

Single Frame "Floral Design In A Strait Line"

What Made Milwaukee Famous - Brooklyn 2006

I'll finish off this Austin run tomorrow or Wednesday with a full concert by one of my local favorites.


Oh No! Oh My!

Austin's Oh No! Oh My (myspace) are another band on the rise (a new song on "Weeds", tour with Au Revoir Simone and everything). Their whimsical anthems are for the most part light and refreshing, twee at times, sometimes with a few minor chords which either give way to catchy refrains like on "Our Mouths Were Wet" or "The Party Punch" on the new EP, or continue along in their emotion, like the almost British sea song-sounding James-like "I Love You All The Time" from the self-titled debut album or "Oh Be One" or "A Pirate's Anthem" on the new EP. The percussion is especially nice - easy and laid-back, with a lot of clicking, clopping and clapping, cymbals, and tambourines - usually with acoustic guitar, soothing keys, and at times Animal Collective-like whooping filling out the sound, helping keep these new songs bouyant and spright. Their debut album last year was met with wide acclaim, as is their new EP (released just last month), "Between The Devil And The Sea". The influences and approach are college-rock, and they don't take themselves too seriously, as evidenced by the track "The Bike, Sir", which is charming in its silly yet earnest nursery-like simplicity. Oh No! Oh My! make me think "my day ain't so bad." Get 'em now while they're hot here from the label Dim Mak or at iTunes. Also check their Huey Lewis cover at Stereogum.


Octopus Project / Ghostland Observatory

There are two bands from Austin that are playing sold-out shows here and are soon to do the same everywhere after break-out shows, both with big plans for the future: Octopus Project and Ghostland Observatory. They are also two of my favorite Austin bands, and both mix up indie and electronica - Octopus Project glows and shimmers and warps while Ghostland Observatory cackles and pops and rumbles, Octopus Project following a more artsy experimental route (somewhat like Tortoise and the Avalanches) while Ghostland Observatory clearly run the streets at night (like the Rapture, which is an oft-repeated but not untrue comparison). Octopus Project played Coachella last year after winning a contest and Ghostland followed a breakout performance at 2006's Austin City Limits Festival with one that from what I've heard was one of the best from this past weekend's ACL. They both have two albums under their belt, and Octopus Project's third, "Hello, Avalanche" will be released Oct. 9, (fourth counting their collaboration with Black Moth Super Rainbow, which was one of the best things of the last year) coinciding with their big summer tour, and Ghostland Observatory is racking up their own invites including Lollapalooza last month, and as mentioned the last two ACL Festivals as well as this year's Playboy SXSW after-party. Definitely check these two bands out now if you haven't already heard the buzz.

Octopus Project "Exit Counselor"

Octopus Project "Responsible Stu"

Octopus Project and Black Moth Super Rainbow "Lollipopsichord"

Listen to a track off the new Octopus Project album "Hello, Avalanche" at their Myspace and check their site for current tour dates before you miss them - you can also buy music directly from them and listen to other mp3s.

Buy directly from them at Trashy Moped Recordings.


Cockaboody, Okkervil River

Alright, now I've gotten myself into a corner. If I include Voxtrot, there's a whole shitload of bands now that I'm going to have to include in my Austin run. Which I'm also doing instead of ACL Festival, because I just moved and am a broke motherfucker. And then Monday night's Yo La Tengo show sold out but I settled on watching them hang out for a short while and introduce a couple of films at the Alamo Drafthouse: Cockaboody and Four Flies On Grey Velvet, the latter a ridiculous 70's flick about a drummer in a murder/blackmail plot, but with a great psychedelic/almost disco-ish soundtrack by Ennio Morricone. Cockaboody (youtube) was made by Georgia's (of YLT) parents, John and Faith Hubley, who did animation for Disney and Sesame Street, and features the voices of 3 year-old Georgia and her older sister. Georgia talked about how her parents just held out microphones and told them to improv and how she was later fascinated about how they put it together with the animation.

Anyways - the music. If you want the absolute most current new thing in Austin, well I just happened to stumble on Ringo Deathstarr, but other than that, I'm definitely not a Hot Freak, but I'll try to work my way down into a few lesser-known bands. So while I'm hitting the bigger Austin bands everyone should know, I'd be remiss not to include Okkervil River, representing the folksier side of Austin's alt scene (by way of New Hampshire). Their newest album "The Stage Names" came out last month and has received a ton of good reviews. It's mixed by Jim Eno of Spoon, and like the new Spoon it's Okkervil River's most soulful album, and most rocking as well, or about as hard as alt-folk can rock. This interview with Wireless Bollinger (excerpt below) is an interesting insight into the workings of their songs, like the superb "John Allyn Smith Sails":

The album's final track, 'John Allyn Smith Sails', takes this idea to fruition, ending the album with lyrics from a traditional folk song and poem – most famously used as the center of the Beach Boys' 'Sloop John B' – as a way for Sheff to reckon with his John Berryman connection. "The 'Sloop John B' character and the John Berryman [real name John Allyn Smith] were at the same juncture in their lives. They both kind of wreck," says (Will) Sheff.

Like Spoon, though, I'm kind of liking the bonus disc of acoustic demos that comes with early copies of "The Stage Names" almost a little more, fits the songs well:

Buy "The Stage Names" and other Okkervil River at their label Jagjaguwar and preview "The Stage Names" at their site



Voxtrot are definitely an Austin band on the rise. They mine indie influences with an earnest attitude and chops. And a piano. Ben Folds would not be an unfair comparison, they both incorporate piano and power-pop. I like Voxtrot's active bass lines, jangly guitars and overall energetic playing, although I must say I'm more a fan of their less-brooding work, like the following two tracks. Voxtrot are on MTV and are currently opening for the Arctic Monkeys' North American Tour, but are indie enough to have released two EPs on their own record label and maintain approval from Pitchfork.

Voxtrot "Your Biggest Fan" (The 3rd EP, went to #4 on Billboard Singles charts last year)

Voxtrot "Honeybee" (Firecracker 7")

Always if possible buy direct from the band.


I Love You But I've Chosen Darkness

Let's hit the other bigger, more nationally-established Austin bands of today you have probably heard of, and make a connection - this next band's first EP was produced by Britt Daniel of Spoon, and they have the pretty good name of I Love You But I've Chosen Darkness (Myspace), which about sums up their sound. I've read Joy Division comparisons that I just don't really understand, as if everything dark is influenced by Joy Division's sounds. If anything, I hear more Ministry-style darkness, which makes sense since that's the former band of the producer of ILYBICD's debut album, which is decidedly darker and also more Chameleons-like dark new wave-y than the EP.



Spoon are no doubt the best-known Austin band right now. Even their album covers are blogged about. The two albums previous to the newest were big critical and commercial successes, and the newest, "Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga" hit the Billboard Charts at number 10. Here's how I feel about Spoon: First off, local boys make good is always a good thing. Even though Spoon (co)leader Britt Daniel has called Portland home since 2006, Spoon are essentially an Austin band, and this newest album was mostly all recorded in Austin. I've always really liked them and loved several of their songs, just not over-the-top loved as much as some do. The first song on 2002's "Kill the Moonlight", "Small Stakes" (mp3), helped me put into words the thing that I liked about them: the angst, the build-up never quite unleashed, detached yet steady anticipation building into nothing but itself. The songs now still have some of that urgency, but not as much of the stark angularity. This newest has been out for a couple of months now, and critics from Pitchfork to AMG are praising it to the heavens, and it's not all wrong: the newer sounds are more soulful, have more varied instrumentation, are fussed over, but it's sometimes a bit too fussed over. I wish in the case of a lot of their songs that I could hear the studio less, that the production was more stripped down. I don't know why I think that, it's hard to put in words why I feel that's the case here because I love these things about Super Furry Animals. But on this newer Spoon it's like the emotions are trying to escape the studio. Here's three versions of "You Got Yr Cherry Bomb", it's interesting to hear the different takes because it kind of makes me wish they had gone with the less fussed-over alternate mix throughout the whole album, the sound of foot-stomping on a wood floor and hand claps over the sound of a tambourine being struck with a stick in a studio, or at least the more live-sounding tambourine on the KCRW version. There's still Spoon's looseness and swagger on the new album, but I want it to be even looser I guess. I like the alt mix of Cherry Bomb because it just has a first-take kind of spontaneity that fits them well. Still, though, all said - they've obviously taken their time with it, it's a pleasing listen all the way through, is still full of great chops and mid-tempo energy, and I'll probably change my mind and think this album version's better in a few months.

You can stream all of "Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga" over at Merge, and buy it there, too, and listen to select tracks from all of Spoon's releases at their site.


Back In Austin - Ringo Deathstarr

I'm settled in Austin, sorry for the delays. No more four weeks between posts. Probably more like a week, week and a half, haha... after this spurt of making it up to y'all. After this I'm going to hit some major albums of the summer that you shouldn't have missed, but for the next few posts I'm going to highlight some great bands coming out of Austin, TX.

First up is Ringo Deathstarr. The comparisons to Jesus & Mary Chain are unavoidable, and I also hear a lot of Joy Division, and those aren't two bad points of reference. It's gritty and raw and reverby. I hope to see them take it further, but for now recreating JAMC-style songs through their own kind of wall-of-fuzz is hitting my ears alright. They just played on my good friend Brian's radio show, The Casbah, which he podcasts. You can check out this show featuring Ringo Deathstarr from last Saturday night in its entirety, with three more songs and interview, HERE.

edit: I heard from Spoilt Victorian Child Records, who informed me Ringo Deathstarr's debut EP will be available shortly, by Oct. 29 on CD, iTunes, etc., to coincide with their upcoming support slots with the Dandy Warhols. And they were kind enough to offer a taste of the debut EP, here's how two of the tracks sound. I'm thrilled to hear a little bit of Church, Ride, and MBV, too in these:

and there's another mp3 over at SVC Records, the demo of "Some Kind of Sad". I definitely predict you'll be hearing more about these guys, they've just got great hooks and warm fuzz, hard to go wrong with that combo.