issue 15 :: July 2008

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REVIEW: Austin Music Update

Shawn McMillen & Ralph White “The Foul Lowlands” CDr (Seagrave)

Ralph White, formerly of the punk-bluegrass band the Bad Livers, and Shawn McMillen, formerly of Iron Kite and Ash Castles on the Ghost Coast, fuse their respective (and respectable) multi-instrumental prowess on this 50 minute live recording of three pieces. Both players are superb improvisers and both know hundreds of traditional and popular songs, so it is difficult to tell where the pieces are coming from. I assume pure improvisations. McMillen’s wah-infused electric guitar meanders around White’s kalimba and then banjo on opener “Gold Canoe (Sunrise).” A staple for McMillen is his mumbled/tortured vocals—what is he saying? I always ask myself—and these pop up throughout the piece. Around 15 minutes into the piece, the mood becomes quieter, the kalimba dominating and White’s sleepy vocals creep into the mix. “Window Horse” begins after some amp noise, a beautiful fingerpicked electric guitar reminiscent of deep county blues, kalimba keeping a quiet thumping, both overpowering White’s shouted vocals. “The CooCoo” continues the dark journey and adds harmonica (by Shawn as it appears while Ralph sings) and swelling electronic effects while Ralph switches between the thumb piano and wooden banjo. Murky, gorgeous music for fans of Ghost, and far better than what gets passed off as freak folk or “New Weird Americana.”

ECFA “Der Wald” CD (Pull The String Records)

Saxophonist Carl Smith has led a lonely avant-jazz assault on Austin over the past decade. In a town where few others play adventurous or free jazz, at times it has seemed that Smith was a lone torchbearer for this music. His long-standing group ECFA is often presented as a trio with drums and second saxophone or (in the first half of its existence) James Alexander’s viola. What bass player in town would play this kind of music? (Beau Sample, who rarely makes ECFA a quartet). Consequently Smith’s evolution as a bandleader and composer has been to find ways for two melody instruments to flesh out all of the harmonic spaces of a piece without anything except a standard drum kit. This has lead to highly contrapual writing, the two forefront instruments forming a living handshake through Smith’s scores (which always have open passages for free playing). Der Wald presents the final days of the trio with soprano saxophonist Holland Hopson before his move to Albany. With most tracks penned by Carl or improvised by the trio, and pieces dedicated to Eric Dolphy and Bobby Jaspar, Carl’s fire music displays a smart conceptual edge. Replacing Hopson on one track, saxophonist Alex Coke (known for his tenures with the Willem Breuker Kollektief and Tina Marsh’s Creative Opportunity Orchestra) jumps on Steve Lacy’s “The Retreat.” The smooth and fluid playing of both saxophonists emphasize the snaky nature of ECFA’s m.o. Coke’s solo over drums treats our ears. Ah... there is Jazz in Austin.
Inversion Effect “A Brief History” CD (Artificial Music Machine)
Inversion Effect is the apex of Austin’s once active electronica scene. The trio morphs through numerous moods over these eleven tracks, incorporating melodies, field recordings, guitar, beats, samples, everything seemingly electronically processed and performed live. Three tracks are from an original score for the silent film “Nosferatu” (Austin is bat-shit crazy for bands playing live to old silent films: a highlight in this cliché is ST-37’s double CD to accompany “Metropolis”): the title “In the Shadow of the Vampire” seemed like a silly name until I realized its source. The band has two things going for it: the tracks here are live performances, which add an urgency over some electronica elements (synthesizer sounds and beats) and Thomas Fang’s tactile use of noises from circuit-bent electronics (noisemaking toys: Fang is also responsible for the frightening Furby Youth Choir) and field recordings. This, their first album, is compiled from 5 years of performances so the best material gets through.
More information about creative musicians in Austin and the rest of Texas can be found at the Austinnitus site, including free downloads of dozens of noise/experimental musicians, including the above artists.
reviewed by Josh Ronsen, photos by JR, IE photo by Dan Plunkett, altered by JR.
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