I have the unenviable task of reviewing the most recent salvo (ahem) from one of Houston’s most well-ensconced and varied musicians, Rob Smith, aka LOW.Z, as an outsider. Smith is well-known to the Houston area music scene, having been a member of The Sperlings and All Transistor, amongst others, and having won various Houston Press awards back in 2000 and 2001. And that’s about all I know about the guy. In this case, however, it’s more a blessing than a curse, since it means I can look at the music without any influence or thoughts about how Salvo reflects on Smith’s past work: I can judge the music on its merits, rather than on its buzz or reputation.
And I judge that this album is the most unique, most interesting, and, dare I say, coolest albums I have heard in a long time, with one big caveat: You probably won’t like it.
Salvo won’t appeal to everyone. On the contrary, it may appeal to almost no one. It’s quirky, obtuse, beat-driven but hook-laden, vocally limber, but almost cliché-driven (in a specific, twisted way). Smith listens to and absorbs the patois of our vocal culture, culling verbiage, sounds, and words from the background noise. In fact, you will recognize most of the lyrics in some form or another, whether they’re twisted words or lines from television or radio or print. The album seems to be mixed in reverse, with the tweedly bits and honks way out front and the song and vocals buried in the back. On top of this wiggly mess, Smith pushes occasional sound blasts and bass hits front and center, such that you are jerked out of you head-bobbing and slapped alongside the skull in case you weren’t paying attention. For a solo album, especially one that’s so inaccessible (and I mean that in the more mainstream sense), this is a heady, risky choice, and one that I believe says something not only about the confidence Smith has in this work but about the staid state of the music coming out of Houston right now, as well.
If you visit the guy’s Website, you are treated to a song-by-song explanation of the album. (Note: I purposely did not read the descriptions before reviewing, although I did stop by the MySpace site.) It sounds obvious, but Zero is Gary Numan meets Kraftwerk meets Squarepusher (sort of), with the songcraft on the Gary Numan side and the knob-turning of Kraftwerk. Smith clearly loves his vocoder. For a bedroom/home studio recording, Salvo sounds brilliant, every bit as good as any of the other homebody ninjas slaving away in their self-imposed solitude in London. If I had this disc pushed on me at the store, I’d pick it up in an instant.
By the by, you can download the entire album from Smith’s site (or via the MySpace page). Go pick it up; you won’t be disappointed. Completely different from everything else coming out of Houston right now.