Dave's Big Deluxe
Why is it that really good ska songs have to sound like they were recorded in one take with all the instruments in a small room, and with a cloud of cigarette smoke obscuring everything six feet above the floor? Dave's Big Deluxe is good ska.
A little bit reggae, a little bit surf-rock, even a little '50s R&B, Miss Fortune sets the pace with "Little L.A." and turns into a pleasant head-bobbing experience. Be it the unusual surf-stylings of the instrumental "Charlie Don't Surf" (think Beetlejuice Beach Party with some Apocalypse Now dialogue samples in the background) to the surprisingly upbeat ain't-got-no-luck-but-bad-luck "What Kinda Girlie," the tunes are decent, and the three-piece brass section can make enough noise for twice that many people.
And therein lies the problem. Vocalist/guitarist Dave Schuttenberg steps out from behind the brass too rarely. He shines on "Charlie Don't Surf," but fades into a non-descript background for most of the rest of the album. Even bassist Vernon Little has more chances to make some serious noise than Schuttenberg gets; darn shame, really. Aside from that admittedly small problem, ska fans should have no problem latching on to this album and skanking themselves silly. (CH)
(Slimstyle Records -- 3400 E. Speedway, Suite 118-272, Tucson, AZ. 85716; http://www.slimstyle.com/)
A Life of Saturdays
The story of Dexter Freebish is really the story of two bands slogging through the Austin music scene -- The Twigs and Jaguar Sun. The Twigs were a solid three-man unit with an acoustic sound, while Jaguar Sun tended more to the electric side of the spectrum and was known for lead singer Blu Sanders' Eddie Vedder-ish voice and Scott Romig's tight, pizzicato guitar. You could recognize a song Romig wrote by sound alone. From the start there was collaboration between the two bands, and JS guitarist Romig co-wrote two of the better songs off the Twigs debut, one of which, "They Told Me," off The Twigs' first self-titled album, is still one of my favorite songs.
Well, Jaguar Sun disappeared and The Twigs changed their name to Dexter Freebish, added a full-time drummer, and released another album of more refined, less bluesy (and much more poppy) songs in 1996. The band has grown up a bit more, practiced their rock star sneers in the bathroom mirror, and have become a decent pop-rock band. They've even gone and gained a little credibility in advance by winning the John Lennon Songwriting Contest, too.
The current lineup of Dexter Freebish includes original Twiggians vocalist Robert Kyle (called simply "Kyle" in the liner notes -- how very Sting-like), guitarist Charles Martin, and bassist Chris Lowe. On A Life of Saturdays, they have been joined by newcomer Rob Schilz on drums and -- Thank God! -- Scott Romig on guitar. If college bands are going to implode, they might as well merge with other bands and make some good music...
As for material, there are at least three songs that have Top 40 radio written all over them, and as of this writing, "Leaving Town," arguably the best song on the album, is gaining radio and television airplay. The band weaves ballads like "Tomorrow" with jaunty pop-rock like "Deeper" with ease, and even dabble with a little punk on "A Life of Saturdays." Unfortunately, Romig doesn't treat old fans to his trademark guitar style, but, in retrospect, it doesn't really have a place in the new material. The guitars are clean, though the bass is perhaps a bit overdone. Think Matchbox Twenty or Vertical Horizon, and you are probably not that far off.
It's been fun watching Dexter Freebish mature into a marketable pop entity. Too bad I have to share them with everybody else, now. (CH)
(Capitol Records; Dexter Freebish -- http://www.dexterfreebish.com/)
Listening to Aqua Vita is like popping open a time capsule from mid-'90s -- the songs here would have been more at home in the heyday of Soundgarden and Alice in Chains than with the abundance of Creed-type bands that are passed off as hard rock these days. Dirty and deep, you might not like all of Aqua Vita, but you'll damn sure sit through it and you'll wonder if you heard was what you thought you heard or something else entirely.
Comprised of Eric Shutt (guitar, vocals), Casey Hess (guitars, vocals), Todd Harwell (drums), and Chad DeAstley (bass), doosu is anti-pop. Aggressive and remarkably well-produced, Aqua Vita is marked by lots of fast drums, minor chords, and serious distortion. The "alternative" mentality is firmly place in the songwriting -- "Hotshot," a condemnation of the superficial items that people embrace to make themselves feel hip; "Louisiana House Fire, Mid 1950's" (sic), which details the results of experimenting with matches in the closet (or a metaphor for any number of experiences -- you be the judge); or "Bachelor Lung's," a love song of sorts filled with cynicism and disillusionment. No "Shiny Happy People" here.
The vocals can get lost in the mix from time to time, a situation that is most apparent when Hess and Shutt are harmonizing and you can barely make out the backing vocals. Shutt and Hess treat their guitars like twin leads rather than lead and rhythm, and they play off each other well, but they sometimes drown out DeAstley's bass. There is also a rhythm the songs tend to follow, consisting of crunching guitar and bass and an overabundance of drum rolls. Every song but "Pennies," which is entirely acoustic, fall into this pattern at some point, and it makes it hard to distinguish between some of the songs.
Some of doosu's earlier work, such as a particularly driving (and pretty amusing) rendition of "We Go Together" from Grease, showed a mischievous side that is hard to find on Aqua Vita. The overall feel of the album is very gloomy and cynical; the songs hang on you like a heavy, slightly uncomfortable sweater. Truth be told, I had a hard time listening to the whole album in one sitting -- there was too much in these songs for me to digest to do Aqua Vita all at once.
You'll probably never hear doosu running in the background of Dawson's Creek [Ed. Note: is that a bad thing?], but they're definitely worth a listen. (CH)
(One Ton Records -- P.O. Box 1991, Dallas, TX. 75221; http://www.onetonrecords.com/; doosu -- http://www.doosu.com/)
Dub Narcotic Sound System meets The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion
This album could be described as the musical equivalent of the fabled meeting of chocolate and peanut butter that produced that culinary sensation, Reese's Peanut Butter Cups. Aptly titled in a way reminiscent of the albums that resulted from similar meetings of dub practitioners in the '70s, this disc brings together two raw modern carriers of the funk in a positively synergistic fashion. The entire JSBX is represented here, along with the organist from Dub Narcotic and its famously low-voiced leader, Calvin Johnson. Calvin takes the lion's share of the vocal duties here, whilst Mr. Jon Spencer adds frequent vocal encouragements of a soulfully funky sort, playing Flavor Flav to Calvin's Chuck D, if I may be permitted that analogy. The music itself is stripped-down, almost minimalist in its application of the groove at the core of a blues explosion. Lyrics range the gamut from an oft-repeated "banana" and "the music's not loud enough!" to details of new Olympia, WA dance crazes, replete with all the Calvinisms one could hope for. If this album doesn't put a smile on your face, you should seek treatment immediately. Thumb up. (CP)
(K Records -- P.O. Box 7154, Olympia, WA. 98507; http://www.kpunk.com/)