For me, the last few months haven’t been conducive to new posts. But the break I took from fresh entries here on Ear Traffic, I’m telling myself, was warranted because the less that’s written about 2020, the better.
In spite of that, I’ll be forging ahead with my annual year-end lists in short order, so be on the lookout. In the meantime, here are reviews of three 2020 full-lengths from prominent local artists that I heretofore haven’t had a chance to put together reviews on.
Jackie Venson, Vintage Machine
JV’s evolution as an artist has just happened to coincide with the type of moves that give her a shot at landing a wider audience. She could’ve settled in as a local blues/soul/rock guitar goddess, become a local legend in a town that loves to make them, and been an Austin-centric mainstay for decades. Instead, she’s branching out farther and farther into blending her organic roots into a unique synth/drum machine fusion. The result has become something of her own creation that has strong notes of ’80s radio rock, but less diluted and more melodically explosive, with Venson’s exceptional axework integrated into a somewhat space-age electronic pop. Not only has she been successful at it, but it also fits the mold of many of today’s alternative radio hits, and even the more rock-infused side of today’s pop hits. That’s not to say she’ll become a household name nationally — but this direction, which she’s been gravitating toward since circa 2018, is as likely as any to get her there.
Vintage Machine is the most cohesive statement yet of Venson’s vision, following up on last year’s Joy and the two house-y Jackie the Robot volumes she released earlier this year. VM is unabashedly personal more often than not — witness opener “Awake,” an expansive tribute to her musician father and his influence on her determination to pursue her own path; “Home,” a nostalgic love letter to Austin and her roots; and “Make Me Feel,” a synth-y love song power ballad that has the lyrics — if not exactly the sound — of a wedding anthem.
The electronic sheen into which Jackie’s soaring lead lines blend could seem maybe a little cold and rote at times if Venson weren’t wearing her heart on her sleeve — but that’s never been a problem for her, and it’s not now, as she sings with an open soul and a constant window into her mind. Maybe it’s appropriate that the standout track is the title one, “Vintage Machine,” basically a beaty expression of how much Venson loves exactly the kind of music she’s making right now: “Feeling so high/These beats hypnotize me/It’s no surprise/No drug can beat this music/Don’t want to stop/Want to get lost … Buttons and knobs/I think I found my purpose/Feeling so free.” Everything from the punchy chorus to the spoken-word sample bridge works, and adds up to something that feels joyfully meta — how many modern artists write songs about how much they love the fun tools of the studio, of making the proverbial sausage?
This is yet more fine music from a constantly imaginative, exploratory artist and ridiculous guitarist. The only factor really keeping it from a higher rating is its brevity. I usually ding albums marketed as full-lengths for offering less than 10 tracks, unless the overall effect is an absolute knockout. This one is only eight songs and 33 minutes, and really only 7 and about 25 if you discount the nearly eight-minute closer, “Outro: The Beginnings,” a mashup of the album’s iPhone demos that Venson included as a peek at the process. It will be of interest to Jackie’s hardcore fans, but it’s the kind of thing I prefer to hear outside the context of a proper album. So, quantity is a bit wanting here, but the quality is generally nails. Venson’s musical journey is an ongoing thrill ride. *** 1/2 stars out of 5
Bill Callahan, Gold Record
If you want to go inside the mind of a music blogger who does reviews, here’s a piece of perspective for you: Bill Callahan is one of the easiest artists to review in human history.
A lot of times, as you know, you can’t always discern every lyric in a song, or sometimes even any of them (and despite what one might assume by now, the internet doesn’t have all the words to all the songs in the universe). Hard to completely evaluate a non-instrumental song if you can’t read or discern all the lyrics (see: Deathstarr, Ringo, below), but with Callahan, that’s not a problem at all. Every word of his talkie-folkie narratives is clear, dominating the mix, enunciated with deliberate precision. The quiet, gentle production is clear, too; you won’t miss a sound, no matter how subtle. So, to turn WYSIWYG sideways, WYHIWIT: What you hear is what is there.
In this case, what’s here is a record where, thanks to Callahan’s long-honed way with words, you’re never really sure if you’ve gotten all the information you need to fully evaluate everything. The now-54-year-old’s deeply intoned stories and insights always seem to have another layer, and when you think you’ve gotten one peeled back, there’s a sense that maybe you’re still missing something else. Everything’s talky, direct, yet perhaps inviting an even deeper dive.
Opening track “Pigeons,” which begins with a Johnny Cash reference and ends with a Leonard Cohen one, is a wisdom-filled standout on how marriage changes a person’s place in society. As a limo driver for newlyweds, Callahan’s narrator has this key insight when the groom asks him for advice: Well, I thought for a mile as I drove with a smile/And I said, ‘When you are dating you only see each other/And the rest of us can go to hell/But when you are married, you are married to the whole wide world/The rich, the poor/The sick and the well/The straights and gays/And the people that say “We don’t use those terms these days.”‘ It’s an endorsement of the institution of marriage, the only song I know of that includes the word “plenipotentiary,” and a tone-setter for the maturity that stands as one of Gold Record’s strengths.
Other songs offer similar lyrical intrigue, stories and wit. “The Mackenzies,” a drawn-out sketch about hanging out with neighbors after your car breaks down, is guaranteed to generate both serenity and smiles, with lines like, “As Jack and I bonded over our love of Mel Tormé/And the early movies of Kid ‘n Play…” “Protest Song” is an enjoyable, pointed-sounding sort of Trace Buster Buster — a protest of bad protest music.
The problem with Gold Record, such as it is, is the plodding, folky sameness over 40 minutes — the unwavering acoustic guitar quiet, the occasional distant slide guitars, horns and whistles, the often-snail’s pacing that entrance some and don’t sustain others … like me. As the saying goes, your mileage may vary. But as a complete work, Gold Record is a challenging listen, other than as background music for old souls staring at the horizon from their porch while sipping brown liquor neat. For the rest of us who only slip into that mode occasionally, Callahan’s poetic sketches, compelling as they can be, are best experienced in small, choice doses. Choose the best few doses and admire his craft. ** 1/2 stars out of 5
Ringo Deathstarr (self-titled)
The eternal issue with shoegaze acts — even a very skilled and capable one like veteran local shoegaze champs Ringo Deathstarr — is the overdrifting problem. Many times, gazer bands will just kind of leave you, the listener, behind; they saunter into a fuzzy, somewhat ethereal dreamland, and it’s like they can’t get out. They’ve lost focus for the sake of atmosphere, and it smacks of an uninviting lethargy.
Here, that tendency occasionally mars what’s otherwise Deathstarr at its most quintessential — fuzzboxing, pounding and floating its way to another solid album. If you listened to their last full-length, 2015’s Pure Mood, and didn’t like the more ’90s radio-ish moves (I did) on tracks like “Heavy Metal Suicide,” you’re in luck, because there’s basically none of that here. This is the basic Ringo Deathstarr sound locals have come to know and love, and there are a good number of winners.
As usual, the trading of lead vocals between angelic-voiced bassist Alex Gehring (top photo) and dark-drone-piped guitarist/founder Elliott Frazier is a welcome switching of flavors, a sugar-and-sandpaper balancing act that gives Ringo Deathstarr sustained variance. Gehring’s in-the-clouds voice stands out on the lovely “Disease” and on the building, pedal-drenched closing track “Cotton Candy Clouds,” a great finisher that sounds like something David Lynch would stick into a movie about flannel-clad slackers. Frazier, meanwhile, leads a car-radio-friendly race to the void on “Just Like You” and channels his more sensitive side on “Be Love” behind Daniel Coborn’s engaging, rhythmic beat. Another good soul-searching exploration, “I Don’t Want to Lose This,” featuring sections for each lead vocalist, veering slightly into an ’80s-ish pop-tinged territory largely because of the production treatment on Frazier’s voice.
The aforementioned occasional over-drift is the record’s main drawback, along with occasional instances in which the lyrics go a little too far past minimal. Sound-wise, for example, “Lazy Lane” is a delight for any ’90s-loving ‘gazer type, but its lyric is too apropos for the title (“Lazin’ round on lazy lane/I’ll be lazin’ round on lazy lane/I’ll be lazin’ round on lazy lane/Cuz I can’t think of anything better to do.”) Overall though, this is a plus album that focuses on what this long-running band does well. *** stars out of 5