Sunday, May 12, 2013

Hickoids/Grannies, Pinata Protest

I wasn't born in Texas, but I got here as fast as I could.

When I was looking to escape, Brooce Springsteen-like, from my nowhere town on Lawn Guyland back at the ass-end of the '70s, the two places I considered (after being dissuaded from moving to Boston -- what a mistake that would have been! -- by an acquaintance who'd moved there and was back in six months) were Louisiana and Texas, on the basis of their being the last two states in America with thriving indigenous musical cultures. When my drummer from college called after seeing the Sex Pistols in Dallas and told me they sucked, but local openers the Nervebreakers were great, not to mention the fact you could make $9 an hour "raking rocks in the road" (the only work he thought I was capable of doing, evidently), you could drive your car without liability insurance (I was paying $900 a year with a clean record in New York), and you could "drive up to a cop with a beer in your hand and he'd just wave" (unless you were in the Fort Worth Stockyards, in which case he'd probably be drunker than you and beat the shit out of you), my mind was made up.

It's a truism, but it's also true that in Texas, you get a cornucopia of musical styles, the product of the Lone Star State's confluence of cultures -- country, blues, Tejano, polka, jazz, Western Swing (jazz with cowboy hats, born in Fort Worth), rockabilly, psychedelia (a lot of the seeds of the "San Francisco sound" were transplanted from Austin), even punk (after the Nervebreakers came a deluge that included the Huns, Big Boys, and Dicks, to name but three) -- as well as its unique sensibility, which is unpretentious and often humorous. The archetypal Texas muso is a musical omnivore along the lines of Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, Willie Nelson, Doug Sahm, or James Hinkle. Even musicians whose style remains in one genre have been nourished by more than one root source; the cats in Fort Worth doom-metal juggernaut Solomon, f'rinstance, teethed on both Led Zeppelin and Vicente Fernandez, and retain an appreciation for both. Which brings us to the latest release from Saustex Media, the San Antonio label helmed by Jeff Smith, frontman for long-lived (formed in 1985) cowpunks the Hickoids.

300 Years of Punk Rock, a split LP with Bay Area-based "fuckpunks" the Grannies, is both a taster for the Hickoids' soon-come Hairy Chafin' Ape Suit album and a souvenir of the two bands' recent rampage across Europe. The Hickoids' side comprises four tracks to the Grannies' six, with lots of room for guitarist Davy Jones -- one of the band's prime onstage visual vectors, looking for all the world like a psychedelic scarecrow staked out in the middle of the Hickoids' cornfield as he churns out the nasty Stooge-esque fuzz 'n' wah-drenched rifferama -- and utility muso Scott Lutz (pedal steel and keys) to stretch out. This includes two covers of songs by their familiars the Loco Gringos, a legendary Dallas outfit whose aesthetic revolved around Schaefer beer, tequila, corndogs, and bales of hay. (The Gringos' saga is memorably recounted in an oral history Jeff Liles penned for the Dallas Observer on the occasion of a 2009 reunion gig.)

Musically, the Gringos' "TJ" is a ringer for "Me and Bobby McGee," which means that the ghost of Janis J. hovers around the tequila bottle, but it's set to a bumpa-chicka beat worthy of '70s Waylon Jennings, overlaid with the Hickoids usual miasma of feelthy guitars, that takes off into a wailing rave-up worthy of the Stones ca. Some Girls. The other Gringos cover here, "Fruit Fly," is a suitably desperate-sounding minor-key romp. On "Stop It You're Killing Me" and "The Workingman's Friend," Smith comes across like a corn-fed Jim Morrison, intoning a tale of sexual misadventure on the former and navigating a barfly's odyssey on the latter (before taking a detour into the most bizarro Hendrix homage you'll hear this year). All of which whets one's appetite to hear Hairy Chafin' Ape Suit complete.

As befits a Bay Area crew, the Grannies are a little more visually extreme, if a little less naturalistically so, than the Hickoids, looking like a dystopian nightmare vision of glam and sounding like a holdover from the '90s wave of Scandinavian turbo rawk. They tip their collective lid to '70s punk via covers (Boston's Nervous Eaters -- frontguy Bjorn Toulouse is a Beantown expat -- and Brits Slaughter and the Dogs) and the "Chinese Rock"-alike intro to "Sonic Granitosis." "God Loves the Hickoids" pokes good-natured fun at their tour mates by approximating their sonic shtick, while elsewhere, the Grannies kick up a mighty ruckus, anchored by a hot rhythm section, and a mighty high time is had by all.

Pinata Protest, whose debut disc Plethora managed to slip by me last year, plays an unlikely hybrid: conjunto-punk. Front dude Alvaro Del Norte came late to Mexican music, studying accordion at community college, and recruited his band mates from a San Antonio skateboard shop that was also a local punk hub. On El Valiente, producer Frenchie Smith of Jet/Toadies fame gives their synthesis a big-label sheen, from the relatively straightahead (albeit uber-amped-up) conjunto of "Vato Perron" to the unalloyed hardcore of "Que Puedo." Separated from its cultural context, "Life On the Border" could be mistaken for Dropkick Murphys yerdy-yerdy Irish-punk, but there's no mistaking the provenance of Vicente Hernandez's conjunto classic "Volver, Volver" (which it took cojones the size of the Alamo to cover) and the venerable "La Cucaracha": the sound of a young band not just owning its cultural heritage, but making it stand up and roar.

(Speaking of Bay Area-Texas connections, listeners for whom Pinata Protest whets an appetite to hear the genuine article, unalloyed, are directed to the Mexican selections in the Arhoolie Records catalog, which include crucial releases by Flaco Jimenez and Lydia Mendoza. Arhoolie founder Chris Strachwitz is the subject of the documentary This Ain't No Mouse Music. Watch for it.)


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