CD and Book Reviews

August 1999By Comments

MUSIC

Swingin’ The Wheel on Wills.

Asleep at the Wheel

Ride With Bob
Dreamworks

IT’S HARD TO FIGURE OUT WHETHER Ride With Bob is a tribute to the late Bob Wills, the king of Western swing, or a tribute to Ray Benson, the leader of Asleep at the Wheel. That’s because no single person (okay, Alvin Crow, maybe) has done as much to advance the cause of Western swing as Benson has over the past quarter century. It’s been that long since the last great Wills rave-up, 1974’s For the Last Time, which functioned as a tribute album and a reunion for various Playboys, arguably the most storied lineup in Texas music. Fittingly, Benson coaxes the best out of contemporary Nashville stars while demonstrating he was cut from the same cloth as Bob himself.

Wills’ voice kicks off the proceedings, talking about playing dances, driving six hundred miles and sneaking in a few hours of sleep, and playing another dance. The fiddle medley that follows, “Bob’s Breakdowns,” is a balm of reassurance that Western swing’s rhythmic foundation, jazz framework, and energizing sound haven’t changed one iota. Dwight Yoakam does a suave turn as vocalist on “San Antonio Rose,” and Don Walser, the Pavarotti of the Plains, yodels his way through “I Ain’t Got Nobody.” Dixie Chick Natalie Maines infuses her vocal on “Roly Poly” with so much sass and spunk one actually feels hope for the future of country music. Then there’s Willie Nelson, whose “Goin’ Away Party” is backed by the smooth vocal choruses of Manhattan Transfer and violins instead of fiddles. There’s hardly a clunker in the bunch, though I wouldn’t have missed Lyle Lovett and Shawn Colvin’s perfunctory reading of “Faded Love.”

The real stars, though, are Johnny Gimble, who is simply the best fiddle player on earth, charter band member Floyd Domino, the rest of the Wheel, and Benson himself, who, like Wills, has created a sound that’s been consistent for 29 years despite a revolving door of cast members that almost equals the number of ex-Texas Playboys. Ray Benson gets it, and that’s the reason Ride With Bob sounds fresh and vital. Here’s hoping someone like him surfaces from the next generation to ensure that Western swing and Bob Wills ride a whole lot longer. Joe Nick Patoski

Doctors’ Mob

Last One in the Van Drives
Hoedown Entertainment

In the mid-eighties Austin rock scene, a new generation of roots-minded guitar bands emerged, a hardworking and ambitious bunch with their hopes set on actual careers. And then there was Doctors’ Mob, who lived by their credo “Show up drunk, show up late, or don’t show up at all.” Their erratic shows were a study in barely controlled chaos. Loud and loose, the band ridiculed rock-star convention, their peers, and even themselves. It was great fun, made all the more effective by their little secret: The Mob were actually an exceptional band. The evidence appears on their only two albums, rereleased together on one disc, featuring decade-old recordings that still hold their own. Frontman Steve Collier had uncanny pop smarts; rarely have melodicism and frenzy formed such an easy alliance. The Mob managed pop without the smarm, punk without the bile, high energy without the posturing, and perhaps best of all, the neat trick of making the whole thing seem like an accident. Jeff McCord

Jackie King

Moon Magic
Indigo Moon

Jazz guitarist Jackie King, a former Willie Nelson sideman, emerged from the same San Antonio scene that produced Doug Sahm, one in which the musicians were equally fluent in blues and R&B, rock, and country. On Moon Magic, his third solo album, he stretches out on nine standards—all with “moon” in the title. Most songs begin with exploratory improvisations, King feeling his way in until he snaps to attention and takes off, opening a Pandora’s box of licks. His chunky rhythm work and his way of bearing down on certain lines reflect his R&B heritage; his ability to “float” other lines, with twangy overtones, suggests country roots. He verges on dissonance, toys with shadings, and plays one line clean and the next slurred. Soaring far from the theme, he gets back effortlessly, especially on “Blue Moon,” with its rolling passage and playful interpolations. The closing “Moon Rays” boasts a quirky intro and ends with the guitarist picking serenely through a slow fade—the sound of Jackie King, shooting the moon. John Morthland

DJ DMD and the Inner Soul Clique

Twenty-Two: P.A. World Wide
Inner Soul/EastWest

Remember the East Coast-West Coast rivalry that dominated hip-hop a few years ago? Well, if Houston’s Suave House hinted that the Third Coast was joining the fray, Port Arthur’s DJ DMD confirms it. He isn’t shy about showing some hometown pride; on the opening track he and his crew shout “We represent P.A.” eighteen times, which may well hearten the denizens of Port Arthur but will likely confuse the worthy citizens of the great state of Pennsylvania. The rest is what we’ve come to expect from Southern hip-hop: faster, cleaner, more machine-driven rhythms than the slo-mo breakbeats they go for up north, which means an emphasis on rump-shaking rather than lyrical outlandishness. Not that there isn’t thuggery to be found—the chorus “Cash, money, weed, and hos / Northside representin’ till the casket’s closed” clues you into the basic milieu—just that it’s undercut by samples of lover-man classics like Al B. Sure’s “Nite and Day” and LL Cool J’s “I Need Love.” Jeff Salamon

The American Analog Set

The Golden Band
Emperor Jones

Talk of Texas and wide-open spaces usually lends itself to country music, but our state is home to another strain of sound that’s equally suitable. They call it “space rock” for other reasons, of course, but this neopsychedelic non-noise has been a big part of the music scene for all of the nineties. The American Analog Set might be the genre’s most accomplished practitioners. The Fort Worth-bred combo speaks beautifully for itself via its album titles: The Fun of Watching Fireworks, From Our Living Room to Yours, and now, The Golden Band. The group’s careful silences and hypnotic guitar-vocal motifs could add up to nothing more than a pleasing ambience, but the band transcends the surfaces. The songs are woozy, warm, and surprisingly lively, animated by insinuating organ figures, a snappy rhythm section, and a sonic landscape that’s both crystalline and intimate—the vocals are delicate but not detached, and you can hear the sound of fingers rubbing on the fretboard. Wide-open spaces? This is music for both the nothingness outside and the room inside your head. Jason Cohen

BOOKS

James Lee Burke

Heartwood
Doubleday

When it comes to phantom menace, George Lucas has nothing on James Lee Burke. The Houston native is, in a way, a modern master of the ghost story: His characters are inevitably haunted by their past or possessed of a terrifyingly cruel spirit. In Heartwood, the second installment of his Hill Country series featuring ex-Texas Ranger Billy Bob Holland, Burke imbues the story with the same lurid suspense that made its predecessor, Cimarron Rose, an an Edgar Award winner. When Billy Bob’s first lover reenters his life, we know she’s really a beautiful banshee, a harbinger of death. And indeed, their renewed relationship sets off a cascade of violence: Her rich and hateful husband falsely accuses a likable ne’er-do-well of theft, while her son-of-a-bitch stepson prefers to brutalize his own victims. Naturally, white knight Billy Bob can’t just stand by. Tie in a psychotic gang leader, a missing Alamo artifact, and a blind Cheyenne visionary, and you’ve got a spectacular specterama. Will you get any sleep till you finish it? Not a ghost of a chance. Anne Dingus

Briefly Noted

The release of Louise Redd’s novel Hangover Soup (Little, Brown and Company) makes for a Redd-letter day. The author takes an old-standby plot—alcoholic husband, tormented wife, inevitable tragedy—and colors it afresh with a sure sense of pacing and structure. Said wife, a student-athlete tutor whose deejay husband is spinning out of control, narrates with low-key humor (“I stared at him, unable to believe that a man in polyester shorts was wishing me luck”), and her light touch intensifies the underlying drama. Redd, who wrote and set this novel in Austin, recently moved to Colorado; we may no longer be able to count her among Texas’ finest, but we can say we knew her when…

Texans never tire of western-y coffee-table tomes. The latest keeper is the photo-rich Texas Cattle Barons (Ten Speed Press), which profiles a baker’s dozen of Lone Star ranch families. San Angelo über-writer Elmer Kelton contributed the text.…

The collection Borrowed Hearts: New and Collected Stories (Seven Stories Press) rounds up 32 stories (11 new) by former UT-El Paso prof Rick DeMarinis, who is known for his darkly engaging vignettes.…

On the lighter (if less memorable) side, a plot involving conspiracy buffs and bluffs unfurls fetchingly in Umbrella Man, fourth in the series starring glib gumshoe Jack Flippo, by Doug Swanson of the Dallas Morning NewsAnne Dingus

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