CD and Book Reviews
Distancing themselves further still from their earlier banjo-punk novelties, Austin’s Bad Livers go with what they know on Industry and Thrift (Sugar Hill). There is too much attitude and eclecticism at work to call this traditional bluegrass, yet despite a couple of electric interludes, the musical leanings of composer-singer Danny Barnes and bassist Mark Rubin embellish Barnes’s heartfelt yarns with Depression-era authenticity.
Not since Harry Smith liberated so many folk artists from obscurity has a compilation album been as profoundly influential. In 1972, four years before the Ramones and the Sex Pistols threw out rock and roll’s elitist rule book for good, Lenny Kaye assembled the original Nuggets double-LP, which sent countless kids scurrying to music stores and into garages across the nation. Nuggets: Original Artyfacts From the First Psychedelic Era, 1965 —1968 (Rhino) expands that release into a four-CD set jammed full of trippy lyrics, Farfisa organs, fuzzed overdriven guitars, and 118 hallucinogen-fueled songs by hungry American garage bands, among them Texas heroes Mouse and the Traps, The Sparkles, Sam the Sham, The Zakery Thaks, and of course, Roky Erickson’s Thirteenth Floor Elevators. Howlingly derivative of the sixties’ biggest artists, these bands, with little more in common than bad recordings of great songs, explode in a mono-sonic fury that moves with the fervor of a cat whose tail is on fire. You could quibble with choices—too many groups have multiple tracks, and where is “96 Tears”?—but silly? Amateurish? Inspirational? Life-affirming? Essential? Yes. Yes. Yes! YES! YES!! Nuggets is back. Lock up the kids. Jeff McCord
On his debut album, 12 Ways to Win People to Your Way of Thinking (Warner Brothers), Wes Cunningham is rootsy and rocky without being roots-rock, and radio friendly without being insipid. The native Filipino, who was raised in Dallas and today is at home there and in Nashville, is not without his flaws: Sometimes he sounds too ambitious. But anyone who’s equally comfortable with acoustic and electric guitars, electronic sampling and garage-band attack, and power chords and sweet melodies has plenty of promise.
The Pine Valley Cosmonauts Salute the Majesty of Bob Wills (Bloodshot) thumps as hard as it swings, but that’s alternative country for you. Fronted occasionally by guest vocalists Jimmie Dale Gilmore (“Trouble in Mind”) and Alejandro Escovedo (“San Antonio Rose”) and augmented by the Poi Dog Pondering horns, these Chicago musicians are more rockers than traditionalists. But that’s okay. They don’t capture Western swing kingpin Wills’s majesty as much as his play-all-night, play-a-little-longer, back-alley spirit. John Morthland
The Lubbock music mafia used to dominate Austin-style country until a new group of outsiders from the Rockies roped the hearts and minds of hardcore fans: Chris Wall, a genuine Montana cowboy and a sharp singer-songwriter who was brought to town by Jerry Jeff Walker and ultimately eclipsed his host’s popularity; and Reckless Kelly, self-described “hick rockers” who have carved out a huge Austin following of their own after less than two years in town. They joined forces for Wall’s fifth CD, Tainted Angel (Cold Spring). Wall writes some smart lyrics to wrap his baritone around, and every song is custom-made for waltzing or two-stepping.
If you’re a Texas boy steeped in Texas blues, you could do worse than take your act down under, as Lubbock native Steve Lott did for West Texas Refugee (Turbo Dwarf), a collection of rocking numbers that spotlights his brand of six-string pyrotechnics. Though he cites Albert Collins, T-Bone Walker, and Little Milton as his spiritual fathers, Lott—who laid down these tracks last year in Queensland, Australia, is more likely to evoke visions of Stevie Ray. Joe Nick Patoski
Two Texas attorneys are courting publicity for their new books. San Antonio’s Jay Brandon acquits himself well with his ninth novel, Angel of Death (Forge Books, $24.95), in which a black activist’s trial for murder sparks racial clashes and more bloody deaths. Objection: Character development and fluidity of style aren’t Brandon’s strong points. Overruled: Learned counsel does excel at the thrust-and-parry of witnesses, lawyers, and judge. Dallas’ Bryan A. Garner conveys as much pomposity as practicality in A Dictionary of Modern American Usage (Oxford University Press, $30). Some sections are intentionally amusing, such as “Airlinese.” But it is silly to give misspellings their own separate entries; what if the dictionary did that?
Two new novels take a stab at the legend of a knife fighter extraordinaire. In Bowie (Forge Books, $23.95), El Pasoans Randy Lee Eickhoff and Leonard C. Lewis use an appealing faux-historical pastiche of letters, legal documents, and reminiscences to recreate the Alamo hero’s life. In The Time of the Wolf (Donald I. Fine Books, $24.95), by Georgetown writer William D. Blankenship, the original Bowie knife surfaces for sale in a secret auction. The plot is applaudable—don’t you love to hate the bad guy?—but the writing is packed to the hilt with run-on sentences and formulaic shortcuts. Anne Dingus