CD and Book Reviews
CDs by the Jiménez brothers, the Old 97’s, and Lee Hazlewood; books by Joni Rodgers and Scott Zesch.
LA FAMILIA—Brotherly Tex-Mex
Santiago Jiménez, Jr.
El Corrido de Esequiel Hernández
The Best of Flaco Jiménez
FORGET THE WINTERS AND the Vaughans, or even the Sextons and the Robisons, for that matter. The most intriguing sibling rivalry in Texas music is the one between San Antonio acordeonistas Santiago Jiménez, Jr., and Flaco Jiménez. Their father, Don Santiago, practically invented the Tex-Mex style, while the sons are taking determinedly different directions. Santiago, Jr., has made his reputation by sticking to the old ways, sometimes as faithfully as a folkie. But on the title track of El Corrido de Esequiel Hernández—which celebrates the corrido tradition, in which the song commentary focuses on a real event—he leaps beyond faithful reproduction to deliver a gritty telling of the death of the teenage goatherd who was shot near the town of Redford two years ago by Marines. It’s a whole ’nother perspective than what you’ve read in the newspaper, which is precisely what a corrido is supposed to be. It’s also a fine lead-in to an inspired collection of romantic love songs, bouncy polkas, cumbias, and rancheras so compelling that it’s almost enough to make one forget Junior’s big brother, Flaco, whose distinctive squeezebox sound has decorated the works of Bob Dylan, Ry Cooder, Doug Sahm, and Dwight Yoakam. The Best of Flaco Jiménez, a compilation recorded over the past forty years, captures his dazzling fingerwork while thankfully muting the presence of “heavy ‘guest appearances’”—Peter Rowan on “The Free Mexican Airforce” is about as heavy as it gets. Instead, the selections emphasize Flaco’s earthier side, including a sweet cover of his father’s “Ay Te Dejo En San Antonio” and “El Guero Polkas,” which features SA broadcasting legend Guero Polkas introducing the song named in his honor. That explains why I’m not about to take sides on which Jiménez is mas bueno. They’re both as good as it gets. Joe Nick Patoski
THE EARLY LINE ON THE fourth record by Dallas’ Old 97’s is that this second, sink-or-swim major-label effort goes beyond alt-country garnish toward more expansive sonic recipes. But while a certain sturm und twang has always been part of the deal, what really made the 97’s fabulous was—as Damone from Fast Times at Ridgemont High said of Cheap Trick—“the tunes!” Past albums were filled with sturdy gems that combined Rhett Miller’s playfully dead-on lyricism with a cupboard full of pop hooks.
Fight Songs’ cupboard does not runneth over. Miller’s apple-butter voice lends a winsome quality to otherwise morose mid-tempo material, and a few tracks pass through the neighborhood of memorable. Hillbilly touches or not, the musical palette reaches for sophistication but ends up studied and rather ordinary. And much like Paul Westerberg’s, Miller’s gift for perfectly executed, half-clever, half-heartfelt couplets is wearing a little thin. The Old 97’s are usually a great song band, but Fight Songs just doesn’t have ’em. Jason Cohen
Cowboy in Sweden
Smells Like Records
LEE HAZLEWOOD’S CAREER is a set of contradictions. In the late fifties he basically invented Duane Eddy’s guitar sound (which is to say he basically helped invent rock’s guitar sound). A few years later he basically invented anti-rock, crafting “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’” for the marginally talented (but awfully well connected) Nancy Sinatra. From its title on down, the recently reissued Cowboy in Sweden reconciles Hazlewood’s conflicting impulses. A savvy industry figure who worked with Gram Parsons and Ann-Margret, he listened not only far and wide but also with prescience. Cowboy in Sweden borrows from disparate sources—French ye-ye, Bernard Herrmann’s Hitchcock soundtracks, Burt Bacharach—that have more hipster cache today than when the record came out thirty years ago. The result, at once rootsy and gothic, sounds like “Tom T. Hall Sings the Leonard Cohen Songbook”—gloomy, symphonic, and undeniably strange (especially “Hey Cowboy,” a duet with Nina Lizell that would have been a hit with Nancy S. on board), but grounded by Hazlewood’s gravelly baritone. Jeff Salamon
Loud, Fast & Out of Control: The Wild Sounds of 50’s Rock
SOMETHING HAD TO GIVE. Despite duck-and-cover drills and communist witch hunts, the airwaves kept dishing up a diet of bland utopia. The kids, not the ones at the hop, but the leather-clad ones out back who could eat Richie Cunningham for breakfast, just weren’t buying it. Their music would jump-start the decade and kick Connie Francis off the radio once and for all. Loud, Fast & Out of Control: The Wild Sounds of 50’s Rock sports four CDs of this sex-charged and joyous interracial stew, negating every bobby-socked fifties cliché in the process. Among rock’s early practitioners were a talented bunch from Texas: Houston R&B vet Amos Milburn and sideman Joe Houston; Dallasite Ronnie Dawson; a Richardson DJ dubbed the Big Bopper; the ferocious singer from Vernon named Roy Orbison; Lubbock’s Buddy Holly, whose urgency burned his star bright; and the blistering Texas swamp stomp “Henrietta” by Jimmy Dee. They’re all here; the hits and the should-have-beens that started rock rolling. From the beginning, there was no stopping it. Jeff McCord
Randy Garibay and Cats Don’t Sleep
Chicano Blues Man
THOUGH BARELY KNOWN OUTSIDE music circles, Randy Garibay has been a cornerstone of all things blues and R&B in San Antonio for four decades now. He and his band, Cats Don’t Sleep, play what Garibay calls “puro pinche blues,” a blend of Tex-Mex themes; lyrics that can be English, español, or both; and blazing Lone Star guitar. The opening track, “Still Singing the Blues,” is a seasoned, swinging shuffle that features Garibay’s guitar pared down to its essentials and his growling vocals; on “Mean Assed Woman,” he uncorks a masterfully short, stinging solo. He’s not above slipping bop or Elmore James licks into a piece, either. He can cover a ballad like “Funny Not Much” that evokes his years in Las Vegas, but his smooth, sweet vocals are even more convincing on sensuous doo-wops like “Your Tender Lips.” Saxman Rocky Morales and trumpeter Al Gomez provide stirring mexicano reshapings of the classic Duke-Peacock horn sound throughout. (Available at www.allstar-sanantonio.com.) John Morthland
SISTER ACT—Life after fame.
JONI RODGERS’ SECOND NOVEL is the literary equivalent of a chick flick set to a cheatin’ song soundtrack. For sisters Kit and Kiki Smithers, former child singing stars, fame has long since faded into the humdrum wife-and-mother blues. The women are beset by basic hankie-related ailments—troubled marriages, vexatious relatives—but Rodgers maintains a light-handed narrative that generally steers clear of schmaltz.
Now a Houstonian, Rodgers grew up on the road with her family of gospel and bluegrass singers, and she later worked as a deejay in Montana. But in Sugar Land Rodgers comes off like a Texas native: A popsicle-stick Alamo adorns a room, and a mother yells to her refrigerator-gazing kids, “And shut that door! We’re not air-conditioning the state of Texas!”
Ultimately, though, Rodgers tries too hard to make Kit and Kiki’s story into a fanfare for the common woman. This overreaching stretches her thin at times; she executes the few action scenes—like a great tornado-versus-trailer moment—more effectively than the boohoo dialogue. Rodgers can turn a phrase and twang a heartstring; she could do right by a real live plot too. Anne Dingus
A REAL LIVE PLOT IS DEFINITELY behind Alamo Heights, by Scott Zesch (TCU Press). It’s a fictional retelling of the second battle of the Alamo, the turn-of-the-century flap that occurred when the Daughters of the Republic of Texas squabbled over the fate of the mission’s original convent building. This is a first novel for Hill Country resident Zesch, but he proceeds with confidence. Alamo Heights has some unexpected depths.…Harmful Intent, by Baine Kerr (Simon and Schuster), is so good that you hope the author gives up law to write full-time. Attorney Peter Moss agrees to represent a woman whose physician failed to diagnose her breast cancer, and the doctor in question is a man against whom the lawyer once lost a horrifying case. Kerr, a former Houstonian, shores up the plot with switchbacks and fascinating medicalese. If you’re fighting page-turning addiction, Harmful Intent will do you no good. Anne Dingus