Younger attendees at this year’s SXSW awards show may have been puzzled at the anticipation surrounding an appearance by The Judy’s. Who are these guys from Pearland, a Houston suburb that rhymes with Squareland (for good reason)?
Now they, and those of us who couldn’t catch the reunion, can find out what the fuss was about: The band’s early-’80s cult classics, Washarama and Moo, are back in print (on a pair of CDs, each fleshed out with one EP worth of bonus tracks) via the micro-label Wasted Talent. They’re quite a time capsule: A strain of New Wave that holds up to multi-decade transport better than most, probably because it was such a weird throwback to begin with. The three-piece band, after all, had a weird Leave It To Beaver vibe — shiny, peppy beats and a look as clean-cut as that Washarama title suggests — that only made it that much odder when they wrote songs about the Jonestown massacre (making it sound like a soda-pop commercial) or sang of their slightly-too-enthusiastic appreciation for milk. Often compared to the B-52s, the band sounds a lot fresher now than that group’s brand-new Funplex.
Also available through Wasted Talent are copies of the group’s third album, Land of Plenty, still packed in cardboard long-boxes suggesting they’re not reissues but simply leftover stock from the record’s 1991 release. The band’s sound had smoothed out quite a bit by that point, and is reminiscent at moments of a contemporary Texas band, Poi Dog Pondering. By the way, though you might not know it from regional buzz — they relocated to Chicago years ago — Poi still exists, and their latest release, 7 (Platetectonic), finds them sounding more like their circa-1990 incarnation than they have in recent, more disco-friendly years.
The Judy’s aren’t the only Texas weirdos to benefit from recent reissue exposure. Local label Saustex has set free a T. Tex Edwards record, (Pardon Me) I’ve Got Someone to Kill, originally released by Sympathy for the Record Industry in 1989, reminding honky-tonkers just how murderous their chosen music can be. A well curated selection of covers featuring violently deranged tunes such as “Psycho” and “I’m A Gonna Kill You,” the disc matches shocking lyrics (which were sometimes gussied up with commercial arrangements in their original recordings) with appropriate sonic values. The opening verse of the title track epitomizes Tex’s “can he be serious?” vocal style: a little growl, a throatful of twang, and a gulped-back tear or two help the troubadour get across the mixed emotions inherent in a lovelorn murder/suicide plot. Elsewhere, Tex suffers a Dr. Demento-worthy self-destruction on “L.S.D. Made a Wreck Outta Me.” Check it out soon if you run across it: Chronic out-of-print status is almost a badge of honor for an album this eccentric.
Only slightly less surly than T. Tex, but blessed with a much higher profile, James McMurtry appears finally to be getting the recognition he deserves. His Just Us Kids (Lightning Rod) has spent weeks at the top of Billboard’s Americana chart and turned up on others as well, buoyed by a batch of excellent reviews; all this comes after praise in recent years from sources as surprising as Stephen King, who has tossed superlatives at him in Entertainment Weekly. For my money, Kids is as good as anything since McMurtry’s debut, Too Long in the Wasteland, and comes with the added bonus of searing political numbers like “Cheney’s Toy” — which isn’t about the Veep’s favorite shotgun.
Finally: Lest anyone think that turning 75 has inspired Willie Nelson to consider retirement, the (gray-and-) red-headed stranger will return to record stores next month on yet another label, Blue Note: Two Men with the Blues pairs the Texan with Wynton Marsalis, putting them in front of a live audience and swapping standards from each other’s backyard — Wynton supplies the “Basin Street Blues,” Willie recalls the “Night Life,” and so on. It’s not a match I would have come up with, but it works beautifully: relaxed but lively, with a small combo enjoying plenty of solos and Texas’s favorite singer/songwriter proving there’s hardly a genre out there he can’t make his own. •
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