All Ears

Quite possibly the coolest Texas-related item hitting record stores this summer is from a group that hasn’t existed for decades, started off as a cover band, and featured musicians whose biggest between-gig concern wasn’t paying the rent, but passing Algebra.

Texas Thunder Soul, released by Now Again Records, anthologizes six years in the life of The Kashmere Stage Band, perhaps the finest high-school band ever. Led by faculty director Conrad Johnson at a predominantly black Houston high school, the group made 45s and LPs that have become enormously popular collectors’ items in recent years. With this first CD anthology, the band’s legend should spread beyond the world of thrift-store-haunting vinyl hounds.

A funk combo so mighty that their recordings sound better today than much of the singles that ruled the airwaves then, the group and its tight coordination were all the more impressive for the fact that its lineup necessarily changed with every school year. Johnson went above and beyond by letting his pupils perform some of their own original material, but even their covers were something special: Their “Shaft” may not threaten the original, but the Kashmere horn section stands up to James Brown’s on “Super Bad,” and their arrangement of “Take Five” goes places Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond surely never imagined.

(A second Now Again release from the same period, Texas Funk: Black Gold From the Lone Star State, focuses on little-known groups whose members, by contrast, were old enough to play in bars.)

Less astounding in scope but also wonderful is another tale of home-grown brilliance, one that I’m discovering a few years after a lot of people did. Dan Reeder, an American transplanted to Germany, just released his second disc of wise and very witty quasi-folk music, on which he created every sound. According to what he’s told journalists, Reeder started fooling around with home recording simply because he wanted to hear his own harmony alongside his lead (not an unexpected urge for a man who builds his own guitars), and never dreamed of selling records until friends started begging to buy his homemade tapes.

It’s lucky for us he accomodated them, and on a whim sent a copy to John Prine’s Oh Boy label. This latest record, Sweetheart, begins with a dry comic lament about unbelievably bad coffeeshop service, ends with a spare and beautiful version of “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” and in between, scatters micro-masterpieces that sound like novelty songs but often take turns that might, if you’ve had a beer too many and the night has been particularly long, bring a tear to your eye.

On the maximalist end of the one-man-band spectrum is Texan Scott H. Biram, whose new Graveyard Shift (Bloodshot) begs to be played loud, and rewards you for doing so. Thumping and grungily multi-tracked, the record offers sounds that Biram wouldn’t be able to recreate by himself in a live set — not unless he has some fancy digital-delay stuff handy, which I’m betting is not in keeping with his low-fi ethic — but still oozes distort-o-riffic authenticity. Biram has a press-friendly backstory involving near-death highway experiences, but the music is appealing enough that it doesn’t need any publicity hook.

The All Ears all-time champion in the department of bedroom self-recording, though, is The Mountain Goats, aka John Darnielle, whose recent ventures into “real” record-making — that is, he has instrumentalist collaborators and makes the recordings in an actual studio — make his brilliant songs accessible to a wider audience. On Get Lonely (4AD), he follows up last year’s heart-stopping Sunset Tree with a more modest, melancholy group of songs — which isn’t to say they don’t present a sweeping dramatic image from time to time. I particularly like the Frankenstein-y climax of track two, on which the lines “All the neighbors / come on out / to their front porches / waving torches” lead into a flurry of piano-guitar action and end unresolved. Nice way to end a song; nice spot to end a column.


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