Friday, May 05, 2006

Theater Fire: Everybody has a Dark Side

I am probably not the right person to be reviewing the new Theater Fire record. For one thing, I don't know shit about country music. Sure, I can rock some Hank Williams or Johnny Cash or Waylon Jennings as much as the next guy, but my knowledge of country music doesn't extend past the short list of legends that everybody recognizes as geniuses in the medium. The other reason that I might be totally wrong for this record is that for the most part, I can't stand altcountry. Sure, Uncle Tupelo and Centro-matic and yadda yadda yadda, but there is something that is usually very annoying to me about young twenty-somethings from Plano or wherever singing songs about the desert and camping under the stars and being authentic cowboys before they go home, check their Myspace and fall asleep on feather pillows. And I'm certainly not turning this into a class thing, because rich or poor, I just don't really care what the average person my age has to say about anything when they are pretending to be 80 year old homesteaders that have just seen a William Jennings Bryant stump speech. It all seems a little silly to me.

That being said, The Theater Fire is certainly a band that most people would classify as altcountry. Not necessarily because they sound like any of the founding fathers of that genre, or because there is anything really "alt" about their sound, but simply because they are modern men in a big city (or big cities) that, like it or not, have about as much to do with authentic cowboys as Will Smith's "Wild Wild West." Regardless of all that, however, Everybody Has a Dark Side is a record that I got behind upon first listen, and one that certainly marks a large leap forward for the Theater Fire, a band that now sounds as though it is ready to take itself across that invisible line between "charming local band" and "band that people outside of DFW might actually start giving a shit about."

The record starts off with four instantly likeable songs that showcase a band that seems to have figured out that minimal arrangements suit their songwriting style quite well. "Kicking Up the Darkness" sets a rustic, creepy Oldhamesque vibe that pervades throughout the record, while "Fiddleback Weaver" showcases what Theater Fire seems to do best, spaghetti western sing-a-longs with sparse instrumentation and some mariachi horns that work really well, seemingly setting them apart from most other bands that might lean more towards the "country" than the "alt." Elsewhere, the band showcases its obvious talent for writing infectious pop singles, as "Barrel Riders" and "I Heard About You" are clearly the two catchiest songs that The Theater Fire has recorded to date, with "Heard About You" quickly implanting itself into your head with footstomp leading handclaps and "Barrel Riders" drawing you in with a simple, sloppy guitar part that surely requires repeat listens. Meanwhile, "Valentwine" sounds like a very good approximation of what a twangy, later period Velvet Underground would have sounded like if they had been from Austin as opposed to New York, which sounds like a silly thing to say until you hear the song and realize that I'm right as usual. However, the best song on the record (and the best Theater Fire song to date) is clearly "These Tears Could Rust a Train," which is a quiet, dreamy acoustic slow burner featuring well placed background strings and fragile, understated vocals that fit just right, sounding sad yet comfortable. The album's acoustic, folk influenced feel is a strong argument for less is more, and clearly a welcomed subtraction from some of the band's earlier work that tended to sound a bit cluttered at times, indicating that the guys have really started to find a songwriting style that highlights what they do best while rarely giving you more than you want.

Country and folk fans will certainly see Everybody Has a Dark Side as one of the strongest local releases in quite some time, and people like me, who usually don't get too into this kind of thing, will likely appreciate the album as a break from the norm, a clear step above most of the musicians that make what people often refer to as "Texas music." Maybe people don't refer to this kind of music as "Texas music" and I'm just full of shit. Like I said, I'm not a country guy, an altcountry guy, or a "Texas" guy, and I could be totally off base. But the best thing about this record to me is that you don't have to be into any of that stuff to enjoy it, which is why I decided to go ahead and write this review anyway, with very few names to drop and relevant comparisons to make. To me, most of the record is just good pop. By all accounts, Midlake appears to be the band that is most likely to break out of the DFWd musical purgatory this year, but Theater Fire has certainly made a case for itself as a band that people should start taking more seriously. But hey, what the hell do I know? I think I heard Wilco for the first time on NPR.


Blogger pimplomat said...

It's reviews like this that make me actually want to hear albums. Good job.

3:08 PM  
Blogger blixaboy said...

I second that. I look forward to hearing the record and hopefully doing some shows with these guys. They were quite good last time I saw them.

4:30 PM  
Blogger james said...

they will be doing a cd release party at the metrognome on Friday May 26th. (plug plug plug)

4:38 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

nice review, the new record is really good. by the way, i'll be DJ'ing their record release party at Good records on the 19th, which should be interesting since i don't really know how to dj. you giving lessons, Mwanza?

4:46 PM  
Blogger blixaboy said...

yes and if you have a laptop I can hook you up with some awesome DJ software. furreal.

7:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great review...

I look forward to seeing The Theater Fire in Denton w/Emil, I forget the date though... I really enjoyed seeing them, like, heck, two years ago?

If I had DJ software on my iBook, I would never leave the house. I don't know how y'all do it.


12:35 AM  
Blogger Buffalo Brent said...

if you grew up in texas you heard two types of music:
* country music
* alternative rock music

The Theater Fire is overqualified to play altcountry music...if that term really means anything. I grew up listening to country music and hating it. However, it creeps into my music all the time and I embrace it.

Good review, granted, but don't pass these guys off as phonies. It's American music, no matter how you listen to it.

2:56 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

yep, stonedranger..for once you hit it on the nail..
good job,man
can i have yr jersey!

9:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i'll bet it doesn't sound all that american when you play it backwards through underwater speakers.

...i'll post the review later

12:15 PM  
Blogger kidko said...

There's a Theatre Fire quote screened onto a window at the Spiral Diner. Are they celebs now? Either way, the vegan BBQ rox at the Spiral.

2:13 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Its a pretty good album with a couple of awesome shining moments. 4 out of 5 in my book.

11:44 AM  

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