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CD review: 'Arkansas Compilation'

And a Keen act at the Rev Room.



Somebody give Travis McElroy a medal, gold star, plaque — something. While Towncraft looks to expose folks all over to the proud history of Little Rock’s underground scene, just about no one ’round here has done more than McElroy to turn people on to the diversity of local underground music today. The hirsute founder of the fledgling local label Thick Syrup, McElroy has, for almost a year, labored to compile a wide cross-section of his favorite bands, begging and borrowing and hosting benefits, all so he can (maybe) break even and pay the featured bands for their efforts.

“The Arkansas Compilation,” the culmination of his efforts, tracks the Arkansas sound through 24 songs from as many acts. White dudes with guitars dominate (McElroy never said he was trying to represent all types of Arkansas music), but within that formulation, there’s a tremendous amount of diversity. The CD opens, perhaps ill-advisedly, with a swirling, meandering instrumental track from former Evanescence guitarist Will Boyd’s band Two Spines. The next track, from what may be Little Rock’s best straight-up rock band, comes immediately out of the gate with a wall of garage rock noise. “Everybody tells me you’re wasting my t-i-i-me/and your body’s like the scene of a cr-i-i-me,” Alan Disaster sings, sounding hoarse even before he’s gotten to the chorus. It’s a jarring transition, but maybe that’s the point: the Arkansas sound is deep and wide.

Many of the state’s best rockers lend a track. You can’t go wrong with any comp featuring songs from the American Princes, Ho-Hum, Tel Aviv, the Moving Front and the Good Fear (who offer up a catchy demo of new material, a departure from the band’s prior work). Local prolifics Kevin Kerby (Mulehead) and Isaac Alexander (Big Silver, the Easys) both lend impressive new tracks. And Ben Nichols, a bona fide superstar and alumnus of the scene, contributes a new song, a swampy, percussive gutbucket of a rocker about whiskey, the Devil and broken hearts.

Then there’s “Again,” a seductive electro-jam from the criminally unknown Little Rock duo Les Attaques. Decidedly the odd-duck on the comp, it sounds like something that should be dominating dance floors in places like Ibiza, not coming out of kids’ bedrooms in Arkansas. Even if there weren’t 23 other reasons to drop 10 bucks for the album, the Les Attaques track alone should justify the expense. Available via www.lastchancemusic.com.

— Lindsey Millar

Robert Earl Keen

Live at the Revolution Room, May 12

An apology to my home state of Texas: After suffering years of live sets by lesser Lone Star State troubadours, I’ve established a knee-jerk reaction to anyone labeled a “Texas singer-songwriter.” Knee-jerk as in “not interested.”

It seems the recent pack of Texans lacks the poetry of Townes, the voice of Willie or the quiet brillance of Billy Joe. Even Steve Earle and Arkansas homegirl Lucinda Williams (who did enough time in Austin to count) have become mere caricatures of themselves over the last decade.

So, naturally, I expected to be bored by Robert Earl Keen’s show at the Rev Room Saturday night. But I wasn’t. For those two hours in a capacity filled room, I could have been in College Station (Texas, not Ark.) or Lubbock. Led by Keen’s strong songwriting, the solid, if conventional, band did both the sensitive and the rocking material justice, and transformed the River Market venue into a Texas roadhouse.

Late in the set, Keen and his band approached a jam-band whirl and twitch, with the guitar player leaning a little too much on Jerry Garcia. The band was strongest when he switched to acoustic guitar and allowed the pedal steel player to take the lead. The steel player’s understated and inspired playing was the perfect complement to Keen’s songs.

For an encore, Keen and his band managed to turn “Tangled Up in Blue” into a fist-pumping roadhouse anthem before closing with Keen’s own anthem, “The Road Goes on Forever.” Texas, Robert Earl Keen made me a true believer again. My apologies for doubting you.

— Jason Weinheimer

The Moving Front

Much like the BBC World News nightly report, the Moving Front’s new CD clocks in under 30 minutes. Also like the BBC, the MF delivers information and opinion on world politics in a style (accent) that is unmistakably British. The only difference is that the Moving Front, for all their style and intelligence, is not British. They’re one of Little Rock’s finest bands. A well-studied exercise in post-punk songmanship, their self-titled debut album is a catchy, albeit brief take on a tantalizing sound originally hatched during good ol’ Thatcher-era England.

Much of the MF’s Britishness lies with singer Jeremy Brasher. Brasher sounds so much like the Clash’s Joe Strummer that it is hard to believe that he didn’t fall through a wormhole in 1977 London to land in the lap of 2007 Little Rock. And it’s not just the way he sings. Sure he’s got the same bite, the same pissed-off snarl as Strummer, but more importantly, he’s got the same keen eye for social injustice and modern woe. Plus Brasher sings slogans: big, chant-along phrases that wouldn’t sound out of place in a political rally. Or a rebellion.

As essential to this diagnosis as he is, Brasher is still only one part of the equation. The instrumentation in the MF’s debut is as strong as the vocals. Choppy guitars, melodic bass, and tight drumming create a hypnotic stomp reminiscent at times of Gang of Four or Wire. But there’s also something distinctly self-reliant in this band. I doubt Gang of Four guitarist Andy Gill could play a chord as pretty, studied and jazz-like as the interesting guitar figure that opens this CD. Throughout this release, there are intricate, weaving lines among all the instruments unlike anything one might try to find in the artists I have presumed to be this band’s influences.

Among the many great tracks in this offering, it’s the hooky “Like Zombies” that offers the best example of the MF sound. Tightly played, call-and-response guitar parts are answered by a lone keyboard figure. The song’s stick-in-your-head chorus places working class stiffs as zombies with the clever lyrical turn, “We’re just like zombies really/Being half dead is hard work/And being at work is being half dead.” On this eight-song release, this final track stands out like a billboard among wildly waved placards. Come chant along.

Charles Wyrick

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