Sunday, June 21, 2009
The other day I asked my Facebook friends for their own local variations on the locally popular “Keep Austin Weird” bumpersticker after I spotted a “Keep Houston Ugly” sticker on a northbound pickup on the Southwest Freeway in H-Town, which reminded immediately me of Richard West’s report of “Keep Dallas Prentious” stickers on the back of a Mercedes blasting up the Bush Tollway doing 90 mph as if there were any good reason to want to hurry to get to Addison.
Then there was Keep San Antonio Lame.
That kept going through my head during the first listen to Hacienda.
Here were these four young Latino cats – the three hermanos Villanueva, and TK from Laredo - holed up in bedrooms, living rooms, and garages on the fringe of the metropolis, making recordings of themselves singing and playing songs they wrote themselves, anonymously churning out some of the most stirring, glistening pop music heard since the Sixties.
Put that together with the Krayolas post-Beatles obsessed home town rock with Augie Meyers along for the flavoring and Michael Corcoran’s current fave the deliciously punky Girl in A Coma, and you've got a scene, even if everything sounds and feels like it was created in their own private environments.
Mike Thompson, Alejandro Escovedo’s webmaster, turned me to Hacienda Loud Is The Night (Alive Records) after the band from San Antonio opened for Al in June at Antone’s in Austin and Floore’s Store in Helotes.
Never heard of them, I told Mike, which figures, since it’s San Antonio. It’s a big city full of different sounds and styles, but most of it is under the radar. Whether it’s too close to Austin or so far from everywhere else, SA is more of a vacuum than a scene.
Hacienda’s obvious references are the Beach Boys and the Beatles because harmonies, melodies, and a soaring bass line jump out from the get go, defining a simple sonic wash that sounds effortless to create. It's a fitting complement to their lyrics which mostly revolve around girls and love.
I checked out their website to search for clues and saw a pic of a black key Vox organ, a totally Sixties instrument that hinted of an Augie Meyer connection. The photos on the CD insert show guys sitting around in various stages of playing in anonymous bedrooms, garages and studios. No pretense, no audience.
Producer credits to Dan Auerbach, the keyboard half of the Black Keys, which explain the wide spaces in Hacienda’s sound. The Vox as a rhythm sticke hits a groove that approaches trance state on the ride out of “Sun” and cements a testifying gospel foundation to “Degree of a Murder” that shows los Hermanoss Villanueva con amigo are smarter than they let on.
The pleading blended vocals and Buddy Holly drumbeat on “Hear Me Cryin’” comes off so honest, Marshall Crenshaw wishes he'd of written it and the Ravonettes should start thinking about covering it. Sometimes, Hacienda almost steps over the line as being too poppy; “Little Girl” is so cloying peppy and upbeat it would fit in seamlessly on any Top 40 Morning Drive radio show if such a thing existed anymore.
By the time they come around the stretch with “Where the Waters Roam,” their angelic three part harmonies are triggering visions of Fleet Foxes and transcending decades past or present. OK, “Leave It That Way” dives into schmaltzy sincere territory in the trad of ol’ Toby Beau from San Anto, but every couple needs to dance to a bellyrubber sooner or later.
Redemption comes in the form of Hacienda’s one and only cover, Sonny & Cher’s “Baby Don’t Go,” an S. (“Is it dumb enough, Phil?”) Bono composition, with a harmonica-embellished rhythm that has held up so well over the years than it should that all of a sudden, “Laugh At Me” is worth reconsidering and listening to again. Brother Abe V's lead vocal is so faithful to the original all the way to crooning the line “you’re the best boy I ever had,” just like Cher did
Then closer, “Wishbone” with its sad fiddle/ accordion/ Appalachian funeral moan and stomp, and all that space between the notes again, gets me thinking all over again - Are they The Band? The Gourds? I don’t know who to compare them with, only that Hacienda are a group worth paying attention to. There’s something going on here.
Keep San Antonio Lame.
Turns out, the album came out last August, almost a year ago. Word travels slow, I guess. They’ve been touring with Auerbach to get some seasoning because they really hadn’t played in public as a band. Now they’re opening up for Alejandro, finishing writing their second album, and Al’s spreading the word too.
Mike Thompson emailed the band and got this response from Dante Schwebel:
“All the brothers were raised in San Antonio, Abraham (oldest) went to O'Connor High School, while the younger brothers Rene and Jaime went to Boerne High School. I was born and raised in Laredo, TX where I went to St. Augustine. After graduating I went to college at UTSA, and started spending time with those guys. Their mom and my mom are sisters, so we spent a lot of time together growing up. We played for a while, never as a band, but just as people. Abraham got a job and a recorder, and we began recording songs. We never played to other people, we just figured nobody would get it or like it.
“The band wasn't playing any more and Jaime and Rene met Dan Auerbach at a show, got him a demo, and then everything changed. We got an email within a month or so. He asked if he could show it to some people. Next thing we knew, some showbiz people put us on some showcase. They asked if we could play live, and we lied. We figured we had a week a so to figure it out. The show went well, and Dan invited us to play a show with the Black Keys in Austin later that year. We knew we did O.K when he contacted us about recording. He was building a studio in Akron and invited us. That’s where we recorded, and he's been part of the family ever since. People always say he's adopted us. I like to think that we've made him an honorary Texan. He's almost as big a part of our band as we are.
“Once the record came out we started touring and hustling to make a dent in the music world. We've been amazingly fortunate to run across people who have helped our band’s career. We just figure if you hustle those opportunities are more likely to keep presenting themselves.”
With that kind of backstory, you can't help but look forward to what's next.