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New Austin music from Frank Smith, the Couch and White Ghost Shivers

Peter Mongillo

This week we review three new albums: two from veteran acts with dark tendencies and a debut that leans toward a big rock sound.

Frank Smith

'Before You Were Born'

(Big Snow)

In 2007, Aaron Sinclair moved from Boston, where things weren't going too well, with a relationship ending and a band breaking up. One bright spot was his country rock outfit Frank Smith (which, yes, does not have any members named Frank Smith).

Over the past few years in Austin, Frank Smith has endured. "Big Strike in the Silver City" was released in 2009 to a good deal of local praise, as was the following year's "Nineteen." Not terribly different in terms of style, both records put forward a mission of bleakness that defines the band's sound, with twangy, midtempo guitar and pedal steel that adds a sense of mourning. "Put Me in a Hole" from "Big Strike" isn't that far removed from Alice in Chains' gloomy "Down in a Hole" with the grave as a focal point. Similarly, "Nineteen" kicks off with Sinclair pleading, "I wish I could make you feel something." It's desperate, dark and extreme, a distant relative to some of Austin's gloomier punk and metal bands.

"Before You Were Born" represents a departure from the country influence, with a stronger strain of rock making its presence felt. Opener "Monsters" sets off with a spacey and sparse Pink-Floyd-style intro; the rest of the song exists beneath a veil of darkness as horns chime in, setting a twisted, disturbing tone for the album.

"We were trying to go for a different sound production-wise," Sinclair says. "I wasn't trying to write a rock record or anything, I guess it just sort of moved that way. I love all kinds of music, so I try to not do the same thing over and over." Sinclair adds that the different sound also had to do with the band's lineup, which aside from bassist Kyle Robarge, has been in flux from album to album.

"A Decline" has the choppy, pulsing rhythmic style of the Pixies, while "Before You Were Born" riffs on Bob Seger's "We've Got Tonight" with quiet piano accompanying Sinclair as he sings "I know it's late, I know you're weary," before switching gears to a fast shuffle and a tale of a child/father relationship gone bad ("I knew your momma, before you were born/we were best friends/now I'm your dad").

Sinclair didn't realize the Seger connection at first. He wrote the song with friends Curtis James and Chris Castillo; Sinclair plays drums with Castillo in the band Grape Street. "That song came together in 10 minutes one night. Curtis and Chris had been listening to a lot of a Bob Seger," Sinclair says. "I didn't know they were Bob Seger lyrics. I found out later, but I kept them in because I thought it was cool."

While Frank Smith's sound has changed, the songs on "Before You Were Born" continue in the same dark vein as Sinclair's previous work. "Deny It" dwells on distrust; the album peaks with "It's Been 4 Months, Feels Like 5," which perfectly captures the feeling of sad lethargy Sinclair reaches for throughout. "Homecomin' Hater" is an odd man out, with acoustic guitar and harmonica feeling more like FS's older material than anything else on the album. That's a small issue, however, in what amounts to the band's best effort yet.

Frank Smith plays a record release show Jan. 19 at the Mohawk.

The Couch

'Old & Touchin' Blue'

(self-released)

Austin four-piece the Couch, which got its start at Texas State University in San Marcos and shares members Kyle Robarge and Jud Johnson with Frank Smith, looks to loose-and-loud '70s bar-rock anthems on its strong debut "Old & Touchin' Blue." Gritty guitar meets a grooving rhythm section; add some heady instrumental detours (similar to Frank Smith) that are closer to the post-jam-band excursions of My Morning Jacket and Band of Horses, and things come together nicely.

Lead singer Taylor Wilkins' vocals are big, and there's a dramatic tinge to them that pushes the music in a glam-rock direction. "The Way You Came" is vaguely sleazy, while "Milk Thistle" is straightforward rock 'n' roll without any distractions. Pleasant backup vocals threaten to soften the sound a little too much, but scruffy guitar licks elevate the songs, including "Shakin' (Cause its Hard to React)," which recalls the Black Crowes at their finer moments. Elsewhere, the Couch seems most comfortable when they give themselves some room to stretch (out?), including on "New Roman Buffalo," which goes on for nearly five minutes and creates moments of tension.

The Couch play Feb. 11 at Hole in the Wall.

White Ghost Shivers

'Nobody Loves You Like We Do'

(self-released)

The cover of the White Ghost Shivers' new album hints at the Austin band's freak tendencies, with a cartoon train running down a bound, eyeless depiction of lead vocalist Cella Blue. Open the CD, however, and the first thing that pops out is a list of the variety of instruments that appear on the album. There are the usual suspects, including a guitar, banjo, violin, ukulele, horns. Then there are other things: a slide whistle, a musical saw, nose flute. Even while the band's absurdist material takes center stage — Cella Blue's Prohibition-era vocals run the gamut from raunchy on "Sweet Banana" to not-so-raunchy on "Some Things a Girl Can't Give Away," and sex gives way to chuckling macabre on "Murder in the Big Tops" (murderous clowns) and "The Reaper" (jazz skeletons dancing in hell?) — the musicianship shines through. The Shivers' blend of old-timey jazz/ragtime/Americana demands great care when it comes to the particulars of the sound, and the band delivers .

The White Ghost Shivers play Jan. 27 at the Continental Club.

pmongillo@statesman.com