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New Austin music: The Sour Notes, Whitman, Flesh Lights and the Bad Lovers

Peter Mongillo
With the new EP 'Too Big To Fail,' Flesh Lights (Max Vandever, left, Elissa Ussery and Jeremy Steen) continue to hone their skills.

Last weekend, Austin pop band the Sour Notes threw a big re-release party at Red 7 for its 2011 album, "Last Looks" (No Play Music). It put on a mini-festival of sorts, with 14 bands, including Royal Forest, Burgess Meredith and Knifight, on the bill.

That might seem like a lot of fanfare to celebrate an album that's already been out for a year, but principal Sour Notes member Jared Paul Boulanger is treating this release, which features a newly mixed version of the record as well as a vinyl edition, as the proper introduction to the music.

Although the album garnered plenty of positive press when it came out last year, something wasn't right. The band rushed the release in order to get it out in time for a scheduled Austin show after listening to the final mix on tour — in a van equipped with speakers from 1986.

The new mix at times varies dramatically from the first, as Houston engineer Steve Christensen added and subtracted plenty, sometimes entire instruments. Boulanger equates the original mix to a demo of the final album. "I was never really happy with the way it sounded," Boulanger says. "It's like the other one doesn't even exist anymore."

Boulanger's eclectic approach to music — gritty Crazy Horse guitars beside soft folk; hazy and vocal-heavy pop next to horns and strings (courtesy of Austin's Mother Falcon) — remains intact, however. The band's ability to wed these contrasts is part of the Sour Notes' charm.

"As a songwriter, it doesn't matter what genre it is," Boulanger says. "It's always the songs that attract me to the music first; it doesn't matter if it's got a crazy guitar solo or anything."

While "Last Looks" is finally getting the treatment that Boulanger intended, the Sour Notes are almost done with a new album. Unlike the last, which used only guitar/bass/piano and some backing horns, the new one will feature synths and other electronic effects.

"I want it to be different, so whenever you listen to the next Sour Notes record it sounds like a beginning instead of an extension," says Boulanger, who got started as an electronic musician while in college.

To further change the band's sound, Boulanger recruited a mostly new set of personnel to play on the new album, including guest vocals from Sabrina Ellis (Bobby Jealousy, A Giant Dog) and Lauren Green (Follow That Bird!).

"I invited people who I appreciated in the music scene whether I've played with them or not," Boulanger says. "I was kind of nervous about doing it at first, but there are a lot of songs I can't sing myself because they're out of my range."

Flesh Lights

‘Too Big To Fail' EP

(Super Secret Records)

Flesh Lights guitarist and vocalist Max Vandever holds back in the beginning of the band's new four-song, double 7-inch EP "Too Big to Fail," playing quick and tense before opening up a line of screaming notes bigger and bolder than their 2011 full–length, "Muscle Pop," which remains one of the best albums to come out of Austin in recent years. On that effort, Vandever, bassist Jeremy Steen and drummer Elissa Ussery brought wound-up, ready-to-explode punk rock, brimming with tales of boredom, young love, and drug use; the album no doubt helped the band earn a recent spot on the road with Swedish garage stars the Hives.

They've continued to sharpen their skills. On "Too Big To Fail" Vandever lets his guitar rip, with lyrics that reference the banking crisis. "Flashback to the Majestic" changes direction with a wobbly intro with walloping drums that leads into fuzzy vocals about romance gone sour ("I can't stop crying and I don't know why") over a chugging rhythm section. "No No No" further slings their "comin' to get you" attitude: "You think you got a chance/but you ain't got a chance in hell ..." And the thumping "Lens" could be "You're So Vain" for the punk set, barking out lines like "she's a lens and she's looking right through me." The band is moving forward in a harder, more focused direction as they look beyond Austin.



(Sonora Records)

Austin rock four-piece Whitman ease into their latest, “Weekends,” with “Technicolor Blues,” a prologue filled with regret and beer that comes to a crashing end with piano and cymbals. It’s an appropriate way to kick off an album full of big, hard-living characters that move through the album like a collection of short stories.

From there, they move on the "NW Thurman," dreaming about domestic bliss ("weekends for the age, sidewalk races and an honest face to come home to in the afternoon") over choppy organ and hand claps. "Barstool" recounts days as a musician, covering Neil Young (and quoting the melody from "Only Love Can Break Your Heart"). "Cul-de-sac's" "my hometown" narrative and the casual acoustic blues of "Heart Cheating Man" are more Springsteen than Young, with the latter even recalling "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out." "Light It Up" pulses with pick-yourself-off-the-ground pop, completed with a horn section and a percussion breakdown. With "Weekends," Whitman adds its own take to a long tradition of slightly twisted, literary rock 'n' roll.

The Bad Lovers

‘Actin' Strange'

(Burger City Records)

Austin garage outfit Bad Lovers' full-length "Actin' Strange" kicks off with a rock 'n' roll blues riff, sped-up R&B and raspy, Elvis-was-indeed-the-king vocals, and doesn't stop. From there the band — which operates in a scene where the sounds of '70s punk/proto-punk thrive, but point to earlier rock — moves into the freak-out title track, which creeps around with a tambourine and twisted backup vocals.

The Bad Lovers throw out plenty of looks to avoid staying in one place, and although their unhinged one is the most appealing, they do a fine job with all other highs and lows circling around their default setting. "Nightlife" pays homage to the endless party with a nod to local music hub the 29th St. Ballroom, while tracks like "Price You Pay" and "Playin' the Fool" nicely kick around heart-on-the-ground pop. "Satisfy Me" slams together the Stones' "Satisfaction" and "The Last Time" with an electric rockabilly howl. The Bad Lovers are covering ground that's been covered before, but their no-holds-barred attack of that ground is worth it.

Correction: The number of members in Austin band Whitman was incorrect in an earlier version of this story. The band is a four-piece.