Monday, June 10, 2013

Sweet Felony's Split Ends Mend on CD

When I arrived in Texas four years ago, I was a little bit apprehensive about the music scene. Sure, I was moving to Austin, the Live Music Capital of the World, but growing up in hard rockin' Southern California made me more than a little allergic to country music in my formative years. One of my close friends told me, just before I moved, that I was going to have to buy several huge belt buckles and a pair of cowboy boots if I wanted to hit the clubs downtown and not get my ass kicked. Suffice it to say that I experienced the opposite when I actually arrived in the City of the Violet Crown. The music scene on Sixth Street and SoCo was skewed more toward metal and hardcore and anything-goes, and the country-ish music I did hear was so genuine and heartfelt and intelligent--the opposite of what would be considered mainstream these days--that I immediately embraced it. There's country music, and there's music from Texas--whether it's swing, Tejano or friggin' dubstep. They ain't the same thing, so put that silly big belt buckle away.

Sweet Felony is an alt-country band from San Francisco, but they could easily stroll into the Continental Club off South Congress, plug in their guitar amps and no one would blink. The formula is simple: two cute tattooed girls in boots sing stripped-down country pop songs that seem innocent at first but ultimately reveal layers of hurt, regret and resolve. Christa DiBiase and Amanda Guilbeaux strum their guitars and sing in polished harmonies that have just the right amount of ache to them, an amount that cuts the sweetness like a teaspoonful of vinegar. On their new album, Split Ends Mend, the duo starts off with straightforward rockers such as the opener "Us Again," and then sneakily shift to more frenzied and dissonant tunes that kept reminding me that cowpunk masterpiece of the '80s, X's More Fun in the New World. It's amazing how close these two can get to Exene and John Doe while still sounding completely accessible to the country masses. The last three songs on the album, "Just Friends, "Dream" and "At Night," are slightly mournful, beautiful and ruffled up, like the end of all-night party where things didn't quite go as you planned and now you're sitting on a park bench, alone, with an empty Lone Star (or Anchor Steam) bottle in your hand. Where the hell is your car?

Backed up by Carl Horne on bass, Mike Ingram on lead guitar and Paulo Baldi on drums, Sweet Felony knows how to balance the humor and the heartbreak in their songs--which also makes them a shoo-in for the Austin life. (Or, as a stuffy old geezer from Houston once told me, Austin is the only American city without parental supervision.) That, of course, makes me wonder about the current music scene in the Bay Area--are bands like Sweet Felony praised for their irony, for producing Texas-friendly music with a wink, or are they recognized for their emotional sincerity, simplicity and soulfulness? What causes a tear in Austin may prompt a knowing smirk in San Francisco, or perhaps I'm being unfair. After all, some of the best and most original country-rock came out of Northern California in the '70s, so the scene can't be as buttoned down and snarky as I imagine. But I imagine the reception to Split Ends Mend in these two cities differs in subtle but interesting ways.

Regardless of the audience, Sweet Felony still possesses the warm, grateful countenance of a band who knows how to stand on a stage and connect on an emotional level. It's the most basic reason to perform music, to deliver sounds that make couples sway, loners sigh and drinkers order another cold longneck.

Split Ends Mend is available from Sweet Felony's Bandcamp site. It only contains seven songs, but it's just $7. It's money well-spent for sweet, relaxed and memorable tunes for those long Texas summer nights--even if you're in San Francisco.

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