Despite all evidence to the contrary, Texas has become a pretty hip place. Like Atlanta before it and Montreal before that, more and more impressive bands seem to be coming out of the Lone Star State than anywhere else these days. Maybe it’s a reflection on the thriving anti-establishment counter-culture. Or maybe they’ve got nothing else to do.
Of these many Texanites there is perhaps none quite as oddly original as Midlake, which emerged out of the college town of Denton on the Bella Union label. But Midlake’s members have had their friends and influences too, and they were the ones who first pointed their label toward another Denton local, Robert Gomez.
Thing is, Robert Gomez doesn’t sound like any of his other fellow Texans. The new album Brand New Towns is not noise-folk or alt-pop or sub-punk; Gomez uses guitars but only in the background, uses electronics but never noticeably, and sings but never loudly. The best comparison would be to the late Los Angeles-based Elliott Smith, and the similarities between their muted, slightly overdubbed vocals can be eerie. Gomez’s progressions even have echoes of Figure 8, with little unexpected drops into the minor.
But Gomez doesn’t display any of the guitar mastery that Elliott Smith used, though he is known for studying Cuban guitar and touring with it both here and abroad. The newest release Brand New Towns is just not a guitar-driven album. It’s intricately produced, and the wealth of sounds never crosses into the synthetic feel that so many pop recordings have these days. The title track, for example, opens with a delicate line of flutes and horns, drifting downward into the acoustic riff that carries through the song. They come back under the chorus, like a choir of birds backing him up. It’s a good bit of color in a strong song, and fits nicely with the ethos of the album.
The catchiest track is probably “The Same Sad Song”, your usual post-breakup fare but done refreshingly up-tempo, with Midlake-esque synthesizers in the background. Lyrically, Gomez isn’t attempting to break any new ground here, but he manages to be interesting enough. Nothing on the album is terribly unexpected, though well-crafted, and one only wishes that Gomez would turn his talents towards something more inventive.
And for what seems like a depressing album, Brand New Towns is surprisingly catchy and peppy, if ultimately very dark. It’s a good addition to the growing Texan roster, which is constantly reinventing itself and pleasantly surprising the rest of us. Hopefully his next release will show more daring.