Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Album Review: The Deaf Ears - 'Live Forever'

The Deaf Ears Live ForeverWhy beat around the bush. The Deaf Ears have crafted one of Austin's best indie rock albums of the year.

First, let's get one thing straight: From now 'til the end of time, a large swath of musicians from around the world will claim The Beatles as their biggest influence. That's never going to change. Some of these musicians will go on to form mediocre bands that sound so derivative of their heroes that it's embarrassing (like Wolfmother with Led Zeppelin, or Jet with The Who). But others will form bands that are really fucking good.

The Deaf Ears are really really fucking good. And while their music isn't the most original to come from this city, it's still so refreshing and compelling that I haven't taken their debut album Live Forever out of my car stereo since I popped it in two weeks ago. The attention to detail, be it in the production value or the songwriting or the performance, is obvious.

Sure, The Deaf Ears' sound is largely influenced by The Beatles, but the greatest lesson they seem to have learned from their role models isn't the chords or the melodies, but the importance of a meticulous work ethic in the studio... the craft of recording an album.

Live Forever is a quick listen at 10 songs running a total 31 minutes, but that works in favor of the album, not against it. Every song sounds like a labor of love, and soars high as a result. The lyrics are clever and warm. The music is catchy and memorable; the songs are concise yet emotive. This is sincere, honest-to-goodness pop music, folks. These guys display the same kind of potential that other Austin pop-rock heroes did early in their careers, be it Spoon or Okkervil River or What Made Milwauakee Famous. The Deaf Ears are definitely recommended for fans of any those three bands.

But wait! Who the hell are The Deaf Ears anyway!? You've probably asked that by now. That's exactly what I wondered the first time I listened to this album. I hadn't seen their name in the MySpace musical universe or on local concert calendars. How could a band this good and ready for prime time have slipped under my radar?

As it turns out, The Deaf Ears are the followup project of songwriter Joel Mullins, formerly of Tammany Hall Machine. THM built a loyal and devoted fanbase over the course of five years as one of Austin's most exciting indie rock bands. They too were influenced by '60s pop-rock like The Kinks and Beatles. But the band split up in January 2008, leaving a lot of disappointed fans wondering what could've been from a band that had been nominated for awards from ME Television and had made various top-10 lists at the Austin Music Awards. Tammany Hall seemed to have everything going for it when the plug was pulled a year and a half ago.

But Mullins didn't take any time off. He kept writing music, this time with drummer and music producer Scott Oliphant of Ohm Studios in Austin. The duo wrote 15 songs, recording many of them multiple times. They brought in former THM bassist Mick Southerland and former THM guitarist Geoff Dupree to round out the lineup. They've only played a handful of shows.

Mullins doesn't seem to have trouble acknowledging his previous band on Live Forever. He titled the album's opening song "Amateur Saw", which was the name of Tammany Hall's last album. It's as if to say this is meant to be a continuation. In fact, some of these Deaf Ears songs are holdovers from the THM era. But The Deaf Ears are leaner and less cluttered than THM was. They're a totally different band. Still, Live Forever feels like the album that would've launched Tammany Hall into the national spotlight if they'd stuck it out. Instead, it turns out to be one of the best debut albums I've heard from a band. Period.

Every song on this CD is magical. But "Army of Wit" especially grabs me, with its soothing piano line and lullaby vocals that deliver lyrics that are odd yet heartbreaking: If I don't come back, please don't you quit. There are others who need your army of wit. If I don't return, I hope you won't cry. There are others who need your alien skies. I hope you protect me somehow.

I'm excited to see where this band goes from here. They've got the album they need to make waves. Let's hope their meticulousness and perfectionism in the studio translates to their live show and touring schedule. If the live performance side of things comes together, The Deaf Ears will be a band to keep an eye on.

The Deaf Ears play a CD release show at Club de Ville this Saturday. Find them on MySpace here.

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