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It's almost worthless to try to pinpoint the myriad influences on the Round 4 Showcase winners, the technically brilliant and genre-exploding Joey Farr and the Fuggins Wheat Band (though Mr. Bungle, Ween, and Frank Zappa come quickly to mind). Surprisingly, their set was mostly instrumental, allowing guitarist Farr to endlessly explore skillful, effects-drenched noodling that somehow never quite felt as navel-gazing as a too-long jam-band solo. Their songs leapt blissfully between genres — sometimes within the same number. I distinctly recall a Latin-tinged jam that switched effortlessly to Western-swing-picking breakdowns. Some tunes verged on steady-handed white-people blues and reggae, but it never seemed ingratiating and would inevitably showcase the band's adept musicianship — there were at least two of Farr's solos that were met with standing ovations from the judges.
Thursday's round opened with buoyant melodies from Conway-based college-rock three-piece Wooden Toys and a dose of ever-peppy show(wo)manship from presiding frontlady Lira Mondal. The band's minimalist song construction — balanced mostly between tasteful, distortion-heavy guitar work and Mondal's charmingly just-off-key singing — dutifully resuscitated the best of '90s indie rock with confidence and vigor. Mondal's vocals were bright and clear, delivering semi-poetic, totally distinguishable lyrics dealing with lukewarm romantic encounters (we think there were at least three mentions of someone driving or walking away disappointedly) and even when her voice faltered or rang a bit leaden, her sheer chutzpah and team spirit were absolutely thrilling.
Swampbird lit out onstage with some raw-throated, demolition-derby country-rock — the old "take no prisoners" cliche almost falls short of their whiskey-swilling millennial-outlaw shtick. With songs about failed relationships with good women, marijuana use, train-hopping, pistol-toting and lessons in the geography of the Southeastern United States, Swampbird's obvious forebears are popular Southern blue-collar poets like The Drive-by Truckers and Lucero. They're boldly devoted performers, and would have to be, selling us on their hard-living and bad-decision-making personas.
In a rather bold move, Quadkiller opened its set piping in "Ride of Valkyries," with rhyme-sayer Anthony Thomas chanting from behind a tinted window in a brick-wall prop. He later emerged to join Adam Lansky onstage, rapping through a distortion-enhanced handheld mic. Thomas's flow was technically impressive and self-assured, perhaps leaning a little too hard on relationship metaphors and hater-ism but, thankfully, he wasn't preoccupied with intimidation. The duo, as perilously serious as they may seem, show a lot of ingenuity and promise, and I can't wait to see what they conjure up in the future.
The judges' take on Round 4 winner joey farr & the fuggins wheat band:
Guest judge Stephen Compton: "Unparalleled musical quality, talent in the whole band, cohesive sound and feel."
Epiphany: "Whenever you can get random women to do luau dances and air-drum, you're doing something right."
Clay Fitzpatrick: "I dug it hard. I felt like a space cadet with the blues."
Cheyenne Matthews: "Super super!"
Sammy Williams: "What Santana would sound like if Rob Thomas wasn't ruining it all."
Round 5 lineup:
Trasspassers is a duo from Fayetteville made up of Greg Moore and Michael Jordan, who make brightly colored, squiggly keyboard jams. "Orrinbee," from the group's recent EP "No Dumpling," sounds at times like an Ariel Pink song recorded onto a primitive sampler that's slowly dying, while "Time is Right" echoes MGMT's earlier goodtime electro pop and the ecstatic singing of Animal Collective's Avey Tare. "6am" is a bit on the darker side, starting off with a skittery drumbeat before melting into chopped and screwed vocals and burbling synths.
Laundry for the Apocalypse is former Dangerous Idiots and Techno Squid Eats Parliament member Aaron Sarlo's new outfit, with Matt Rice, John David Hilliard, Drew Wilkerson and Adrian Brigman. Sarlo's vocals sometimes recall those of Pere Ubu front-weirdo David Thomas, while the band's tunes range from the mournful, plaintive "Murdertarp for the Apocalypse" to the slow-build emotional fireworks of "No Despair." Changing directions a bit, "Rob Zombie's Halloween 2" is a punk-y paean to the shock rocker/low budget horror master.
Ben Franks & The Bible Belt Boys formed last year in Hot Springs. The trio — all men of the cloth — is made up of Rev. Benjamin Franks, Rev. Benjamin Robbins and Bro. Michael Stewart. They play pop tunes with simple instrumentation — banjo, acoustic guitar and a basic drum kit, though they've hinted about saxophones and fiddles, so don't be surprised if those show up Friday. "Our Story," from the band's recent EP, is a sweetly sentimental ode to the trials of youthful love. "Sad Song" is just that, though its topic — the sting of separation — is leavened a bit by an upbeat air.
Jab Jab Suckerpunch boasts personnel that will be familiar names for longtime Little Rock party survivors: Brett McKnight and Brian Hirrel were in the notorious '90s quartet Big Boss Line, known far and wide for eardrum- and liver-destroying rock 'n' roll fortitude and still talked about for their chaotic, tomato-covered live shows and ubiquitous band T shirts sporting the message: "Legalize Heroin and Murder." Bassist Brian Rodgers was in the long-running postpunk stalwarts The Moving Front and drummer Ryan Scott served in the ranks of Ashtray Babyhead and The Kicks.