art rock

Friends To The End: “Chinese Underground”

When art rock first emerged against the counterculture explosion of the late ’60s, its ability to slyly insert societal and political remarks into avant-garde arrangements and multi-sensory experiences (think Warhol’s relationship with The Velvet Underground) was a real piece of modern renaissance. As the ’70s transitioned into the ’80s, art rock’s prime offspring (punk rock and new wave) began to shed the subtle nuance of prior decades in favor of more blatant, less open-to-interpretation lyricism, albeit with a wider distribution network for the multi-media aspect, thanks to MTV. Now, thirty years post-Cold War, in an era where creative dissenters can directly confront public figures by tagging them on Twitter or re-appropriating their image on TikTok for the whole world to see, such explicit callouts have become the status quo in art rock.

And unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that COVID-19’s created a lot of discourse worth responding to. Among the many supplying contemporary commentary is Austin songwriter Thom Kurtz, who, since 2016, has contributed his fair share of off-kilter cross-genre observations with his project Friends To The End. Although Friend To The End’s averaged at about two singles per year, we haven’t heard from Kurtz since last summer’s “ROBOT ODDiTY”.

Today Friends To The End tosses us back into the satirical trenches with “Chinese Underground”. When you watch its blunt lyrics flash over the cartoonishly-hyperbolic imagery of its music video, “Chinese Underground” seems like a straightforward mockery of Mao Zedong on a surface level. But try digging into “Chinese Underground” by recognizing the subtext of its oriental orchestration (akin to the implementation of African sounds underneath David Byrne’s blight-biting lyrics on Remain in Light) as a stylistic choice rather than a reinforcement of potentially harmful sonic stereotypes. Once you do, you’ll appreciate this infectious ’80s-style oddball tune through a whole new lens – as a reflection on the invincibility of an idea.

Shadow Work: “Warm Tones”

There’s no doubt; Denver’s got a splendid music scene. Yet despite an artist multiplicity that gives Austin a run for its money, it’s rare to come across an act that captures several sounds of the city simultaneously. So if you want a calculated combo of post-hardcore guitar, jazz-injected percussion, and turbulent pride-of-punk bass riffs, sign up for shadow work.

This capricious art/math-rock trio first crawled out of the woodwork on last May’s debut album Robben Island and have since gone on to share a handful of singles, including two in 2022 alone. The latest one, “Warm Tones”, (mixed and mastered by Snoop Dogg/Lil Baby/Trey Songz producer John Scott) sets the stage for a Southeastern U.S. tour at the end of the month. shadow work has stops planned for Birmingham, Nashville, and Atlanta, so if you’re the type to hold onto Texas’ high temps as long as possible, consider working their whirlwind “Warm Tones” (with its daring dynamics, melancholy chord changes, and jaw-dropping instrumentation) into your upcoming Fall playlist. Either way, keep on the lookout for a national tour and a new record from shadow work within the next year.

The Best Around: “Kissing Your Ass”

From the surrealist theatrics of Oingo Boingo and Devo to the esoteric lyricism of Hunky Dory, it seems that not taking yourself seriously can give you a big leg up in the world of art rock. And as with the escapism given to us by those ’70s and ’80s greats, modern day art rockers like Austin’s The Best Around cross the wires between absurdist, non-sequitur humor and biting social commentary. In Spring 2020, Ten years after his indie punk outfit Safeword tapped out, singer-songwriter Camron Rushin created The Best Around along with multi-instrumentalists Todd Pruner (of English Teeth and Kodachrome) and Jon Merz (of Montopolis, My Jerusalem, and Soul Track Mind). They began exchanging stems of new songs and building up arrangements remotely, one instrument at a time, in accordance with pandemic-mandated social distancing. That patience (cue Karate Kid training montage music) lends itself to the work ethic of The Best Around, whose uncouth goofiness may cause cursory critiques to overlook the trio’s underlying discipline.

With Cobrai Kai making its fifth season premiere this Friday and Karate Kid culture back in the zeitgeist, The Best Around are making the most of this moment of Kairos with a new studio single. It’s part of The Best Around’s upcoming debut full-length, which was mixed and mastered by Erik Wofford at Cacophony Recorders here in Austin and is set for release sometime in the next several months. This latest one is a testament to the fact that there’ll never be a demand shortage for breakup songs, and there’ll always be another, more irreverent way to bid farewell to a former fling. Layered with LFO synth flairs, Fastball-style group vocals, bluesy guitar, and mid-’90s Beck-esque production techniques, “Kissing Your Ass” (and its soon-to-be-shared music video) is a perfect funk-rock complement to pop breakup bangers like “thank u, next”.