Cheer Up Charlie’s consecutively scores “Best of Austin” awards, and deservedly so. Within downtown’s highly competitive Red River District, this renowned venue has maintained staying power thanks to its all-welcoming attitude, calculated curations, and unique use of natural landscape. So unsurprisingly, most concertgoers in Austin have made fond memories at Cheer Up Charlie’s, no matter how hazy they may be. And concerning the creative community, we suspect Cheer Up’s has probably inspired more art than meets the eye.
Case in point, a modern tale of allure set against Cheer Up Charlie’s iconic neon lights from our April 2020 Artist of the Month, Hey Cowboy!. Since moseying down here in 2018, these three Dentonites continue to lasso listeners into their synth-pop posse. Less of a Mexican standoff and more of a guitar-verboten Wild Bunch, Hey Cowboy! corrals the best bits of vintage film scores, psychedelia, and even some punk, all sans-six-string. Their sandy, lambent arrangements plant you right in the saddle and entrance you towards a grainy horizon of mid-fi harmonies.
Like a steel plate beneath a poncho, Hey Cowboy!’s kept the new stuff under wraps, but promise their third full-length for release some time in 2023. Today, ahead of a live gig at Volstead Lounge 10pm on Valentine’s Day opening for fellow KUTX favorites Sun June and Star Parks, Hey Cowboy! casts a spell with their first jingling spur of the year, “Mesmerize”. Fastened by a hypnotic drum strut and intriguing, sedative intervals (both vocal and instrumental), it’s tough to resist Hey Cowboy’s command to dance in this misty recollection of a Cheer Up’s tryst.
Decades after acts like Les Paul & Mary Ford, Captain & Tenille, and Ike & Tina had their heyday, seeing the phrase “husband-and-wife duo” can personally make me wince. Like we get it; you love each other, you’ve got great chemistry together, and you have a lot of emotions you need to dispense, but often, quality output gets masked by the consummation of that creative process. So it’s refreshing as hell when you hear a married pair who removes their relationship from the sonic center stage. Folks like vocalist Stef Atkinson and multi-instrumentalist Nick Atkinson with their Austin-based project Nolina.
Since 2018 Nolina’s been blending synth-pop, new wave, indie rock, and even Italo Disco into their guitar-and-vocal-driven electronic sound. After dropping their Danny Reisch-produced debut EP The Otherside last November and a Mariclaire Glaeser-co-produced contribution to Jim Eno’s Project Traction, Nolina has just shared their latest standalone single, “Tourist”. And while “Tourist” does lean on themes of romance, its genre-inclusive arrangement and nuanced performances easily overshadow any matrimonial gimmicks.
Austin has its fair share of synth pop acts but arguably the belle of the ball in terms of output is…well…The Belle Sounds. The brainchild of songwriting spouses Noëlle Hampton (vocals) and André Moran (guitar) premiered in 2013 with their eponymous debut LP, and has since grown into a quintet with an impressive work ethic, especially given their 2020 one-single-per-month endeavor Stay Alive.
And though the pandemic situation is once again in flux, these Studio 1A veterans are nevertheless refreshed after some time off but are keeping well within in the retro realm of Stay Alive. Their new EP All About Love dissolves that time capsule into a modern recounting of those bold ’70s/’80s production formulas and you can skate right into it on release day, August 20th. That said, The Belle Sounds just issued the EP’s title track (with a music video on its way), recapturing the passion of golden-era synth-pop on “All About Love”!
As music technology marches on, the world of synthetic sounds continues to grow. But despite the digital wealth of wacky tones available in this home studio era of ours, for some folks, you just can’t improve on classic hardware. Case in point, Austin synth pop enthusiasts TC Superstar, who first gave us their teleporter to the ’80s with the 2017 LP Masc.
These Studio 1A veterans give the likes of Pet Shop Boys and Depeche Mode a run for their money, and make it look easy too, a legacy that continues with their new album. TC Superstar’s been sifting through the post-pandemic static for their upcoming concept record, As Seen On TV (out September 17th), and its most recent channel came through last Friday, “Nothing to Believe in”!