The story's everywhere, and even the daily newspapers are on top of it -- sort of. Before last week's California Music Awards show, Chronicle pop critic Joel Selvin slapped the program upside its fool head by declaring Bay Area music "a scene that isn't there anymore," without, apparently, stopping to think that maybe -- just maybe -- the problem isn't the "scene" so much as the one-time Bammies themselves, a glassy-eyed tribute not to music but to stardom, an industry suck-up, an excuse to hand Carlos Santana another goddamn doorstop (he picked up two more at last weekend's ceremony). Carting out the Bammies as proof of a "dead" music scene is like saying Beverly Hills Ninja marks the death of American comedy.
Hey, we get cynical too -- every other day, it seems, we hear another story about a club closing, having its license suspended, or turning into something else, or a band that's become fed up and left. Those stories are followed up with e-mails from people asking the question that journalists love oh-so-much: "Why don't you write more good news?"
Well, because usually the news isn't good.
But whenever we get too cynical, we look at The Stack. The Stack is a pile of records we get from local musicians and record labels, and whenever we hear people talking about the "dead" music scene, we look at this pile, which is pretty sizable and doesn't seem to be getting any smaller. Lest we sound too cheerleading, it should be noted that much of The Stack's contents is, in music journalism parlance, crap. But it's tangible proof that efforts are being made and that people are still trying to say something, which is more than you can say for dead bodies in gutters. And while there isn't room for writing about every last thing (to answer another popular question, "When are you going to review my CD?"), we'll happily make room for five recent records with pulses:
75 Degrees, The Rise and Fall of 75 Degrees (Dining Room)
The "rise and fall" is in sound, not lyrical concept -- hip hop with a downtempo mood and sense of moral uplift in the tradition of Chicago's All Natural and Common (the latter which 75 Degrees opens for at the Justice League on the 16th). With a sense of lounge-chair cool thanks to Rick Bond and Carl Robinson's jazz-funk productions -- and Amy Nicole's keyboard additions -- the boasts early on give way to flowing meditations on the similarities between love and Carl Lewis (it's all about running like hell), make their apologies, find a message in the theme to Diff'rent Strokes, and celebrate Christmas in San Francisco under the baking sun. Chill-out records, especially in hip hop, rarely get this warm or expressive.
August, August (self-released)
No getting over it -- bassist/singer Paul P. can't help sounding like Geddy Lee, especially when he's making Rush-esque grand emotional statements like, "I take a lot of things I shouldn't, but I do." But making too much of this belies the fact that this trio has made a smart seven-song EP of power-pop, styled after early Cars and other nuggets, without a clunker in the bunch. If Paul P. wants to make grand statements, fine, especially since the slow build of "Aphrodisiac" and the perfect pop of "Turned Back Around" can handle the weight of so much self-obsession, and Mr. P. seems to know the hooks come first. In August's chosen world, keyboards are a risk -- too cheeseball, too compromised -- but they support the opening "Ready to Leave" because they're neither gimmick nor ambitious flourish, just a piece of a grand pop song. Bands rarely contemplate the final results -- and not themselves -- so closely.
The Bellyachers, Bottoms Up (Gut)
A little bit of everything from this Oakland country quartet. High-strung countrypolitan here, Sun-baked rockabilly there, honky-tonk ballast holding everything together, and all one wishes for is that they'd sound a bit less like Patsy, Hank, and Buck, and more like, say, the Bellyachers. But the charm is in hearing Sandra Mello and Melody Baldwin-Baroz's harmony vocals, which propel the homesick "We Blamed Nashville" and the freewheeling title track, which has great fun with the Doors' trip to the whiskey bar. Besides, lyrically they're more personal -- and personable -- than most country tunes, which turn every soul into a metaphor for something somebody done wrong to somebody. Here, human beings look out windows, sit and wonder, and get mad at lovers. Smart thinking in the drinkin' song genre; it's what a lot of people do when they're drinking anyway.
Ethan Daniel Davidson, Alaska 11 North (self-released)
To hear the folkie Mr. Davidson tell it, he has, among many other things, hung out with Walter Cronkite, worked at an illegal casino, might have Mad Cow Disease, and had a run-in with one of Ted Bundy's corpses -- all fascinating tales and, it's worth noting, utterly unprovable. On record, he's a simpler folkie in the Woody Guthrie talking-blues tradition, starting off grandly by saying, "I have done nothing to earn my cursed name," but soon enough he's talking about wanting to be Madonna's pool boy. Mostly, though, he's a wise and sincere-sounding storyteller -- back-porch ponderings on love and travel and how the two interweave. Not much of a guitar stylist, but neither was Guthrie -- his ambition instead lies in the voices of Loudon Wainwright III and Lou Reed, both of whom he covers. But give him credit for not falling into the cynical trap of those two professional crankcases.
Ernesto Diaz-Infante, Solus (Pax)
One day, feeling financially flush, musically ambitious, and, in a weak moment, conciliatory toward French culture, we invested in The Complete Piano Works of Erik Satie, a seven-LP set of fin de siècle compositional adventurism. Satie's works, at once playful, insular, and deceptively complex, sprang out of a creative ferment at the time that embraced such musical radicals (no thanks to the set's liner notes for illuminating any of that, since they were written in Japanese -- Roger Shattuck's magnificent book The Banquet Years fills in the gaps nicely). Composer, pianist, and frequent player in the local experiential music scene Ernesto Diaz-Infante embraces Satie's sensibility on his third album, Solus, in function if not in form. Comprised of 13 improv-driven tracks, his style is not as rigid as Satie's, but the notes dance around each other so busily that they become, in their own way, soothing. That's probably why he gets tagged as a New Ager so often, as if he and George Winston were one and the same. But by the time the hour-plus meditation is over with, those nimble fingers have paintbrushed a more intense passion than Winston's calm remove, and something more jarring if you care to listen to it moment to moment. Even as background music, though, it's one of the prettiest sighs you'll ever hear.
Send Bay Area music news, band stories, or petty gripes to Mark.Athitakis@sfweekly.com, or mail them to Riff Raff, c/o SF Weekly.RiffRaff