One of the advantages of growing up musical in Texas is that you can play cowboy rock without getting all stupid and selfconscious about it. Austin’s Texas Instruments don’t waste a lot of time or fuss detailing their stylistic concepts, the unpretentious trio just gets on with it, delivering crisp post-punk songs in a distinctly regional dialect. Over a simple Southwestern backbeat, Dave Woody drops an occasional ZZ Top lick into his barbed wire guitar playing, the backbone of lyrically substantial, reasonably tuneful material.
The Texas Instruments have sculpted a sustained and articulate body of work that stands in proud defiance — almost as if it were an indirectly proportional factor — of unprofitable tours, bad record company mojo and a low national profile. Even the locals became complacent: the last combo left standing among its ballyhooed Austin peers (True Believers, Zeitgeist, Glass Eye, Wild Seeds) became taken utterly for granted by most hometown clubgoers. (But there are probably people living down the block from the Louvre who’ve never seen the Mona Lisa, either.) Bassist Ron Marks gets recognized on the street sometimes, but only from his appearance in Slacker.
Unlike books, you can judge a band by its cover(s). Early on, TI — then a trio of El Paso buddies Marks and Woody plus Lubbock-bred drummer Steve Chapman — tackled songs by the Minutemen, Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. This de facto post-punk/folk/rock hybrid remains an accurate, if incomplete, model of the band’s aesthetic.
Following a stint backing Daniel Johnston on his Continued Story cassette, TI made the unassumingly strong The Texas Instruments, an album of good songs (like the garagey “Prussian Blue”) and energetic arrangements that stay loud without turning abrasive. Besides putting an infrequent Dylan inflection in its own songs, the trio covers Woody Guthrie’s “Do Re Mi” and gives “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” an effective rattlesnake boogie bite.
Double-dipping into the Dylan catalogue, the more temperate Sun Tunnels (again produced by Spot) includes a rendition of “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” and an amusingly derivative original entitled “Watch’n It All Go Down.” While only “Little Black Sunrise” goes so far as to be acoustic folk, the LP is a lot less aggressive overall, with impressive sophistication (especially rhythmic) that, on some of the harder numbers, owes a clear stylistic debt to the Minutemen. An exciting step down a promising path.
The band finally blossomed on Crammed Into Infinity: the music is more precise, while the lyrics hit hard with observant social sketches and pointed cultural muckraking. “Don’t Force Me (To Force You)” smartly compares the vision of society’s marginals to those who have it easy; the weary, insanely catchy title track is a nonpareil rock’n’roll song.
After recording Crammed Into Infinity (but, the indie biz being what it is, several years before it was released), TI picked up second guitarist Clay Daniel, who broadened the band’s sound both melodically and rhythmically. The lyrics brim with content, care and economy of image on Magnetic Home, while the music is a commanding convergence of jumping rhythms, seething guitars and compact hooks, brushed with power and finesse in a palette that includes trance-inducing psychedelia, rockist country-western, toe-tapping near-funk and rubberband power pop. “Armagideon’s Child” and “Magnetic Home” are both propulsive anthems; “Vision” is lovely rumination tempered with Daniel’s fierce leads.
The follow-up is an equally good collection of songs by a band in its artistic prime — if they were younger, or newer or somehow associated with Uncle Tupelo, the Texas Instruments would be hailed as ’90s roots-rock saviors. Speed of Sound has an alienated, somber feel on the one hand (the woozy title track, “The King of Nothing”) and a pungent sense of guitar-driven violence on the other (“Let It Shine,” “Top of the Tower”). The disc is rounded out by a cover of the Small Faces’ “Song of a Baker,” and it’s a tribute to the band that they make it sound like an original, from its garage-soul lilt right down to the capitalism-conscious slice-of-life lyrics.
Amazingly, after years of intermittent but unrealized harassment from a certain electronics corporation, 1996 saw the Texas Instruments finally giving in to renewed legal pressure, resulting in a name change to the Instruments (still TI to fans and friends).