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Charmed, I'm Sure

[whitespace] Texas Indie rockers Cordial are charming on debut album

By Nicky Baxter

Webster's definition of cordial goes as follows: "Invigorating the heart; stimulating." It's a fitting description of the music a certain trio from Texas plays. You may wonder how an amped-up indie-rock unit calling itself Cordial could possibly sound inviting, warm and moody, but it does--in a strange way.

Cordial can bash listeners in the gut, but just as often, it washes over them like a leisurely flowing waterfall. Charmed, Cordial's debut album, is one of the most precocious efforts out of San Antonio in ages.

What makes Charmed so special is the manner in which it invokes the spirit of punk while disclaiming that moribund genre's insistence that perpetual simplicity means "keeping it real." The music is unflinchingly complex at times. Marshall Gause's guitar alternately swirls diaphanously, lunges unpredictably and jabs like a young Muhammad Ali.

Drummer James Moody and bassist Adam Johnson are musical chameleons, twisting and turning into any form required at the blink of an eye. Not that they are mere appendages to Gause. Johnson's unaccompanied bass coda on "Southern Pacific" is exquisitely tuneful.

The lyrics are about the only aspect of Charmed that are typical of far too many college rockers. At once obtuse and earnest, verses like "How can you not be broken beneath the analysis of need/It's those words unspoken that are the only ones I heed/I turned you into a token/Just another mouth to feed" come off like fragmented babbling. The song's title, "Asymptotes," seems to confirm Cordial's occasional need to play Shakespeare.

Still, the album is packed with joyfully noisy pop gems. "The Tyranny of Pop" opens with a teasing squall of guitar before settling into a groove that moseys along almost casually one moment, then buzzes with fury the next.

On "Sun, Sea and Me," Gause's rapid-fire chords sound like a wired Wes Montgomery, and a stretch-nosed trombone adds to the song's woozy vibe. Moody's drumming is almost jazzy, subdividing the pulse into powerful cells that careen off Johnson's unusual plucky bass pattern. Gause is a crafty singer, allowing space between the lines and even words. And though his lyrics are often indecipherable, at his best, he infuses them with oddly visceral meaning, repeating certain verses with mantralike insistence.

While the three Cordials often take themselves seriously, they are not too smart to have some fun. "You Should Have Killed Me When You Had the Chance" offers evidence of the San Antonians' tongue-in-cheek humor.

"Natalie Merchant of Venus of Fur" is kind of kicky, if in name only; the song itself is a dream-time tribute to the Velvet Underground with its lethargic, nodding pulse and primitive, emotionally resonant guitar. The tune's concluding instrumental section is slow dazzle of reverbed guitars and supercharged drums.

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