If you follow what’s happening in the indie rock world of Houston music, then you should know there’s a pretty vibrant world that exists outside of the inner city. It’s always been that way, but the scene that grew bands like Donna Hayward and Astragal could exist on its own without any help from inside the loop. On their new split cassette release on Miss Champagne Records, it’s pretty obvious as to why this is the case. Astragal, a band full of jangly twee that reminds the listener of groups like The Pastels and Josef K, has fully matured their sound on this recording. Donna Hayward, an emo indie rock trio that closely embodies the likes of bands like Braid and Rainer Maria with hints of Jawbox, brings their energetic pace to full form. While the two bands come from the same burgeoning scene, they aren’t really similar, which is what makes this release so intriguing. With three songs per side, Astragal and Donna Hayward prove that they can do what they want, whether it makes sense to the inner loopers or not.
Splitting these two up on separate sides of the cassette makes the most sense, so things begin with Astragal. The opening track “Brightfellow” really ushers in the sound this three-piece has cultivated since they began. Full of whispered nuances, reminding you of speedy indie rock coupled with vocals reminiscent of The Cure, the sound has more depth than on their debut release. The way in which the guitar seems to dance atop the bassline and the drums creates this magical sound that’s hard not to love. The band employs a nuanced sound, somewhere between speedy pop and shoegaze, that should have you repeating the song for days. This gets followed by a different direction in the opening of “Miles,” with the band opting for a slower speed with a greater focus on spacey tones. The scope of Jimmy Bent’s vocals is definitely deeper than on the band’s previous efforts. There’s times when the song reminds you of a dream you’d never want to wake from, or perhaps some incidental music to a film that you’ll spend forever attempting to find on the soundtrack. They close off their side of the split with the dreamy sound of “Crescent,” where they take things back a step, but still offer up a more matured sound. Echoing the likes of early Bright Eyes mixed with the subtle underpinnings of bands like The Boo Radleys and Yo La Tengo, you’ll want to hear these jangly guitar riffs again and again. There are times in the track that it’s hard to believe this is only a three-piece, complete with a less-is-more feeling that hits harder than if they were attempting to do something more complicated. The echoing guitar peppers the track with a subtle sweetness while the bass and drums fill in the gaps, helping create an ethereal sound. Whatever you call it, it works and proves that these guys are definitely wise beyond their years on earth and as a unit.
Donna Hayward. Photo: Maddy Goynes
The second side of the cassette, featuring three tracks from Donna Hayward, takes a much different approach. Opening with the slower and more terse sound of “Westover.” The strength of Donna Hayward has always been in their ability to play a diverse mix of songs, not just the usual emo fare. When the bridge comes in, the song takes the approach of early Mineral when what feels like a build is simply a misdirection in sound. The song, possibly the most unique of the three, offers up the strengths of the band as songwriters. Changing pace multiple times throughout, the band definitely mixes things up with varying guitar methodologies and speeds. When things seem to be back in line with how the track began, a dissonant drum beat grabs hold of your ears and lingers in your brain, making it clear that Donna Hayward is more sophisticated in their songwriting than most emo bands today. With a thuddy bass and squealing guitars, the three-piece unleashes their inner Saves The Day influences on “Blame.” That’s not to say that they’re copying the New Jersey four-piece by any means since things quickly steer into the murky and often blown out manner with which these guys create their emo-tinged sound. The intensity of Anthony Simmons’ vocals seem to offer up plenty of pain and wonderment, helping jettison the band past last year’s You Won’t Feel A Thing without stripping them of their core sound, and they end the track with a more jazz-fueled stride than they ever have before. However, it’s the fevered pace of the closing track, “Sink,” where the immense power of these three together really comes to fruition. Snappy drums from Michael Bynum are led by a demonic bass from Chris Toon while Simmons’ vocals hop on and off of the track. When the vocals become more scream heavy and the band speeds things up, they end things a little too quickly, completely killing the build up they created.
There’s no secret to what’s happening here with these bands releasing a split album together. While both bands are from the same ecosystem, they offer up almost a dichotomy of sounds while broadening the fan base for both in the process. The end result is an album from two bands that represent the future of music in Houston, proving that bands that have been around for a while might need to step up their game. You can order the cassette through Miss Champagne Records, or stream it through both bands’ band camp sites as well. Grab a copy in person tonight for the album release party at Walter’s Downtown. The all ages show with doors at 8 pm also features a set from Houston’s Rose Ette as well as a set from Alexalone, with a $10 cover.