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Texas Hold ‘Em: Blue October

Texas Hold 'Em: Blue October

(NOTE: This is the first in a series of entries that take a look at local musicians hitting a national stride in the month of April.)

(Blue October, courtesy of Universal)

Some background: in 1999, on my very first day as a music writer at the University of Texas newspaper, The Daily Texan, I shuffled through the CDs available for review. I only took one home, a scrappy, low-key package from some band called “Blue October.” In the liner notes, I noticed they were from Houston. Odd. The music was a somewhat heavier take on Brit-poppers like James. I didn’t review it, but I liked it.

During the summer of 2000, I was now the Music Editor of The Daily Texan, and I received a press kit for a new major-label rock band called Blue October. The new album, their debut for Universal Records, was called Consent to Treatment. I put it in our crappy office stereo and, before it was over, it became one of our favorites among the staff. I profiled the band in a feature, the album was reviewed, concerts were covered, hopes were high that they might cross over. It didn’t happen. The Houston band sold a few thousand copies and was quickly dropped by their label. For a couple of years, I’d hear the occasional Blue October anecdote: They had all moved to San Marcos, TX and were playing college bars or the bandmembers were forced to go back to working day jobs to make ends meet. Then, in early 2003, I spotted the tracklist for the summer release American Wedding and on it was a Blue October song I’d never heard of. I turn around and there’s a new album, History for Sale, that I’d never heard of. I track down some information and learn that not only does the band have a new album, but they have re-signed to Universal Records (something that pretty much never happens in today’s record business).

By this point, I’m a music writer for The Austin Chronicle, so I pitch a feature to music editor Raoul Hernandez and he lets me interview the band and write an article in the paper. Pretty soon, I’m the “Blue October guy” among the Austin Chronicle writers. My SXSW colleague Jarod Neece still teases me about how I gave History for Sale a better star rating than Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief (which I still stand by).

Austin Chronicle music columnist Chris Gray goes so far as to dub me “Festival producer and ‘Chronicle’ Blue October specialist Matt Dentler” in a January 2004 column. I end up becoming responsible for nearly ever inch of newsprint about Blue October, even a 70-word blurb hyping their ACL Fest appearance last September. All the while, when it was all said and done, Blue October still never emerged beyond cult status around Texas (and a few national spots that just worhsipped the soundtracks for American Pie sequels). The band’s sound can be a hard sell: a chaotic mix of influences like The Smiths, Nirvana, Nine Inch Nails, Tricky, and INXS.

Okay, okay, okay… what does this all have to do with anything? On April 4, Blue October released their latest record, Foiled. When I heard Foiled was coming out, I thought “No chance this will be on a major label.” In fact, it’s on Universal. “Odd, I wonder what the band and the label have up their sleeve?” Apparently, something. The album’s first single, a regretful ode called “Hate Me,” starts to get some traction on various outlets. The band plays a prominent slot at SXSW 2006. Next thing I know, I see something I would have never predicted: “Tonight, Jay Leno’s musical guest is Blue October.” The band plays the Tonight Show. Foiled is released, and debuts at #29 on the charts (that same week, Morrissey’s new album debuted at #27). “What?,” I thought. I check back in with my buddy Chris Gray at the Chronicle

Me: “Chris, what’s going on with Blue October?”

Chris: “Yeah, I dunno. I hear that song on satellite radio all the time. It’s like #11 on the Billboard modern rock charts.”

Later, I check the charts to see if Chris is serious… and he’s wrong. The single is actually #3 on the charts, and has been working its way up for 11 weeks. The band is, to this day, sitting pretty at the slot… sandwiched between new singles by the Foo Fighters and Pearl Jam. Plus, as of this week, the single has landed in the Billboard Top 100 singles (which tallies all formats together). Blue October is clearly hitting a level of national success that has never happened in the group’s 10 years of touring and three studio albums’ worth of recording. Is Foiled their best work? Not really. It’s a fine record, full of good tunes, but it lacks the raw and ragged qualities of the earlier work. This makes their crossover success all the more believable. Foiled manages to borrow notes from resources as diverse as Peter Gabriel and Dashboard Confessional.

In the end, it’s a good record by a great band. Sure, singer/songwriter Justin Furstenfeld wears his heart on his sleeve, but at least he writes songs with actual weight about them. Hopefully, the sucess of this new record will help direct new fans to the older material. Nevertheless, Foiled is a fine place to start, marrying the band’s signature ability to seamlessly weave guitar, violin, keys, and Furstenfeld’s “no-holds barred” lyrical anguish.

Standing in the beer line at Blue October’s sold-out April 21 show in Austin, a longtime fan quipped to those behind her: “Their albums are good, but their live shows are better.” This is the kind of thinking that helped the band cultivate and maintain a fanbase, even when not releasing new records. Like the Dave Matthews Band before them, Blue October knows how to play the circuit and knows how to develop a following that will last them forever. Their shows, like their music, embrace equal parts aggression and tenderness. And, in a very real sense, there is something very Texan about that.

While the band has roots in Houston, members are now split between Austin and San Marcos. When I first interviewed Furstenfeld, back in 2000, he hoped to relocate to L.A. if the band had any success. Who knows his plans, but it doesn’t seem to make sense. There is a duality in his songwriting that seems so perfectly Lone Star State. It’s kind of like fellow Houstonians such as filmmakers Jonathan Caouette and Wes Anderson: they achieve that very Texas quality of keeping projects small while thinking very very big.

It’s a common theme in today’s age of Texas artists: a marriage of Dallas and Dallas, of football and futbol. Maybe it’s a “little bit country, a little bit rock ‘n’ roll.” After all, you’re talking about a state where kids are raised by former athletes, ranch workers, and hard-drinkers… and those are just the moms. It’s all about upholding that sense of masculine strength, but peppering it with sensitivity. Look at Richard Linklater (also from Houston): how many artists can make Before Sunset and School of Rock in the same year? Want more proof? Two words: Larry McMurtry. And, Blue October’s music is rich with that same duality. The songwriting pops with catchy melodies, yet burns with a toxic honesty. It’s not music for everybody, but evidently, it’s quickly becoming music for more and more people everyday.

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