by: Thomas D. Mooney
Editor’s Note: #ThrowbackThursdays are album reviews of old Lubbock and Panhandle albums that, for one reason or another, need to further dissected. Maybe they’re hidden gems, overlooked mixed efforts, or shadowed by better works. Whatever the case, we’re (re)examining them every Thursday. This first week, we’re tackling Estelline’s self-titled debut album. Listen to it on Spotify below.
Estelline by Estelline. The self-titled album from the Lubbock-based Estelline is now five years old. There goes time.
In 2010, the Kenny Harris led project was in the midst of a songwriting boom in Lubbock. For context, 2009, 2010, and 2011 saw albums from Lubbock’s Amanda Shires, Thrift Store Cowboys, William Clark Green, One Wolf, Grady Spencer, Ross Cooper, and Brandon Adams to name a few. For some of those–Shires, Green, Spencer–you saw the beginnings of a career while bands like Thrift Store Cowboys and One Wolf were shining bright, but near the end of their incarnations as bands.
In short, bands were less Texas country-centric as they possibly could be for the short period. Bands like Thrift Store Cowboys, Brandon Adams & the Sad Bastards, and One Wolf were pushing West Texas themes, but without drifting towards one common sound or mediocrity. Estelline was right within that mix.
With the release of Estelline, Harris and company–primarily revolving around the core of drummer Justin Lentz, producer/drummer/bassist/etc Jon Taylor, bassist Micah Vasquez, guitarists Travis Looney and Sean Troyer, vocalist Tori Vasquez, and banjo picker Jack Jones at various times–established themselves as the fundamental folk band within the region.
And essentially, Estelline circa-2010, you could break the band’s success into two strengths: 1) Songwriting Talent and 2) Live Show Performance.
In many ways, Estelline was the first band in which I saw the growth and evolution of their songs through weekly shows before hearing them in their permanent recorded state. You were able to see setlist revolve around the likes of “William Jones,” “Son of a Dead Poet,” “There Goes Time,” and “I’m a Monster” and see how the raw energy of those songs hit a crowd. Then, that same energy push back onto the band in an ever-going loop.
The rhythm section of Lentz and Vasquez is/was undoubtedly one of the best one-two punches you will ever find in Lubbock music history. So many songs within the Estelline catalog are built upon the familiarity between these two. Songs have a simple, punchy groove. Lentz and Vasquez during live shows (Taylor replaces Vasquez on bass for all of Estelline) were as technical and proficient as possible without ever morphing into robots. They’d let things breath, expand, and transition whenever the moment called for it. Look no further than “There Goes Time.”
Harris as a frontman was a mixed bag of charisma, passionate, moody, and at times, insecure. He’d dance around like a stringed puppet as he strummed his acoustic. Vocally, the songwriter’s nasally tone could be a deterrent for some. Personally, I find it an enduring characteristic for the Panhandle folk songwriter. It is Estelline. In the second verse of “I’m a Monster,” Harris in a way, describes it perfectly (possibly unbeknownst to him at the time): I’ve got an itch in my throat from screaming your name. Within the live show, that vocal works best. It ebbs and flows.
That more than anything, is the only true concern when recording an artist like Harris. How do you record a vocalist who sounds best in front of a packed crowd in a dive bar? That’s really when Harris sounds best–even when it’s not a perfect vocal take.
For the most part, the producing Taylor was able to capture Harris in the best possible way. “I’m a Monster,” “Song of a Dead Poet,” and “There Goes Time” really exhume the ghostly and haunting vocals of Harris best. They don’t feel contrived or forced.
Sometimes though, if feels as though Harris may be bored with the entire recording process. I mean, we really don’t know how many takes he did on songs. His voice feels too weathered here and there. It’s as though he’s singing from another room and you’re only hearing the echoes of his scream meandering down the hall.
At 15 tracks, you could make the argument that this could have been simply fixed by leaving a handful of songs off. Of course though, as a songwriter, Harris has a lot to say on his debut and doesn’t necessarily want to cut any of the narrative short. I understand that whole-heartedly.
On the inside sleeve of Estelline are the lyrics to all 15 of those tracks in small print. It’s something small, but it does go a long way (Remember, it’s not as though Estelline had this massive marketing and distributing budget. You go from one sleeve to a foldout with those lyrics included). Harris didn’t just want you hearing the songs. He wanted you reading along and comprehending throughout.
Throughout the album, Harris tackles a lot of subjects and themes: addiction, heartbreak, isolation, depression, relationship trials, love, and even the occasional political theme.
The majority of songs on the album have a calibrated bounce that roams around early Jayhawks, Rumours-era Fleetwood Mac, and Laurel Canyon ’70s folk. A lot of that has to do with Harris’ ability to balance his sincere, focused verses with easily digested and simple, but smart choruses. Hooks are clever and broad. You have a lot of pop sensibility crossover, even when it’s submerged in southern gothic folklore. Even dark tones and material can have that pop.
A lot of that has to do with the harmonies provided by Harris and Tori Vasquez on the album. There’s this incredible mix, balance, and warmth that happens on tracks like “There Goes Time.”
He’s at his best when he’s at his most authentic–when he’s writing about matters that are closer to the sleeve. It’s the difficult subjects where he shines brightest.
“William Jones” for example was written for the funeral of one of Harris’ uncles. I once spoke to him about this song specifically and he said that he had to scale back on the overall bluntness. What’s on the album is incredibly passionate, intense, and dark. Harris doesn’t hold back.
“I’m a Monster,”–possibly the album’s strongest point and ending track–he’s admissive to a fault. He is the monster in the crumbling relationship.
Hell, he’s the monster in more than one of Estelline‘s songs. That’s probably the best way to describe Harris as a songwriter and performer too. He transforms once he hits that stage. He transforms into this monster once he picks up the guitar and begins jotting down words to paper.
01) Don’t Believe It
02) William Jones
04) Save Us From Our Ignorance
05) Like a Lover
07) It’s All Grey
08) Son of a Dead Poet
09) I’m Not Leaving
11) I Hate It But I’ll Make Room
12) That’s Not What You Said
13) There Goes Time
14) Hopefully Maybe
15) I’m a Monster
Kenny Harris is currently recording a follow-up to Estelline with Jon Taylor at Mount Vernon Studios in Lubbock, Texas.