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"Kinda Sorta"

Kinda Sorta
Sorta Plays for Lovers, and other musicians, on its debut
BY CHRISTINA REES
feedback@dallasobserver.com

From the Week of Thursday, December 20, 2001

It was likely the best three-band bill downtown has hosted in ages, in an unlikely spot. Fury III, Sorta and the Sparrows at the Liquid Lounge felt like an accidental jackpot or a secret club, and the bulk of the Thursday-night audience was other Dallas musicians. Everyone knew everyone, so drinks all around--and hey, isn't that your amp up there?
But let's get this incestuous little story straight: Sorta's keyboard player and drummer both once played bass in Fury III. And said keys player, Carter Albrecht, is the front man of the Sparrows, though he occasionally sits in with Fury III. Or does he? Nonetheless, the vintage Hammond organ, which belongs to Steve Nutt of Fury III, is much coveted by Sorta, and Albrecht can really make it sing, though he won't during his band's set because then he's playing guitar.

Welcome to Dallas, man.

Incest among the downtown rock scene is nothing new--just about every competent musician around plays for at least two bands (a primary one and a second-stringer, and that's not counting the inevitable quasi-ironic cover band). That evening at Liquid Lounge, Albrecht and whatever spiritual connection he had with the Hammond were the elements that linked the three bands on the bill, and the second band, Sorta, did more than split the difference between Fury III and the Sparrows.

The group is the first-string band of singer-guitarist Trey Johnson, bassist Danny Balis and drummer Scott Randall. Boy-genius Albrecht--a less angry, young American version of, say, Elvis Costello--plays keyboards in Sorta, when he's not fronting the Sparrows or diddling around with a half dozen other local acts. And though Sorta is new, its members play and write as fluidly and confidently as though they've been at it together for years.

Sorta's prehistory epitomizes the potential for chemistry between disconnected musicians, even in a scene as circumscribed and incestuous as Dallas. All of Sorta's members are fixtures in the Dallas music scene; all of them drink in the same bars and know the same people. Their average age is about 32, and yet, not so long ago, they didn't know each other. It was a band waiting to happen, and happen very easily, if the stars lined up or the great professor in the sky poured them all into the same test tube. In Sorta's case, the stars lined up as straight as shot glasses along the bar at the Barley House, and the professor who dropped them into one big hurricane glass was its owner, Richard Winfield.

"Richard's done so much for Dallas music," Randall says. "That whole scene that revolves around the Barley House and Muddy Waters--it's separate from the Deep Ellum thing, but all the music's excellent."

Sitting around the dining room table at Johnson's East Dallas house, the members of Sorta (minus Albrecht, who has instructed his bandmates to tell the interviewer that he "emphatically agrees with anything they say") are explaining how, in the past couple of years, Dallas' different emerging rock factions have staked out different territories. Of the Barley House/Muddy Waters faction, Johnson says, "There's definitely an upswing in Dallas music right now, and now there's this great little scene no one really knows about. No one but other musicians."

"Other musicians, plus their friends and girlfriends," Balis adds. Which is, they point out, a very encouraging audience. "If other musicians didn't show up, I think we'd be playing to tables and chairs."

But Deep Ellum, they say, is split between the power-pop indies (Chomsky, Deathray Davies--"Great, great bands," Johnson says with a sigh) and the frat-boy pleasers ("You know, all the Creed bands," Balis says), while Lower Greenville and Henderson more often host the bands that, uncharacteristically, played at Liquid Lounge that Thursday night. "But we loved playing Liquid Lounge," Balis says. "The sound system is great; it's a good room. We'd be happy to do it again."

In other words, Sorta likes downtown just fine, but home is a few blocks north of it. Johnson and Albrecht have been haunting the Barley House and Muddy Waters for several years, Johnson as half of the duo Trouser (and previously of Spam and Elscorcho), Albrecht as keyboard-player-about-town and guitarist of the Limes. Balis, once of the Bradfords, was a regular at Barley House and liked Johnson's songwriting. When the two finally got to talking last year, they decided to start their own acoustic duo.

"It was a regular Sunday night for us," Johnson says. "No real name, just Trey and Danny at the Barley House, I guess." But the new songs took shape quickly, and a few months into it, they wanted a drummer. Randall, after a long stint in Tex Edwards and the Swinging Cornflake Killers, was looking for something new, so he joined up, and then on a whim, Albrecht sat in with the trio because he'd left his keyboards on the stage from a show the night before. Winfield, or rather Winfield's bar, had made the crucial introductions.

"Since then everything has just fallen into place," Johnson says. For him, this is the best songwriting he's ever done, the best singing, the best cooperative effort of any band he's played with. Suddenly all his years of plugging and pushing and sweating it out in other bands simply melt away; after only eight months as a quartet, Sorta enjoys a bit of radio play and the backing of the Summer Break label, and is looking forward to a probable slot at this year's SXSW. One of the band's songs debuted at a Stars' game last week, and next week they're meeting with pro band manager Mike Schwedler to discuss the future.

The future is already starting, at least a little bit. An EP is out on Summer Break: The five-song Plays for Lovers is a slice of what the band dreams up in rehearsals each week--it's a sound somewhere between a low pop growl and a friendly twang. Johnson is responsible for the songs' inceptions, but "then the rest of us change them up till they're unrecognizable," Balis says, laughing.

Johnson's vocals, raspy and earnest but anchored in the land of tenor, give the band's sound some flexible cohesion, and Balis' clear harmonies evoke the nostalgia of No Depression. But song for song, Albrecht has the swing vote; his keyboard sets each song's subtle undercurrent, from an Attractions stomp to a Gainsbourgian cabaret, from sweeping grand piano to feel-good plinking.

And while the band plays with moods, it's within an American indie scope: "Alcohol Drip" is a surprisingly clean anthem to booze and forgetting, while the looser, more soulful "It's a Sign" is more resignedly Westerberg. "Bye Bye" notches things over to staccato rock guitar, and the bluegrassy "Now and Then" comes off like a lost track from Wilco's A.M. It's an impressive debut, given its spontaneity.

"Some of those songs we hadn't even really rehearsed before we recorded them," Johnson points out. "I don't think any of them are very old." And that's just this first, modest EP, a recording of what roads the band might take before it even knows where it's going. Judging by that Thursday night at the Liquid Lounge, the live set is like putting a sound in an oven and letting it bake and swell into something more epic. The musicians in the audience absorbed it with pleased familiarity; they hang out at Barley House; they know Sorta's back story. But the uninitiated walking in off the street would think they were watching old hands on home ground. Nice going for a band that hasn't celebrated its first birthday.

dallasobserver.com | originally published: December 20, 2001

- Dallas Observer


"Sorta Amazing"

Sorta Amazing
Trey Johnson may not be much of a front man, but he's one helluva writer
BY SARAH HEPOLA
feedback@dallasobserver.com

Trey Johnson didn't say much when he took the stage at the Sons of Hermann Hall, just launched into the music--catchy roots-rock with a twinge of the high and lonesome. The band was opening for the Old 97's that night, and though the place was humid and clattering with people much more interested in the headliners, Sorta isn't exactly a hard sell. Their songs are snapshots of boozy and bruised lives, of being crazy, craaaaazy for you. Not bad, a frat boy said to his friend in the drink line. Audience members started to tap and nod, turned toward the band and away from the chatter. High school girls perched near the stage whispered to each other, arguing over which band member was the cutest.
But Johnson didn't see all that. His eyes were closed as he sang; his shaggy, dark hair swished his shoulders as he swayed. When the band reached the climax--a wild, improvised keyboard solo by Carter Albrecht--Johnson turned his back to the crowd and faced drummer Trey Carmichael. All eyes skittered stage right, where Albrecht straddled his Nord Electro, cigarette dangling Cool-Hand-Luke from his lips. As his hands pranced impossibly across the keys, a guy turned to his friend. "Man," he said, pointing at Albrecht, "that guy's a badass."

Though front men tend to covet the spotlight, Johnson gladly gives it away. He's a terrific singer who won Best Male Vocalist in last year's Dallas Observer Music Awards. And he loves performing; he'd just rather it came without the pressure to be charming or, like, dance around. "I don't consider myself much of a front man, to be honest," Johnson told me later, "except that I sing the songs." In his first band, Spam, he played guitar with his back to the audience almost all the time. He likes to listen to the music. He's easily distracted. His band members deserve the attention. And, well, he's kinda bashful.

"It's just not who I am," he says. "I don't have any jokes to tell or clever little things to say. That's not me."

"Does that bother you?" I ask.

He smiles. He answers in a low-slung Dallas drawl. "Not at all."

Fortunately, Johnson is many other things. As proven by the band's latest CD, Little Bay, he is a great songwriter who keeps getting better, with an easy sense of melody and a strength for simple, somewhat opaque lyrics inspired by a late discovery of his idol Bob Dylan (who was never exactly known for his stage antics). "And I'll wear your crown/Till the sun sets you down," he sings in "Sweet Little Bay." Or the album's opening lines, flush with contradiction: "Try switching from north to south, making a wave/I just found it all works out, even though it'll break." He's not a sad person--he's happily married, and he just found out he's going to be a father. But he sings of suicide and abuse, though these are more character sketches than autobiography. Like the writers he admires--Dylan, of course, and Dave Eggers, whose two books he just finished--he's drawn to the moony and melancholy. "I love life, but it's sad," he says. "And if my songs have a theme, it would be: How are you going to function in life, knowing that it's so sad?"

The title of the band's first full-length offered a suggestion: Laugh Out Loud. With finely crafted tunes and an impressive musical backbone, the album placed Sorta in the upper echelon of Dallas bands, alongside Sparrows, which feature three of Johnson's bandmates. But lineup changes and an eight-month hiatus during recording took a toll--Laugh Out Loud sounds more like a great mix CD than a great album, with songs that leapfrog through genres and styles. Little Bay, on the other hand, has a mature, distinctive feel. Recorded with producer Paul Williams at Last Beat Studios and distributed on Summer Break Records, Little Bay progresses from its sweet ballad intro to the album's raucous closer, "Tidal Wave," bursting with spirit and sound.

"It's by far the thing I've done that I'm most proud of," Johnson says of the album, out February 17, "which is encouraging, because I'm not quitting anytime soon."

In a near-three-hour conversation in the dark afternoon smoke of the Lakewood Landing, Johnson kept returning to this idea: He just wants to make music. At 35, he's too old or too interesting to care about "making it"--not in the MTV, stadium-rock sense, anyway. "Maybe I should feel more desperate," he says, "but for now, I was just desperate to have a good band. And boy, I've got one. What else is there?"

The Sorta/Sparrows connection makes for one of the city's more compelling musical brotherhoods, and the two bands often share gigs at Hermann Hall and the Barley House, where they all met. Set changes look more like a game of musical chairs, with Ward Williams switching from pedal steel to guitar, Danny Balis shaking off his bass for a guitar and Albrecht taking center stage, all rock swagger and 6-foot-god-knows-what. From an outsider's perspective, the bands could seem a snarl of egos: almost neck and neck in accomplishment and exposure, with Sparrows showing up in D magazine as the city's "Coolest Band" while Sorta's "Crazy" gets play on a 2002 episode of Road Rules/Real World. Which of those is better--or more embarrassing? "It's not competitive," Johnson insists. "It's encouraging. "

After all, Johnson attributes much of this album's success to his bandmates' ability to flesh out his songs. "They're the most professional band I've ever played with," Johnson says. Take "Sweet Little Bay," for instance, which Johnson named for a childhood vacation spot near Rockport where he used to fish and swim. He wrote it while the band was laying out the album. "The guys had never really heard that before it was recorded," he says. "I played it twice, we decided on a bridge, and we played it. Perfect. That's exactly how I would want that to work. It sounds fresh, and there isn't time to overthink things." He doesn't like belaboring decisions, band conflict, all that blah-blah. It turned out to be one of the album's best tracks, with Balis adding a lovely Byrds tweak with his 12-string. "This is a band that isn't gonna have more than two or three takes," Johnson says. "Here are the songs, they all know them, and if they don't know them, they can wing it, and it'll still sound great."

But with both bands on the verge, will one have to die in order for the other to survive?

"That may be inevitable," Johnson says, "but I don't worry about it that much. If it falls apart, so be it. The last thing I would try to do is keep the band together if it's not desirable. What I'd really like to do with those guys is tour with them."

That's the next step. Their sound is good; their band is tight -- but until Sorta steps outside Big D, no one's gonna know that. So they hired a booking agent, and they'll make their SXSW debut on March 18. Maybe he's being idealistic, but Johnson sees this as his future--trotting the globe with wife and kid in tow, scribbling more songs, better songs. "Music is the best thing that I've ever found in life, aside from my wife," he says. "I don't want to work in a cube, and I don't really look forward to retirement. Golf doesn't sound exciting to me. What I'd really like to do is be 60 years old and play and sing."

dallasobserver.com | originally published: February 12, 2004

- Dallas Observer


"Dallas band brings soul to its twangy tunes"

Dallas band brings soul to its twangy tunes

06:36 PM CST on Friday, February 20, 2004


By THOR CHRISTENSEN / The Dallas Morning News

It must be daunting for Dallas roots-rock bands to surf in the wake of such luminaries as the Old 97's, Slobberbone and Centro-matic. But it can be done – and done well – as the five guys in Sorta show with their second CD, Little Bay.

Singer Trey Johnson and bassist Danny Balis formed Sorta at the Barley House, the Henderson Avenue stomping ground for the Old 97's and other bands looking for the perfect balance of twang and thunder. Sorta finds it in the most elusive place: good old-fashioned song-craft.

With its soulful melodies and hum-along guitar hooks, Little Bay is like tuning into some AM station from the '70s. It does get arty at times, like on the epic fever dream, "Fallinlove." But Sorta always returns to making pop gems: the jangling "Sweet Little Bay," the hypno-ballad "See the Lite" or the primal boogie of "Laugh Out Lout (Georgie)."

In "Laugh," Mr. Johnson spins a tale about Dallas nightlife, psycho frat-boys and shattered dreams. But the lyrics on Little Bay take a back seat to his voice, a powerful instrument that's raspy but never ragged and yearning without being wimpy. He sounds a bit like Evan Dando sans the stoner mumbling.

Mr. Balis adds harmony vocals, and drummer Trey Carmichael keeps the Swiss-clock beat. But Sorta's key instrumentalists are Carter Albrecht and Ward Williams, who both play in another fine Dallas rock outfit, the Sparrows. Mr. Albrecht alternates between guitars and keyboards here, providing the percolating space-pop effects in "Song About Birds" and smoldering gospel organ to "Sweet Little Bay."

And Mr. Williams, the newest Sorta member, fleshes out songs with some of the best slide guitar licks George Harrison never played – as well as inspired pedal steel work. Lots of alt-country bands whip out the steel guitar when it's time to make a mournful ballad. But Mr. Williams, like the rest of his Sorta mates, sound as convincing on the rockers as he does on the weepers.

Sorta plays Bob Dylan songs under the moniker Sorta Dylan on March 6 at Club Dada, and performs its own songs March 18 at South by Southwest in Austin. To hear its music, visit www.sortaweb.com.

E-mail tchristensen@dallasnews.com
http://www.dallasnews.com/s/dws/fea/entertainment/stories/022204dnartcd1.70b1a.html
- Dallas Morning News


"Dallas Observer Music Awards Round Up"

Carter Albrecht and Trey Johnson
Winner for: Musician of the Year (Carter Albrecht), Male
Vocalist (Trey Johnson) and Songwriter (Carter Albrecht)
Figures that Carter Albrecht would have a nice jump shot, even with a cigarette smoldering from his lips. He does everything else pretty well, so why not? I know about his shooting skills because I wriggled my way into the weekly basketball game that happens every Monday night at the place Albrecht and Barley House co-owner Richard Winfield share near the SMU campus. (Also on the court: Ward Williams, who plays with Albrecht in Sparrows and, lately, Sorta; Todd Pertl, pedal steel and guitar player for Deadman; and Paul Williams, producer of Sparrows' debut, Rock and Roll Days.) The night before that backyard game, Albrecht was onstage at Barley, sitting in with Shibboleth, twisting and shouting his way through a cover of the Guess Who's "These Eyes" and making pretty much everyone jammed into the bar forget someone else ever recorded that song. He cradled the crowd in one hand and held tight to the mike with the other, Shibboleth making like Booker T. & the MG's to his Otis Redding. And he's even better with his own material.


Flash back a couple of days to Sparrows' set at Liquid Lounge the Friday night before, or Saturday morning, if you wanna get technical. Leading the band through a set of songs from Rock and Roll Days, as well as some new ones the group plans to lay down with Paul Williams at Last Beat in a few months, Albrecht proved that he might be Dallas' one true rock star. No matter that Sparrows (which includes Ward Williams on slide guitar and pedal steel, bassist Dave Monsey, guitarist Danny Baylis and drummer Brent Cole) are still playing the small rooms instead of the big stadiums, or that Albrecht is too nice, too humble and too talented to be relegated to that kind of corrupt celebrity. He certainly looks like one, though, tall and skinny as a stop sign and charismatic as a con man. And he sounds like one on Rock and Roll Days. True to the title, the disc is rock and roll all over, but it's also soulful in spirit and singer-songwriter-smart in sentiment. Albrecht writes lyrics that can trace the history of the world from Adam and Eve to Avril Lavigne ("Rockinrocknroll": "Then there came a man/And then there was a girl/A murder, a flood, a virgin, a martyr, a Hitler, a Jagger/A radio") or reduce the history of a relationship to one fuck-you couplet ("Placebo": "And all I wanted was all you are/And all I got was all you are").
Flash back an hour or so from Sparrows' set that night and you'll see why Albrecht takes home Musician of the Year: He's just as happy playing sideman as he is standing in the spotlight. Playing guitar and piano and organ for Sorta, he blended into the background, chaining smokes and changing instruments, often in the same song. Sorta singer-guitarist Trey Johnson did more than keep center stage warm for Albrecht, showing off the voice that wins here for Male Vocalist. The pig-tailed Johnson has a set of pipes as comfortable in a caterwaul ("Boobjob") as a croon ("Look Like a Fool"), and sometimes both ("Chinese Feet"). Johnson's vocals are one of the highlights on Sorta's full-length debut, last year's Laugh Out Loud, and even more of a draw on the newer More Myth EP, as low-key and intimate as a good first date. The band (Johnson and Albrecht are joined by drummer Trey Carmichael and Baylis on bass, as well as Williams on pedal steel) is set to follow up those discs later this year, recording a new full-length with Paul Williams at Last Beat, around the same time as Sparrows. Maybe the bands should just release them together as a double-disc set; Sorta Sparrows kinda has a ring to it. --Z.C.


- Dallas Observer


"Review: Little Bay"

Sorta - Little Bay
Summer Break
[ Review :: Online 2004-03-01 ]

By Dave Sims
“You’ve been just about everywhere, except for where you oughta be,” sings Trey Johnson, lead singer and principle songwriter of Dallas-based Sorta, on their second full-length offering, Little Bay. The line just about sums up the record, a restless romp through anxious, country-tinged alt.rock that evokes the solitary discontent of Exile on Main Street by way of Wilco’s AM. The album builds slowly, from the acoustic opener “Sink or Swim,” to the urgent, open-throated anthem “Tidal Wave.” Wedged betwixt the two are a batch of tunes as well-crafted as any you’re likely to encounter this year—the baleful drone of “Fallinlove,” the bouncy Travis-picking of “To Jenny,” and the tense jangle of “Christmas Day,” among other choice tracks. Johnson’s weathered vocals are those of a man who knows he can’t go home again; and if that meant he’d stop writing songs like these, here’s hoping he never does.

- Paste Magazine


Discography

2001: Plays For Lovers EP
2002 Laugh Out Loud CD
2003 More Myth EP
2004: Little Bay CD

Photos

Feeling a bit camera shy

Bio

By all indications , Sorta kinda happened in summer of 2000 between pints of ale at the Barley House in Dallas, when Trey Johnson and Danny Balis began molding Johnson's endless supply of melodies into a menagerie of memorable songs. With emphasis placed on free-spirited collaboration, it was only a matter of time before another band started up. And so it did, as resident genius Carter Albrecht joined on keys, soon to be followed by Balis' old friend Trey Carmichael on drums. Ward Williams later joined on pedal steel and other instruments. In a short period, Sorta have produced four recordings and attracted quite a following and media attention in north Texas and elsewhere.