DAVID GARZA (WITH MARK EITZEL)
Crocodile Cafe, 441-5611, $12 9:30 p.m., Tues., July 24
DAVID GARZA is just a couple of tunes into his set at New York's Mercury Lounge when the heckling begins. Two beer-chugging manly men in the front row have taken Garza's solo acoustic show—the final night of his month-long residency at the club—as an opportunity to leer at the Austin singer, requesting songs that aren't even his and trying to rattle him during particularly poignant ballads.
Finally, Garza breaks. Instead of getting pissed off, he starts laughing midballad. "I just can't finish; these two in the front here," he gasps, "they're killing me." This is a nice window for him to reel out "Say Baby," a harsh new song that adequately details the dilemma of being a commercial artist who must suffer fools gladly. "If they ain't down with your dumb lingo, if they don't hear no single/when you're trying to get on the radio," he croons, grinning pointedly at his hecklers. "If you feel like Jethro on death row, better call and request your own video . . . soul is a four-letter scam/DJs won't spin your jam unless you say 'Baby baby baby baaaybeeeee.'"
Hey, as the Lone Star motto goes, don't mess with Texas. The sharp teeth of "Say Baby," the first single off Garza's new album, Overdub (Lava/Atlantic), inspires a knowing wave of laughter from the crowded room. Most of the people are longtime fans of the feisty Tejano songwriter, and as they gleefully ad-lib with more than a few of their own "Baby baby baby" choruses, they understand his plight: This record has to do well.
Earlier that day, Garza seems relaxed as he sits down to chat about the new record at a nearby coffee shop. "When I was making Overdub," he explains, "David Gray was getting really big. You know, that drum machine and acoustic guitars-type stuff. So I went out and just gave 'em what they wanted. It wasn't like I was just copying [Gray's ubiquitous hit, "Babylon"], but it's like, 'You want a hamburger and french fries? OK, here's my version of a hamburger and fries.'"
Garza has been a spirited artist since he began writing and playing in bands at 17. Born and raised in Irving, Texas, he took off for Austin after high school and enrolled in the University of Texas music program. After one year, he left to pursue music his way. In 1997, Garza became an underground sensation with his self-released 4-Track Manifesto, a dizzying, five-song EP that is among some of the finest pop craft to never hit the radio charts. From the frenetic kitsch of "Discoball World" (which take its shots at Austin's slacker den heyday) to the tender Memphis-soul meanderings of "Too Much," Manifesto earned enough kudos to land Garza a major label deal (though he keeps his own label, Wide Open Records, as an outlet for his four-track projects).
Those halcyon days stand fresh in Garza's mind, but he prefers not to dwell on his past. In fact, he recently burned 10 years' worth of his songwriting and poetry to prevent himself from looking backward. "It was a big stack of all my writings from '89 to '99," he grins. "I was so tired of lugging all these things around, you know? It was very healing, rather than pining over trying to finish these songs."
For all Garza's anti-nostalgia, Overdub brims with a touch of Manifesto's sunny vibe. Two songs—groove-ready rocker "God's Hands" and drowsy valentine "Let Me"—have been reprised from his 1999 EP Kingdom Come and Go, while Manifesto's "Too Much" returns, brimming with the seductiveness of an early '80s Prince tune. New tracks like "Keep On Crying" and "Soul Custody" utilize Garza's otherworldly falsetto, while "Drone" and "Crown of Thorns" display the eternal Cheap Trick fan within.
GARZA KICKS OFF his shoes—a large, threatening pair of wooden clogs—and sips his coffee. "Writing a song is like the weather: You can't bottle up the wind or sunshine," he says. "You either tame the song, or it beats you, kicks your ass, and you're humbled by it. That's a beautiful thing."
Four years after Manifesto made waves, Garza switches gears constantly by making experimental recordings on the side—even though his beloved four-track is only functioning on three tracks these days. Like the narrator in "Say Baby," he's got to find the space between writing a catchy song and writing for himself, without censorship. "This is a really big turning point for me, personally," confesses Garza, who recently turned 30. "I'm in a weird place because I really stand behind the work I've done since 1989. I feel like an athlete; for 12 years, I've been a good player and played the game well—and I feel great about it. What I don't wanna become is the guy sitting on the bench, complaining about the guys on the field. I'd rather be on the field or in the stands—not in between."