No snow falls, but the weather outside is what the late Nat King Cole might’ve termed “choke-on-your-own-testicles cold,” so it’s not surprising that Confusion Only are performing to a thinned-out crowd. The trio takes the stage to headline the Texas Music Coalition’s Christmas party, held in Augie’s outdoor beer garden, more than three hours after the party’s published start time, after Santa Claus handed out the door prizes and reminded revelers to “let Christ into your Christmas … it’s not all about me” and after many partygoers have gone home to thaw out their nose hair.
A few remain, mostly huddled around the bar, while Confusion Only set up their extensive equipment, including a big board o’ effects pedals and hands-free mics for guitarist Steve Bratland and drummer Oscar Laun, and audio cables threaded through the large tree that grows up through the wooden stage and tin roof. This is where the observer effect comes into play: If CO hadn’t known they were being reviewed, would they have just played an acoustic version of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and gotten the hell out of Santa’s Village?
Doubtful, unless Bratland also set up his wireless guitar amplifier system so a single measly music critic, who’s probably going to use the show as an excuse to make balls and booger jokes anyway, can watch him run around a nearly empty venue. But Bratland does exactly that during “Free As You Please,” a catchy kiss-off track that starts a couple of people dancing at the front of the stage. “I am not your hobby, the present that your daddy bought for you. … I am not your latest pair of shoes,” Bratland demands before climbing down from the stage and hopping across the restaurant’s mostly vacated picnic tables while he tears through a no-nonsense guitar solo. He’s winded once the song’s over, and offers another layer of metaphor for the lyrics. “These new shoes don’t handle tables and water too well,” he says of his own footwear once he’s safely back onstage. “You guys nearly got an extra show with the paramedics.”
Confusion Only play a blend of radio-friendly MOR tempered with classic-rock influence, as they describe it on their MySpace page: “Led Zeppelin meets the Talking Heads while hanging out with Ben Harper in his early days.” That’s probably not much more than a list of bands they like a whole lot, but unlike most modern pop-rockers paying homage to the greats, the guys in Confusion Only have the chops to incorporate their influences.
Laun keeps time like the U.S. Naval Observatory after a few beers, and Bratland uses all those pedals and a knack for melodic multitasking to do the work of at least two guitarists. Bassist D.J. Strong seems like a nice enough guy, and he harmonizes wonderfully with his two bandmates on the few songs that call for it, but his monitor makes an occasional hellish popping when he hits a note, which seems to discourage him from playing loud enough for meaningful critiquing. This popping mars “Flying High As I Can” a song which follows its title with “But you won’t lend a hand.” Many of their lyrics seem bitter, but Bratland doesn’t really sound angry until “Fall Down,” a nervous herky-jerky track balancing a start-stop melody on Laun’s frantic fills. “How could I hope to see, without you I am not free,” Bratland seethes, “Now I know that I depend on your dependency.” Those lines are just about the only thing that’s heated around here. “It’s interesting playing with ice cubes,” Bratland says afterward. “I’ve only tried playing with fingers before.”
— Jeremy Martin