Maybe the most important lesson Ryan Thomas Becker learned from Captain Beefheart is that the best way to subvert a convention is to master it. The trick, when listening to Becker’s Denton, Texas duo, RTB2, is figuring out how many conventions he and drummer Grady Don Sandlin are mastering and subverting all at once. Displaying manic urgency borrowed from Detroit punk, rhythmic precision with Memphis roots, and sprawling art-rock aspirations that span prog, ambient and even math rock, RTB2’s love of and immersion in all of those traditions is surpassed only by their apparent determination to take a sledgehammer to every last one of them.
Becker has always given a nod to the artier side of blues rock, with the aforementioned Van Vliet as well as David Gilmore and The Band making their stylistic mark. But with RTB2’s new Stuart Sikes (The White Stripes, The Walkmen, Cat Power) engineered effort, 2, Becker takes the straight lines of his rootsier influences and bends them into some hard angles, with odd-meter excursions and an exploded melodicism reminiscent of Polvo or Drive Like Jehu.
The duo’s chemistry catalyzes around Sandlin’s pocket drumming, with a sound as dry and soulful as classic Stax R&B; propulsion held in reserve and unleashed at key moments when Becker’s threatened and slightly desperate vocals edge ever closer to the breaking point. The indie-pop sensibilities that were on display for their debut record The Both of It are not forgotten: the second track, “God Will Be the One to Blame,” mixes fuzz, farfisa and a lurching backbeat with an infectious rock hook. “Another Black Beauty” is a standout shuffle with power pop sensibilities and Becker’s gift for arrangement and trademark guitar mastery on full display.
Sikes’ dry, articulate engineering of their self-produced second effort has effectively captured RTB2’s live chemistry -- no small feat considering Becker’s tendency to morph from his mild-mannered off-stage persona into a semi-possessed, Townsend-meets-Iggy rock dervish. Although he and Sandlin’s finest moments on-stage are usually improvisational in nature, 2 never lacks in energy or drive.
With 2, Becker and Sandlin show the musical virtuosity and genre-blending that has made their live shows near-legendary in North Texas over the last five years, while pushing their vocabulary into complex and challenging new territory.
--Dave Sims, a contributor for PASTE Magazine