Educators make good roots-rockers judging by a couple of fine late-2007 local releases, one from veteran rocker turned high school teacher Rob Jungklas, the other from thirtysomething folk-rockers the Central Standards, a band fronted, in part, by an assistant principal.
Rob Jungklas was a would-be pop star in the late '80s, scoring a minor MTV hit in 1987 with the single "Boys Town." But, after releasing his second album, Work Songs for a New Moon, in 1989, Jungklas didn't release an official album for another 14 years, settling down as a local high school teacher only to resurface musically in 2003 with Arkadelphia on the local roots label Madjack.
That album was a departure from his more commercial '80s music, coming across as something like a personal tour of Delta mythology (including the eternal title "Drunk Like Son House"), a foreboding song cycle populated by a vengeful Old Testament God and an ever-resourceful devil. But for all its evocative Southern gothic energy, Arkadelphia ended with a moral gravity that was more grounded: "I am one man among many/I was raised up to do right/You don't need to meet the devil at the crossroads/To lose your soul on this dark night," Jungklas sang on the closing "Poker Face."
Four years later, Jungklas has returned with Gully (Madjack; Grade: A-), a sort of spiritual and sonic sequel to Arkadelphia. This is a rattled, atmospheric, bluesy roots-rock record that evokes artists such as Nick Cave and Tom Waits, though with more gothic/biblical authenticity, or PJ Harvey circa To Bring You My Love or Bob Dylan circa Time Out of Mind.
With help from guest musicians such as Secret Service guitarist Steve Selvidge and Wilco drummer Ken Coomer, among others, Jungklas and producer Jeff Powell (who recorded at Ardent and Young Avenue Sound) have fashioned a menacing, ghostly sonic statement — a sound that Jungklas seems to comment on in the opening "No Iuka," when he sings, "That drumming that you hear?/It ain't about the rhythm/It's about the strange fruit hanging/In the sycamore tree."
The content matches the sound on Gully. This is an album where a lot of bad things happen but are rarely spelled out: A decomposing, unidentified corpse is found in Nonconnah Creek; multiple songs feature men hiding in the dark with evil intent. As Jungklas sings on the gutbucket blues "John Doe": "There is evil in this world, and it is loosed upon the land."
These "messengers of doom" and tortured souls often challenge or deny God. The protagonist of "Burn Away" addresses his creator tartly, "I'm a sinner/But you've forgiven me/Glad to hear it, God/What makes you think I've forgiven you?" The forlorn lover of "Singing in Your Blood" asserts, "Ain't none of God's business what I do/There's too much at stake/And death's just another rule/For us to break."
But in the world Jungklas creates, these characters are fooling themselves — their defiance destined to be met with swift retribution. "God will not be humbled/God will not be shamed," Jungklas sings on the title track. "God will not suffer this in silence/He will make you call his name."
As all these lyric citations make clear, Jungklas has a way with words, which is what most sets him apart on the local music scene. Contemporary Memphis music is full of talented formalists of many stripes and authentic blues/roots players, but sharp wordsmiths are more rare. With Cory Branan now based in Arkansas, Jungklas might rival Harlan T. Bobo as the most interesting songwriter in Memphis music right now.
Where Gully is dark and noisy, the Central Standards' Folly (self-released; Grade: B+), recorded at three different local studios, including one song at Sun, is bright and melodic. Initially a folk-rock duo of singer-songwriters Ted Horrell and Jeff Capps, the band was filled out a few years ago with the addition of drummer Marty Christopher and bassist Casey Smith, but this third album is the first that really feels like a band record — morphing from folk-rock in the mold of Freedy Johnston to a harder-rocking, rollicking roots band in the mold of the Old 97's, expanding the band's sonic palette. "My Friends Too" is country-rock that rests a grounded lost-love song atop an invigorating mix of twangy riffs and harmony vocals, while "Back From Little Rock" is a new-love song where the protagonist's romantic confusion spins around an organ/drum break. A couple of songs even have sax breaks courtesy of Lannie McMillan, an old-fashioned, E Street Band-style touch.
My favorite song on the album: Horrell's "Thank You, Herman Mankiewicz," which will win over cinephiles by paying tribute to the Citizen Kane scribe for Mr. Bernstein's great monologue about the girl he saw once on a ferry en route to a personal tribute to memory itself.
But into this new-music breach, lots of good stuff emerged, including (obviously or arguably) improved sophomore releases from the likes of Tunnel Clones, Harlan T. Bobo, and breakout star Amy LaVere ...