Perhaps no one in Memphis music has had as productive a year as Jay Reatard, the onetime enfant terrible of the local rock scene whose early-in-the-year compilation Singles 06/07 built on the tuneful evolution suggested by his late 2006 solo debut, Blood Visions. Now comes perhaps Reatard's best collection yet, Matador Singles '08, released this month.
Around the time Singles 06-07 was being released on Reatard's former label, In the Red, Reatard embarked on a more purposeful series of singles for the vaunted New York indie Matador, a label that's helped launch the careers of some of the biggest names in independent rock over the past couple of decades, including Pavement, Liz Phair, and Yo La Tengo. While negotiating with several labels — indie and major — to release the follow-up to Blood Visions, Reatard agreed to test drive Matador via a series of increasingly rare single releases. The first of these, "See/Saw"/"Screaming Hand," was released in a quantity of 3,500 copies, with each of five more releases getting increasingly limited runs, down to a mere 400 copies for the last in the series.
Matador compiled the 12 songs from these five singles, along with an additional bonus cut, onto Matador Singles '08, released on CD October 7th, the first chance many listeners had to hear the rare singles. This music shows that Reatard's roll shows no signs of abating. "See/Saw" is rattling, bouncy pop that erupts into what someone who dubs himself "Reatard" might consider a soaring romantic chorus: "She creeps me out/She crept me in again."
"Screaming Hand" boasts one of Reatard's most direct and effective lyrics in its merciless look back at a troubled childhood: "When I was a young boy I didn't need much/A kind word or two ... but instead I got a man with an empty beer bottle and a screaming hand."
Other highlights abound: The swirling, driving "You Mean Nothing to Me"; the delicate, restless, regretful "No Time" effectively roughed-up with some intentional distortion; the assaulting "Dead on Arrival" sounding like old times up against the folkie departure of "You Were Sleeping."
But while the Memphis-based Reatard is making his move via the New York-based Matador, another of this year's best garage rock-oriented acts is making their own splash via Memphis.
I ran into a local musician on the weekend of last month's Gonerfest, the semi-annual rock festival sponsored by local label Goner. He'd made it out to some of the festival, as had I, and he volunteered this observation: "A lot of those Gonerfest bands suck. They're supposed to suck. But have you heard that Eddy Current Suppression Ring record? Oh man."
The record in question is Primary Colours, the second album from the Melbourne, Australia, quartet, which was a Top 10 debut in their home country and was recently nominated for Best Rock Album in the ARIA Awards, essentially the Australian equivalent of the Grammys. The album got a stateside release from Memphis' Goner Records last month and is, indeed, a doozy. A lot of those Gonerfest bands are really good, of course, but the point is taken: This is a band that would seem to have considerable appeal outside the subculture.
Primary Colours is the kind of post-punk guitar statement that turns limitation into triumph: What it lacks in flashy solos, skronky, feedback-laden breakdowns, swaggering blues licks, or extreme volume, it makes up for in tone, insistence, and rhythmic build-up. Primary Colours is the kind of post-punk record that takes its guitar cues from the Velvet Underground's "What Goes On" and Nuggets-era garage rock and maybe-just-maybe Sonic Youth at their most modest and tuneful. And when singer Brendan Suppression sing-speaks about watching the world via his "Colour Television" over a brittle, bare guitar riff, it evokes the Minutemen, another band that made immense virtue of modest tools.
Primary Colours is as basic lyrically as it is musically, communicating in a string of simple but affective statements, stuff like: "Sunday's come like a kick to the face" and "I'm wrapped up in you'" and "I still don't know which way to go" and "I don't want to play no more."
The only track that feels out of character is such a charmer that it doesn't matter: "We'll Be Turned On (Fix the Reception)" pairs keyboard work so cheap and fun it could be a Swinging Medallions outtake with sexual double-entendres that are lovably silly ("When I come home to you/I'm gonna do all the things I said I would do/Like I'll fix the reception/With a little bit of lovin'/And a touch of affection").