As a marketing plan, the 50th Anniversary of Rock-and-Roll may have been a bit of an underachiever. Fortunately, no one told local musicians it was supposed to be a disappointing year, so they kept pumping out good to great records regardless of how much notice the record-buying public outside the metro area did or didn't take. Over the following pages, four Flyer critics count down their own must-hear lists from a very good year in local music.
1. Too Much Guitar! -- The Reigning Sound (In the Red): At first I toyed with the notion of topping this list with something a little less predictable (and more tangibly local) than a Reigning Sound record. But then I turned the knob all the way to the right on this loud-at-any-volume rocketship of a record while doing housework last week and came to my senses. I mean, really, who am I kidding?
Dearly departed (from this city, not this mortal coil) rock-and-roll savant Greg Cartwright is on a roll right now. I still think I prefer the pristine garage-rock of Time Bomb High School, but the far more raucous Too Much Guitar! is catching up fast. And this one is not so much a garage-rock record as the hardest, heaviest soul music imaginable from one of the few guys in this little corner of the world with the voice to pull the concept off. (If you doubt that, listen to how Cartwright bears down hard heading into the chorus on "Get It!")
Cartwright & Co.'s letter-bomb valentines to Hank Ballard and Sam & Dave are spine-tingling enough, but the real triumph here are the originals: "Your Love Is a Fine Thing" is Ollie Nightingale and Eddie Floyd gone punk rock. "Drowning" is Bruce Springsteen transferred from the Jersey shore to the banks of the Mississippi, with a combination of modesty and epic-ness that the Boss only captured occasionally. And it may sound hyperbolic, but --from Greg Roberson's song-opening machine-gun drum fill to Jeremy Scott's joyous background vocals to Cartwright's sock-hop soul-music songwriting --"I'll Cry" might be one of the most perfect rock-and-roll records I've ever heard.
2. Lost Sounds -- Lost Sounds (In the Red): At turns menacing and mordant, Lost Sounds takes the listener to some uncomfortable places, but the music is so consistently riveting that the experience is more energizing than depressive. My favorite moment in Memphis music this year might be "I Get Nervous," a breakneck spazz-out turned rescue plea turned four-minute emotional epic. After a mic-shattering scream of the title phrase, a repeated two-note keyboard riff sounds a panic alarm while drums pound like a SWAT team breaking down the door and guitars clip along with the merciless precision of firing synapses. It sounds like a band trying to outrun the shakes. The whole album does.
3. Doing the Distance -- Snowglobe (Makeshift): No other local band makes music with the kind of casual density, palpable camaraderie, or excited creativity. Deploying cello, violins, and sleighbells, mellotron and musical saw, layered vocals and subliminal drops of musical Americana, squiggly guitars and churning pianos, each of these 16 tracks melds into the next as orchestral touches and instrumental interludes share time with more conventional song structures. The result is something akin to a 44-minute rock symphony.
4. Too Much Love -- Harlan T. Bobo (self-released): This local cause celebre is exactly the kind of record I tend to be underwhelmed by: Arty, moody singer-songwriters just aren't my thing. But every time I listen to it, I like it a little bit more. The best moments on Too Much Love rip through my biases like a laser: the odd, unnerving intimacy of "Left Your Door Unlocked," where the lovestruck protagonist takes a nap on his muse's bed while she's out with another guy; the early rock-and-roll-via-Lou Reed spoken-word vocals on "Stop"; the whistling wistfulness of "When You Comin' Home?"; and the Nashville-via-Blonde on Blonde move of "Bottle and Hotel."
5. Wrecked Halfacre Gunroom (Icarus): Compared to other recent rootsy Memphis bands such as Lucero, the North Mississippi Allstars, and the Riverbluff Clan, Halfacre Gunroom is less distinct musically, but the group boasts perhaps a sharper songwriting voice. Credit the grit-lit sensibility of frontman Bryan Hartley, who turns his pretty-common girlfriend problems into a big deal you care about, especially with the local-color-filled rants "East Memphis Girls" and "1989."
6. Living Legends -- Eightball & MJG (Bad Boy Records): The best tracks on Living Legends tap into the style that Mississippi rapper/producer David Banner has popularized -- earthy, bluesy, intensely Southern, with a lyrical ambiguity that parses the crunk and the conscious as fully as Kanye West but without the same self-satisfied fission. "Straight Cadillac Pimpin'" is the apex of this style, with Eightball rapping strong and sure over the track's swaggering bass groove and gospel undertones -- "I come through like a Mac truck rumbling streets/Big boy hit tracks, straight crumbling beats."
The worst tracks are rote gangsta rap where the duo is content to feed listeners genre clichés that each rapper is clearly capable of rising above. But even then they school their local peers on the beats-and-rhymes basics: Listen to how rotund rapper Eightball is able to alter the tempo of his flow to squeeze in extra lyrics without losing the beat. Besides, given the put-out-or-get-out vibe of so much recent mainstream hip-hop, it's hard not to love a rap record that endorses pleasing one's woman by any means necessary, which may entail a late-night creep to the Waffle House.
7. So That's What the Kids Are Calling It -- The Subteens (Young Ave. Records): "Mouth Shut," the opening track on this too-long-awaited second album from Midtown's wildest rock-and-rollers, is the best song ever written about tending bar at a Lucero show, and if that ain't Memphis then I don't know what is. The mock-triumphant "This Is It" at least approaches the pantheon of rock songs about touring in a bound-for-nowhere rock band purely on the strength of rhyming "keep it together with pills and marijuana" with "pass out in a hotel with a couple of the Donnas."
As on the band's first album, Burn Your Cardigan, frontman Mark Akin is still writing songs about getting drunk in Midtown bars but this time with a detachment that yields more humor and insight. And these sharp, funny songs are yoked to the most durably pleasurable rock sound around -- the boozy, populist punk rock of a band for whom the Ramones and AC/DC seem to be held in equal esteem.
8. Mouse Rocket -- Mouse Rocket (Empty): A poppier, more straightforward sonic outlet than her other band, the Lost Sounds, this is where Alicja Trout's Mouse Rocket broke out of the side-project box in a massive way.
9. The Tim Terry Experience -- The Tim Terry Experience (Soul Street): On this remarkably assured debut album, Terry cites classic soul stars such as Al Green, Marvin Gaye, and Isaac Hayes as inspiration. The organic sound of the music is a worthy inheritor of those classic sounds but is always contemporary. Indeed, what his music reminds me of most isn't the vintage soul of the Seventies or even the retro feel of most neo-soul acts but the modern groove music of former Tony Tone Toni frontman Raphael Saadiq. I do think The Tim Terry Experience is about 15 minutes too long. That aside, this is modern groove music par excellence.
10. Unlimited Symmetry -- The Coach & Four (Makeshift): This debut from the band excellently named for the rotting shell of a former hotel on Lamar Avenue is a blast of bracing, radiant guitar fireworks combined with finely honed, indie-schooled pop instincts. It doesn't exactly sound like such killer post-punk bands as Built To Spill, the Feelies, or the Go-Betweens, but those comparisons sum up the mood. The sound is introduced on the opening "In Transit," where clean, pretty guitar-pop morphs into a Sonic Youth-style assault, only to come through the chaos with the same chiming lyricism it began with.
Honorable Mentions: C'Mon DJ -- Mr. Airplane Man (Sympathy for the Record Industry); The Delicate Seam -- The Bloodthirsty Lovers (French Kiss); Disco Eraser -- Final Solutions (Misprint); 50,000 Watts of Heavenly Joy -- The Ron Franklin Entertainers (Miz Kafrin); "Survival of the Sickest" -- Saliva (Island); Path -- Undefined -- Candice Ivory (self-released); Kicked and Scratched -- Vending Machine (self-released); In-stores and Outtakes/Hill Country Revue -- North Mississippi Allstars (ATO); 11:11 -- Free Sol (Memphis Records); Break Free -- Susie Salley (Peg Allie).
1. Too Much Love -- Harlan T. Bobo (self-released): This eccentric, enigmatic sideman (Viva L'American Death Ray Music, Limes) finally stepped up to the mic to record an album of delicate, heartbreaking (or heartbroken, depending on how you look at it) love songs. Organist Brendan Spengler, drummer Shane Calloway, bassist Jeremy Scott, and a few others join in the misery, which, on tunes such as "Left Your Door Unlocked," can be oddly uplifting. The only thing more precious than these nine tracks could be the accompanying artwork: Bobo handmade each cover, clipping pictures from discarded library books to create a 600-CD run. Word is, these copies are becoming rare, and Bobo, claiming fatigue, has hired a printer. Find a copy while you still can!
2. Too Much Guitar! -- The Reigning Sound (In the Red)/C'mon DJ -- Mr. Airplane Man (Sympathy for the Record Industry): After recording their third album -- but before it was released -- the Reigning Sound was on the brink of breaking up. Organist Alex Greene left the group, frontman Greg Cartwright refused to release the finished tracks, and, as a trio, the band re-recorded Too Much Guitar! on a four-track. Fittingly, the album opens with a snarling original called "We Repel Each Other," as the Reigning Sound strip down their jangly sound to a lean and mean core. But now that Cartwright has relocated to Asheville, North Carolina, and replaced drummer Greg Roberson with Carolinian Lance Wille, bassist Jeremy Scott is the only local in the group. Never mind where they live, folks. The Reigning Sound will always be a Memphis band.
Despite Mr. Airplane Man's New England connection, both Margaret Garrett and Tara McManus deserve honorary Memphian status: C'mon DJ, their third album, was produced by Cartwright at Easley-McCain Recording Studios. (A previous release, Red Lite, was cut by Memphis' own Monsieur Jeffrey Evans.) Joined by Doug Easley and Shawn Cripps, the girls plow through a scorching version of Howlin' Wolf's "Asked For Water," while the album's cover depicts the duo spinning a single by the Oblivians, Cartwright's former band. And now that the guitar-slinging Garrett's a full-time Memphian (she relocated here in late 2003), she can be found onstage with a number of bands, including the Tearjerkers, Limes, and Harlan T. Bobo's group.
3. Instores & Outtakes/Hill Country Revue -- Live at Bonnaroo -- North Mississippi Allstars (ATO): First, the North Mississippi Allstars release the six-song Instores & Outtakes EP. Covering the Stones' "Stray Cat Blues," the Replacements' "Skyway," the Band's "The Weight," and Junior Kimbrough's "Meet Me in the City," as well as a few well-chosen originals, the Allstars served up a dream menu of material. Then they traveled to Middle Tennessee with a bevy of hill-country legends in tow for Live at Bonnaroo. Family's the name of the game on this 14-track disc, as the Dickinsons, the Burnsides, and the Rising Star Fife & Drum Band join forces with Chris Robinson and JoJo Herman to shake 'em on down, Mississippi-style. Two races and three generations boogie on this astonishing document that sounds rootsy, raw, and utterly righteous.
4. Living Legends -- Eightball & MJG (Bad Boy): Anyone who's listened to Hot 107.1 for more than five minutes this year has heard "You Don't Want Drama," the first single off Living Legends to score big. But that's just the beginning. Songs like "Straight Cadillac Pimpin'" and "Memphis City Blues" should catapult these Orange Mound heroes -- who have been in the biz longer than anyone -- into the major leagues where they belong.
5. Lost Sounds -- Lost Sounds (In the Red)/Mouse Rocket --Mouse Rocket (Empty): Last time I wrote about Jay Lindsey and Alicja Trout's group Lost Sounds, I focused more on the band's potential break-up than I did on their actual music. But their latest album deserves much, much more than a footnote in the scandal sheets: With epic songs such as "Bombs Over Mom," "Clones Don't Love," and the herky-jerky "I Get Nervous" -- and with the addition of Patrick Jordan on bass (further anchoring drummer Rich Crook's steady beat) -- the Lost Sounds might bypass 2004's "most likely to not succeed" category and move to the head of the class. Less noisy but just as creative, Trout's other group, Mouse Rocket, has moved beyond side-project classification to full-time band. Hopefully, their 14-song eponymous release is just the first in a line of many.
6. Phinally Phamous -- Lil Wyte (Asylum): Produced by Three 6 Mafia's DJ Paul and Juicy J at their own Hypnotize Minds studio, Phinally Phamous finds Lil Wyte spitting and biting like a junkyard dog. Gnarly gansta raps such as "Icy Whites Soljas ("We done heard how y'all do it down there, but in Tennessee we stomp a nigga's head in with the Reebok Classics, the icy whites," Wyte deadpans on the opening) and "I Did 'Em Wrong," a banging number that features old-school Nintendo sound effects over a gothic keyboard riff, scream North Memphis. The bouncy "My Cutlass" takes the vehicular ode to a new level, while "Bay Area" describes Wyte's home turf for those who live outside the 901 area code. Raucous and raw, there's not a dud on this album.
7. Mix Tape Underground Shit Vol. 1 -- Criminal Manne (Big Daddy Entertainment)/Da Nu Boi -- Mac E (Hy Lyfe): These rappers might not be on the Billboard charts, but on Memphis streets, their reputations reign supreme. Criminal Manne's "Tryna Bust Sumthing" scored big on local radio last May, while Mac E's "Got Deals" began getting spins a month later. Both songs deserve a shot before a national audience. With any luck, Criminal Manne and Mac E, representing the South and North sides of town, respectively, could be the next stars from the Dirty South to break big.
8. A Bothered Mind -- R.L. Burnside (Fat Possum)/Get Right Blues -- Jessie Mae Hemphill (Inside Sounds): A collaboration of sorts between Burnside, Kid Rock, and West Coast rapper Lyrics Born, A Bothered Mind is hardly Fat Possum's first pass at hip-hop. (Check out previous experiments like Burnside's Come On In, which brought the sounds of the north Mississippi hill country to the ears of a new generation, much to blues purists' chagrin.) From the dance floor rendition of "Shake 'Em on Down" to the bouncing "Goin' Down South," this album will keep the party going.
On the flipside, Hemphill's album, mined from David Evans' vault at the University of Memphis, takes listeners back to the hills. She plays unaccompanied on more than half of these tracks, tapping a tambourine with her foot on "Go Back to Your Used To Be," or, on "Shake Your Booty (Shake It, Baby)," rhythmically jingling Choctaw ankle bells. She's joined by Como musicians Glen Faulkner and Compton Jones on traditional hill-country songs such as "Get Right Church" and "Little Rooster Reel" and plays the diddley bow herself on "Take Me Home with You, Baby."
9. 50,000 Watts of Heavenly Joy -- The Ron Franklin Entertainers (Miz Kafrin): Back in town after a long sojourn in Europe, Ron Franklin continues to create fascinating, vastly underrated music. His latest opus, recorded at Willie Mitchell's Royal Studios, is perhaps the freshest-sounding disc on this year's list. Crafting a deliciously edgy concoction out of roots rock-and-soul, he channels AM-radio goodwill on the lead song, an homage to WDIA, before delving into dirty-sounding dance tracks ("RFE Stomp"), story songs ("Jim Cole's Got a Girlfren Now"), full-on gospel ("Let It Shine on Me"), and freeform insanity ("You Talk I Listen," featuring a rant by drummer Ross Johnson).
10. Sunday Nights: The Songs of Junior Kimbrough -- Various Artists (Fat Possum): The unlikely spiritual awakening sparked by hill-country bluesman -- and legendary juke-joint proprietor -- David "Junior" Kimbrough reverberates around the world today. Take Iggy and the Stooges' recording of "You Better Run," which huffs and puffs until it blows the roof off, or Spiritualized's inspired rendition of "Sad Days, Lonely Nights." Like the Ponys' version of "Burn in Hell," both cuts effortlessly blend past and present, creating a primal riff that Kimbrough himself would surely approve of. Jack Oblivian, a frequent visitor to Junior's place, channels Kimbrough's country side on "I'm in Love with You," while the folksy duo of Entrance and Cat Power turn in a traditional rendering of "Do the Romp," which sounds spot-on despite the fact that, like half the acts on this tribute, neither musician ever partied in the north Mississippi woods. Who cares? Turn up the music, pass around a bottle of booze, and imagine a benevolent Junior smiling down from the heavens, making sure the party never ends.
Honorable Mentions: American Idol -- The Oscars (Bootleg); Dirty Dolla$ -- Chopper Girl (Hoodoo Labs); The Delicate Seam -- The Bloodthirsty Lovers (Frenchkiss); Doing the Distance -- Snowglobe (Makeshift); Disco Eraser -- Final Solutions (Misprint); All I Know -- Keith Sykes (MADJACK); Man From Out of State -- Dan Montgomery (Fantastic Yes); Tha Hustle Life Vol I & II/The Bio -- Bumpy Johnson (Unda World); Tarantula! --Limes (self-released); Wrecked -- Halfacre Gunroom (Icarus).
1. Doing the Distance -- Snowglobe (Makeshift): Psychedelic without being overtly druggy, smart without being aching wise, personal without being solipsistic, quirky without being cute, and derivative without being "more of the same." The members of Snowglobe have never tried to hide their adoration of bands such as the Olivia Tremor Control and Neutral Milk Hotel, and since both of those Elephant 6 bands underdelivered on their tremendous promise, there's no reason why Snowglobe shouldn't step up to the plate. On Doing the Distance, the band mixes metaphors, harmonizing horns, good old-fashioned guitar rock, and folky acoustic melodies and comes up with a borderline concept album that merits a permanent place in anyone's 200-disc changer.
2. Too Much Guitar! -- The Reigning Sound (In the Red): Too Much Guitar! lacks the beautiful melodies of the Reigning Sound's debut disc, Break Up, Break Down, and the wicked playfulness of their sophomore effort, Time Bomb High School. It's easily my least favorite Reigning Sound disc to date. That said, the aptly named Too Much Guitar! is still one of the best examples of garage rock you find.
3. Too Much Love -- Harlan T. Bobo (self-released): "Left Your Door Unlocked" and "It's Only Love" are both real contenders for song of the year. The first is a surprisingly sweet story about taking refuge from the rain in an ex's bed while she's out, "just to see if things have changed." The latter is a timeless ballad about blue skies and bittersweet emotions that would sound right at home on a scratchy old Hoagy Carmichael LP. The rest is a bit Beck-ish at the edges but genuinely romantic and compelling throughout.
4. So That's What the Kids Are Calling It -- The Subteens (Young Avenue Records): The opening track, "Mouth Shut," begins with the line "Punk-rock girls and Lone Star beer means everyone will run their mouth in here." It's a playful rip on Lucero and a sardonic, bartender's eye view of Memphis hipsterdom. The disc only gets better from there. Teen spirit meets bubblegum banter with lines such as "Oh shit, I did it again/Stayed out when I should have stayed in" riding on a noisy wave of straightforward Ramones-inspired rock-and-roll with hat tips to the Heartbreakers. When it comes to mapping the landscape of pop-rock existentialism -- teenage wastelands and never-ending parking lots full of regret and raging hormones -- Big Star gets it better. But not by much.
5. C'mon DJ -- Mr. Airplane Man (Sympathy for the Record Industry): Front-chic Margaret Garrett and drummer Tara McManus kick down with all the hill-country blues you need plus all the gritty rock-and-roll you deserve. C'mon DJ is willfully lo-fi, an aesthetic choice that adds nothing and keeps a wonderful record from being all that it can be. With its nods to Howlin' Wolf, the Oblivians, and countless unknown garage bands, this record wins in spite of its fuzziness, not because of it.
Honorable Mentions: Lost Sounds -- Lost Sounds (In the Red); Kicked and Scratched -- Vending Machine (self-released), Tantamount -- Shabadoo (self-released).
1. Too Much Guitar! -- The Reigning Sound (In the Red): Unless you're listening to Yngwie Malmsteen at 78 RPM backward, there is never "too much guitar." So, I don't know what the title means, and while we're on the subject of "nevers," there will probably never be a bad Reigning Sound album, even though this is the best one so far. And yes, it is local. Greg Cartwright left town in February. This was released in May. But I imagine most of these songs have been milling around for a while in that expansive songwriting bank he carries between his ears.
2. Doing the Distance -- Snowglobe (Makeshift): I've written way too much about this record. What's left to say? This should have -- and maybe it still will -- blow up into a nationally recognized album. It scores better than 99 percent of the indie/psych pop records that are blowing up on a national level. Where's the justice? This is craftsmanship.
3. Disco Eraser -- Final Solutions (Misprint): Officially released last January, this kicked the year off right with what is true DIY punk rock. Why? Look at the original wave of DIY punk in the late '70s. The band members looked like normal guys. Hard workin' dudes who loved music. That's what this band is. They are not metalcore posing as hardcore and thinking that they are punk rock or any combination thereof. We're talking about a band that breaks up on stage every time they play, has a bass player who teaches elementary school, a guitar player who sports a white-guy solid horseshoe Afro, and a singer who splits his time between running a record store and working for an advertising firm. That does not follow any rules. That is punk rock to me.
4. The Color Cast --The Color Cast (self-released): The Color Cast is the best band in town that isn't DIY punk rock, indie/psych pop, or the Reigning Sound. The Color Cast is sort of like the first Dream Syndicate album, the Cure's Disintegration, and pick-a-great-indie-guitar-band all blended up. The band also has a great live presence.
5. Too Much Love -- Harlan T. Bobo (self-released): How nice it is to be sideswiped by a great record that you never saw coming. Not to deem Bobo incapable of making this record; I just didn't know he was making one and then -- WHAP! There it was, the good type of surprise.
Honorable Mentions: Lost Sounds --Lost Sounds (In the Red); Mouse Rocket -- Mouse Rocket (Empty); American Idol --The Oscars (Bootleg). •