Jay Reatard's "official" Matador debut: one of the year's best.
If you held Jay Reatard's Matador "studio" debut in your hands and merely scanned the available info, you would think you'd be in for a pretty dour and angry experience once you played the thing. The artist — a punk rocker who calls himself "Reatard," after all — is wearing all black on the cover and is hunched over, cold and scowling. The album's title suggests rueful, masochistic exhibitionism. And the song titles: "It Ain't Gonna Save Me," "Wounded," "Hang Them All," "There Is No Sun." What more do you need to know, right?
Well, the lead track/single "It Ain't Gonna Save Me" is pessimism conquered by guitar. "Wounded" bursts forward with a "da-da-da" refrain cut off by a shouted "Hey!" leading into bright acoustic melodies. "Hang Them All" is moody, string-laden, and nearly choral rather than assaulting. And the closing "There Is No Sun" is swooning rock classicism, a symphonic (in the Phil Spector sense) pop lullaby that ends the album on a tone of contentment Reatard's lyrics can't quite accept. As another squirrelly but gifted rocker from an earlier era once proclaimed: It goes to show you never can tell.
Jay Lindsey was barely a teenager when he first became recognized on the Memphis music scene, a precocious one-man-band before finding like-minded accompaniment in the Reatards, the attitudinal noise band that cemented a moniker Reatard could never shake. He developed a reputation over the next decade as the enfant terrible of the local music scene.
I remember seeing him end a set with his band the Final Solutions by urinating on his drum kit, then proceed to heckle the headliner — Athens indie rockers the Glands — by shouting "Piss on your drums!" throughout their show. I saw him verbally abuse any suburbanites who'd dare watch his band at a Lost Sounds in-store at Tower Records before launching into music so deafeningly out of place that it drove many curiosity-seekers — including then Music Commission honcho Jerry Schilling — out of the building. These were relatively minor transgressions in Reatard lore.
But along the way his explosive talent was on display for anyone willing to meet him halfway, as Lost Sounds testaments such as Black-Wave and Lost Sounds indicate. His 2006 solo debut, Blood Visions, was greeted as a breakout that he immediately topped with a prolific series of singles.
Now Watch Me Fall, the long-awaited "official" debut for venerable indie Matador — a high-class venue by Reatard's standards. It's his best record yet but one haunted by a reputation that continues to nip at his heels, the hellhound on his trail.
Reatard, now a performer for half his young life, confronts this head-on with "Rotten Mind," an agitated rocker where he dreams himself floating alone in a hot-air balloon. In one glimpse, he sees "people around me hoping I don't die." In another, "people that want to watch me fall."
"But in my mind I will kill them all/Seeing enemies dying at my feet/But really I'm just frightening," Reatard muses, letting his reputation speak. But then he comes clean, musing over autobiographical snapshots firing off in his head — "I see myself crawling on the floor/Time and time again/It's such a fucking bore" — before asserting over whiplash riffs: "I know where I wanna go and I don't want to be this way."
Watch Me Fall feels familiar at first — hard-charging, frenetic, head-spinning. The first five songs click in at a total of 10:41. This is punk-pop in which the two impulses are locked in a blood feud.
Then it starts to open up. "I'm Watching You," a fuller re-recording of the bonus track from his Matador Singles '08 album, is a comparatively epic 3:46, built on acoustic guitar and keyboards and opening instantly into its triumphantly melodic chorus. Reatard begins to slow down enough to clear his head and also allow you to appreciate his song construction: the hollowed-out vocals on the chorus midway through punctured by a buzz of feedback and cut off by a keyboard riff that carries the melody on through the fade.
The journey from the relentless "It Ain't Gonna Fade Me" to the elegant "There Is No Sun" feels like real-time evolution — an overactive, worried mind settling down, getting a grip, forging ahead.
Urgent, catchy, conflicted, surprising: Watch Me Fall's title predicts a decline that the music vaults right over.
One of the year's best, and not just for Memphis. — Grade: A