Across two recent releases, The Ron Franklin Entertainers gleefully and masterfully genre-hop -- mixing soul, garage rock, blues, hip hop, and funk into one of the most arresting sounds to be found on the local music scene. With a rotating cast of local music luminaries (including the Lost Sounds' Alicja Trout, Big Ass Truck's Colin Butler, Flyer contributor Ross Johnson, and ubiquitous bass man Scott Bomar, among others) backing up frontman Franklin, the Entertainers may not be a proper band, but Franklin and company emerge as one of the city's freshest music entities with The Collected Singles (Miz Kafrin Projects; Grade: A-) and the 12" EP Feather Bed and Other Mixes (Miz Kafrin Projects; Grade: B+).
Franklin's inspired, homemade culture clash is so light and fun that it does for the Bluff City's various musical strands pretty much what London's multicultural Cornershop has done for its heritage of Brit-rock, hip hop, and Indian music -- he brews the melting pot into sugar-rush indie rock.
This is most apparent on The Collected Singles' two newest tracks, "RFE Stomp" and a cover of Bo Diddley's "Pills," which will also be included on Franklin's upcoming full-length 50,000 Watts of Heavenly Joy, due for release sometime this winter. "RFE Stomp" is a group theme song, a vibrant burst of road-trip blues with fuzztone guitars, train-engine percussion, and Franklin's vocals delivering an introductory boast. "Pills" is a hook-laden confection reimagined with just the right mix of reverence and irreverence.
The Collected Singles also includes "Honey Honey Honey," a slice of hip-hop-aware roots music which graced the recent Craig Brewer digiflik Natural Selection and which sounds sort of like a lost jam session between Big Ass Truck and the Riverbluff Clan. The early single "He's Out There" is similarly successful --British Invasion with Motown percussion. But Franklin's choices aren't always so flawless: A version of "Goin' Down South" recorded live at Willie Mitchell's Royal Studio is fine and features some sharp slide guitar, but Franklin and company don't rough up that song enough. The R.L. Burnside staple has become the "Mustang Sally" of hipper area blues acts. Retire it.
The Collected Singles' last two tracks also appear on Feather Bed and Other Mixes. "Feather Bed (Baldwin Mix)" takes the Gus Cannon standard to undiscovered territory, with lyrical mentions of 201 Poplar and Muhammad Ali. Franklin's almost-rapped vocals are a little awkward, but the sung harmonies are so sweet and the sonic mix is so playfully unhinged that it doesn't matter much. The original "City Lights" is a mopey folkish tune enlivened by a trip-hoppy undercurrent, reminiscent of Beck or Beth Orton.
Elsewhere, Feather Bed and Other Mixes splices up its title track even more adventurously and takes a fruitful side trip south to Mississippi hill country for the fife-and-drum experiment "Panola County Acoustics/The Electric."
The Will Barrett Band is based out of Batesville, Mississippi, but recorded their debut album, Premonitioned Time (self-released; Grade: B-) in Memphis. The result is the kind of hard-working, plain-spoken, regular-guy roots rock that has plenty of appeal in these parts, though it's hard to avoid the conclusion that Premonitioned Time will most likely appeal to alt-country fans who thought the Pawtuckets too weird. When they stick to the formula --"Pass Me By," "Move On," the "single" "Rocking Star" -- the Will Barrett Band is a pretty solid genre outfit. And Barrett's "Sydney Lu," a love song to an infant daughter, is a sweet little number (plus, if the Grizzlies keep losing, he could rewrite it as a dirge -- "Sidney Lowe"). But when the group strays from the alt-country outline, things take a turn for the worse. "I wanna be a rocking star/Play a little fancy guitar," Barrett sings on "Rocking Star," then he unfortunately indulges that whim on "Memphis Bound" (it's a blues number because, you know, it has "Memphis" in the title and the city council apparently passed some ordinance awhile back ), where the "fancy" guitar borders on the unbearable and the band seems clearly less comfortable doing the Beale Street thing. The modern-rock vocals on "Good Things" are also an unsuccessful departure from the more unpretentious vocal stylings on the rest of the record.
Honestly, unless it's Phil Spector or vintage R&B, I've never been much on Christmas records, but Django Bells (Memphis International; Grade: A-), an instrumental Christmas record from the Nashville-based, Memphis-connected acoustic jazz trio The Gypsy Hombres not only isn't annoying, it's a flat-out joy. Multi-instrumentalist (though violin is his primary means of expression) Peter Hyrka, bassist David Spicher, and guitarist Justin Thompson give the Django Reinhardt treatment to a host of holiday standards, including "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer," and um "Django Bells." Tasteful yet playful -- and sure to liven up any holiday bash.