By now, the origin story of the most unlikely local major-label signing in recent memory (if ever) is likely familiar to many readers, but it warrants recounting. The shorthand is that Porch Ghouls frontman Eldorado Del Rey, while working as a tour guide at Sun Studio, handed Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry, who was taking the tour, a demo. Perry, who was looking for talent for his new vanity label, Columbia offshoot Roman Records, not only actually listened to the disc -- which would be surprising enough -- but signed the band as the first act on his label. The result, released last week, is Bluff City Ruckus (Roman/Columbia; Grade: B+), recorded locally at Easley-McCain Studio and co-produced by the band and the Reigning Sound's Greg Cartwright.
"We're gonna give you the whole 20th century in a two-minute song," Mick "Eldorado Del Rey" Walker says in An Education in Ruckus, the short documentary film included on the enhanced CD. He smirks when he says it, to undercut the potential arrogance of the statement. But despite the modesty, Bluff City Ruckus does distill a few generations worth of guitar noise into its barely 30-plus minutes, evoking everything from early jug bands and prewar Delta blues to urban electric blues, Bo Diddley, and punk rock. There's a long history now of these types of records -- homemade-sounding, garage-y, trashy, bluesy. A lot of it is Memphis music, from bands like '68 Comeback and the Oblivians, and many of the best of the rest were made in Memphis (the White Stripes' White Blood Cells, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion's Extra Width, both also recorded at Easley-McCain). Bluff City Ruckus is an honorable addition to that catalog.
All tracks save for Scott "Slim Electro" Taylor's instrumental bookends are Eldorado Del Rey compositions, and the lyrics (at least those that can be easily made out) seem to be mostly familiar blues tropes. But this record isn't about words but sonics, and in that department the band accomplishes what it's aiming for -- a ragged-but-right sound that feels as if it'd actually get bodies moving at a juke joint or punk-rock club.
Opening tracks "Girl on the Road (Ford Fairlane)" and "Tragic Ground" typify what's good here. These are limber, soulful, unpretentious roots raveups, grounded in blues tradition but not so reverent that they can't cut loose, especially the latter, on which Slim Electro's lead guitar and Randy Valentine's harmonica play off each other beautifully. Other tracks, like the Beckish "Nine Dollars Worth of Mumble" and "Ten Thousand Blueberry Crates," with backup vocals from former drummer Lori Gienapp and some sci-fi sound effects, are more modern.
The accompanying An Education in Ruckus adds to the package with some stark, beautifully short black-and-white concert footage from the Hi-Tone Café, footage of the band hanging out at what appears to be Elmwood Cemetery and skipping rocks along the banks of the Mississippi, and some interview material: Mick Walker strumming his guitar and explaining the term "ruckus" (derogatory for the black street bands in the early days of Beale Street) and Scott Taylor looking rather professorial in spectacles, explaining the sloppy but soulful bent of Memphis music.
Bluff City Ruckus may be the first record in its family tree to be made for a major label, and before White Blood Cells (made for indie Sympathy for the Record Industry but later re-released by V2) it would have been unthinkable for something this modest and homey to sell well enough to justify the investment. Of course, White Blood Cells was a work of artistic genius backed by a marketable concept; Bluff City Ruckus isn't. But even if these guys don't get rich off Columbia and Columbia doesn't get even richer off them, at least they got a good record out of the deal.
The Compulsive Gamblers are the band that both pre- and post-dated Greg Cartwright and Jack Yarber's seminal Oblivians, and they just won't go away. While Cartwright has been busy with the Reigning Sound and producing and Yarber has been busy with bands such as the Tearjerkers, Cool Jerks, and South Filthy, that hasn't kept more Gamblers product from appearing. Cut mostly at the Hi-Tone Café last May, with three tracks from a show at Chicago's Bear Kitchen, Live & Deadly -- Memphis/Chicago (Sympathy for the Record Industry; Grade: B+) compiles 16 tracks from the Gamblers' three proper albums in what would normally be a for-hardcore-fans-only keepsake.
But what makes this record something a little different is that Cartwright and Yarber are essentially backed by the rest of the Reigning Sound (along with Yarber's Tearjerkers sidekick John Whittemore and Gamblers trumpet player Sunrise Gervais). The result, unsurprisingly, is that the strongest cuts are the material that most fit the Reigning Sound's style, especially the folk rock of Cartwright's "Don't Come Looking for Me Now" and "Two Thieves" (which would have fit in great on the Reigning Sound's downbeat debut, Break Up, Break Down) or melodic nods to post-Elvis/pre-Beatles rock-and-soul like the Nolan Strong cover "Your Happiness" and Cartwright's "Stop and Think It Over" (ditto the Reigning Sound's breathless sophomore disc, Time Bomb High School) rather than the bludgeoning blues-punk or David Lynchian bar-rock that more typify the Compulsive Gamblers' legacy, which hurts Yarber contributions like "Pepper Spray Boogie" (which is the former) and "Name a Drink after You" (the latter).
But the fact that this is really more "the Reigning Sound does the Compulsive Gamblers catalog" than a more typical live rehash makes the record a more interesting document, especially since one imagines that most of the potential audience for this record is already well-acquainted with the Gamblers' output. The only other real flaw here is that the sound quality of the three Chicago tracks is poor, which particularly hurts Crystal Gazing, Luck Amazing's "Stop and Think It Over," maybe the most undeniable of all Compulsive Gamblers songs, where the band soars on a song still part of the Reigning Sound repertoire, yet Cartwright's vocals are buried in the mix.