While most of the attention given to modern Memphis' blues scene centers on deserving younger acts such as the North Mississippi Allstars, Richard Johnston, and Alvin Youngblood Hart, the best straight blues record to come out of the city in recent years (this is considering Hart's brilliant, eclectic Start with the Soul something else entirely) may well be the latest from sexagenarian Robert Belfour. Pushin' My Luck (Fat Possum; Grade: A-), Belfour's second album for Mississippi-based Fat Possum, is a solid step ahead of his excellent 2000 label debut, What's Wrong with You, the sound stronger and fuller, the tempos slightly increased, and the hypnotic intensity of Belfour's gravelly vocals and sharp, droning acoustic guitar unrelenting.
But other than that, the sound is the same, and that's good. Unlike better-known Fat Possum labelmates R.L. Burnside and T-Model Ford (the latter of whom Belfour is currently touring with), Belfour's style is more traditional country blues, differing from his electric colleagues in both sound and tone. Belfour's recordings offer such a strong, sure style and convey such unadorned authenticity that only a hard-core blues fan would be able to separate them (discounting sound quality) from a lot of the classic blues recordings of the '20s and '30s.
Belfour is a hill-country native who moved to Memphis as an adult and worked construction before retiring in the mid-'90s, plying his musical trade in area juke joints and on Beale Street (literally) until Fat Possum helped spread his music across the country and overseas. Despite a strong following in some blues circles, particularly in Europe, Belfour remains less celebrated than his Fat Possum cohorts, whose personae are more easily marketable. And that's too bad because, as Pushin' My Luck attests, Belfour might be the label's strongest artist right now.
With production help from Steve Selvidge and with a rhythm section of Ross Rice and Lucero's John Stubblefield in tow, singer-songwriter Justice Naczycz has crafted a great-sounding debut with Water for the Withered Root (self-released; Grade: B), giving nearly every song a strong, distinct sonic bed rife with instrumental highlights (especially the piano on "The Last Night with Angela"). Naczycz (a onetime co-founder of the popular Memphis Troubadours series) seemingly makes this variety possible due to his fluency in a lot of different styles, some jazzy, some folk, some straight-up rock.
Naczycz's idiosyncratic singing and songwriting may be more of an individual taste. He's a strong, impassioned vocalist, if maybe a little too self-involved sometimes (does anyone actually pronounce "bruised" as "bruise-ed"?), and his vocals come across best when the music is active enough to match them, as on the jazzy, Steely Dan-ish "What Happened Here Part 1" or the noisy "What Happened Here Part 2" (which are back-to-back on the record and make for an effectively jarring transition).
As a songwriter, Naczycz eschews conventional verse/chorus/verse forms in favor of sprawling, straight-line, first-person narratives. His lyrics are cryptic, impressionistic, almost stream-of-consciousness (random but representative example: "And on the edge of a bridge to Arkansas/I see the legacy of Noah and the tools of law"), with echoes of violence popping up throughout, from the obvious "She's Got a Gun" to lines like, "The earth is much too steep/I'm going deep/Into her chest that I can't keep/I won't put my knife down" and "several bullets from freedom."
Gonna Burst (Madeline Records; Grade: B), the debut from Leroy Star, a young band led by brothers Stewart and Jason Thompson, is, at its best (lead cuts "Stuck Inside" and "444"), catchy, tuneful modern rock in the Jimmy Eat World vein. The band is good at this sound -- vague pop-punk blending into straight-ahead radio rock -- but gets away from it too much on the rest of the record, with lots of slow songs that don't quite hold as much interest.
One of the nice things about this record is the vocals, which are strong and affecting but that, contrary to the genre norm, don't strain too much for shows of soul. And the tag-team vocals on "How Far You Fell" are a nice touch.
Though they're able to get out of first person ("Jimmy," which provides the album's title and which seems to be about a marriage falling apart), the persona captured here is a pretty specific one: Gonna Burst inhabits that netherworld between high school and adulthood (see the teen-movie scenarios of "Rock Star" and "Spotlight"), casting its lot with the interesting side of suburban mainstream. (In other words, they write love songs to Sarah Michelle Gellar when their dopier cohorts would clearly go for Jennifer Love Hewitt, and when they watch Star Trek, it's Spock and Bones they're rooting for.)
Gonna Burst is the second recent release from new local label Madeline Records, following last year's underrecognized Dead Horse Lounge, by Dora. These releases definitely make Madeline a local label to watch.
The brand of bar-blues presented on The Eric Hughes Band's debut Paycheck Boogie (self-released; Grade: B) sounds pretty antiseptic next to something like Belfour, but taken on its own terms, it goes down pretty well. Beale Street regular Hughes finds himself in good company here, produced by local blues vet Brad Wood and with a first-rate rhythm section (drummer Keith Wayson and bass player/wife Laura Cupit Hughes) that keeps things popping along, giving ample opportunity for Hughes and guitarist Mr. Norm to strut their stuff up top.
All the songs here are Hughes originals, and while "Paycheck Boogie" might seem too obvious, the blues is about generalities we can all relate to, and that's sure one of them. Hughes proves adept at pretty much everything in the blues spectrum, the standard bar-blues style making room for Bo Diddley rhythms ("Zombie Song"), country-blues stylings ("Come Home Blues," "Never Said I Was a Saint"), and some slide-guitar-driven house-rocking blues ("Gone to Mississippi").