Mysterious surf, ominous murder-jazz, drag-strip rave-ups, sax-driven sleaze, melancholy R&B: Impala provided the perfect score for any mood.
It's been 10 years since disc jockey and former Reigning Sound drummer Greg Roberson essayed Impala's Square Jungle with a single sentence review in the Flyer: "My selfish wish is that these guys could get along long enough to do at least one record a year."
That was my selfish wish as well. I didn't even care if they got along as long as their infamous onstage bickering was masked by the mysterious surf and lurid R&B pouring from their vintage amps like a heady cocktail of jet fuel and white lightning. Who cared if guitarist John Stivers fell face-down on stage so long as his fingers never missed a note; if bassist Scott Bomar and drummer Jeff Goggins looked like they might kill each other; or if Justin Thompson had his sax packed before the last chords had faded? Impala had an instrumental sound that was addictive, and those who caught the habit will be happy to discover that Night Full of Sirens, a generous 30-song compilation on Bomar's Electraphonic label, contains "Amarillo," an unreleased country rocker from their Play R&B Favorites session. It's not an album a year, but you take what you can get.
Impala is generally described as a group of authentic surf revivalists, but that's not quite right. From the outset, you could hear ominous traces of murder-jazz, drag-strip rave-ups, and raunchy, sax-driven stripper music. Melodies were often sacrificed for moods that made the air seem heavy and humid. If you came of age in Memphis in the 1990s, the Oblivians and the Grifters were writing your soundtrack, but Impala scored the incidental music, with farting saxophone riffs to highlight the comedy, hot guitar runs for the excitement, and melancholic R&B for the darker moments. Impala left us with six significant recordings, all of which are out-of-print: El Rancho Reverbo, Kings of the Strip, Square Jungle, the Teenage Tupelo soundtrack, Impala Plays R&B Favorites, and the LTD A GO GO seven-inch. Not every track was perfect, but none was dull, and the overwhelming majority shimmered with noirish tension or raged like a tsunami. Night Full of Sirens cuts through the filler and right to the high-speed chase.
The title track of the perfect LTD A GO GO is a reverb-soaked surf monster, eerily detached and wickedly attractive. It opens the chronologically arranged collection with a jolt. It's followed by the dramatic sound-cinema of "Mr. Here" and a scary-as-hell take on Henry Mancini's "Experiment in Terror"/"Stalkin'," which was prominently featured in George Clooney's Chuck Barris biopic, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.
Impala's first full-length release, El Rancho Reverbo, is glissando-laden beauty front to back. Thompson's sax squawks South Beach-style, and guitars sing lonesome Southwestern melodies that sound like they were custom-made for drug smugglers speeding down an Arizona freeway. Night Full of Sirens collects the hip-thrusting "Last Tango in Turrell," the serenely surfy "Odalesque," and the wild "Wild Night at the Bloody Bucket."
Kings of the Strip is a collection of covers and originals that are seriously funny and seriously spooky. Impala's songs sound like their titles, and from their take on Lee Hazlewood's "The Hearse" to the lurking evil of "Nothing More than Murder" and the drunken romp of "King Louis Stomp," Kings of the Strip is a well-developed crime novel for the ears -- and Night Full of Sirens has every delicious track.
Through Square Jungle, R&B Favorites, and Teenage Tupelo, Impala stuck to their basic format but began to add more organ tracks. They got loungier, listing in the direction of Las Vegas grind-style sleaze. Night Full of Sirens selects the best: Tupelo's majestic "Blue Light of Capricorn," the whammy-fest of Jungle's "Jet Action Brunette," and the smoked-meat burn of R&B's "Cozy Corner."
Few recording artists can deliver a 30-song disc that leaves you wanting more. Night Full of Sirens does just that. An album a year, please. -- Chris Davis
Impala celebrates the release of Night Full of Sirens with a record-release party Friday, December 23rd, at Automatic Slim's, with Memphix DJs.