The Bloodthirsty Lovers
The Grifters and Big Ass Truck were the two biggest Memphis bands of the Nineties, but beyond that they didn't seem to have much in common. The Grifters had a cohesive, less varied sound; Big Ass Truck was eclectic. The Grifters were strictly guitar-bass-drums; Big Ass Truck was one of the first rock bands to sport a full-time hip-hop DJ. The Grifters played punk clubs on the indie-rock circuit; Big Ass Truck drew big crowds at colleges.
But all that aside, the fact that two of the driving forces behind those seminal local bands -- the Grifters' Dave Shouse and Big Ass Truck's Steve Selvidge --have now joined forces isn't that surprising. Shouse and Selvidge are from an odd-couple pairing. Strip away the bluesy grit and punk aggression of the Grifters and the hip-hop and jam elements of Big Ass Truck and you're left with something quite similar: a rock sound rooted in Seventies prog and glam and oddly divorced from the city's blues heritage.
Shouse and Selvidge form a fruitful partnership on The Delicate Seam, the second album released under the moniker the Bloodthirsty Lovers but the first to include Selvidge. The band's eponymous 2001 debut was essentially a solo effort from Shouse, who has collaborated under the Lovers rubric over the past few years with other notable local musicians, including drummer Paul Taylor, the Clears' Shelby Bryant, and the Satyrs' Jason Paxton.
The squiggly electro opening on the lead track, "The Mods Go Mad," suggests more of the out-of-character dance-rock that made the Bloodthirsty Lovers such a rewarding departure, but it's a red herring. Despite programmed beats, this is a rock record conceived in the image of such velvet goldmine gods as Bowie and Eno, Ronson and Bolin. You can hear this in the sculpted psychedelic guitar forays of "The Conversation." There are departures. "El Shocko," which effortlessly combines elements of country and doo-wop and Beatlesque into a swinging, humming whole, sounds like nothing from either player's previous oeuvre, while "Happiness" is an exceptionally pretty bit of alt-pop. And the album-closing "Medicated" subcontracts lead vocals to guest female singer Katie Eastburn.
But most of The Delicate Seam is dramatic, urgent art-rock. Those looking for contemporary references might think of alt-rockers such as the Flaming Lips or Built To Spill, but the Bloodthirsty Lovers are less loopy than the former and less direct than the latter. Chances are you won't quite know what these cryptic, impressionistic songs mean, but hooked up to Shouse and Selvidge's swooning atmospherics and asteroid-trail guitars, you'll feel them.
While certainly of interest to longtime fans, The Late Great Daniel Johnston: Covered Discovered seems intended specifically for the unconverted who may have dismissed Johnston either as a cause celebre among indie musicians or as an eccentric songwriter with a cartoon voice. Or it may be for those who simply have never heard of him before. Not only does the set feature a disc of covers by an impressive array of artists, it also includes a disc of the originals (including one new track, "Rock This Town," from Johnston's upcoming collection, Lost and Found).
Overall, these two discs are a triumph of packaging. Listeners can readily compare the covers with their respective originals and more effectively discern what these varied artists take from Johnston, who, in fact, is not dead. For the most part, they work hard to preserve his sense of innocence, some even improving on the originals. Bright Eyes turns the resigned paranoia of "Devil Town" into a lilting sing-along, while Sparklehorse and the Flaming Lips add new dimensions to the ballad "Go" but keep the simple directive intact: "Go go go go go you restless soul/You're gonna find love." Many artists, most notably Clem Snide, TV on the Radio, Vic Chesnutt, and even Guster, excavate the melodies from the originals' muddy production and arrange them to sound like their own.
Only a few tracks sound ill-considered: Calvin Johnston covers the self-aware "Sorry Entertainer" with a big, knowing wink, Death Cab for Cutie make "Dream Scream" deadly dull, and E of Eels can't manage to wipe that smirk off his face on "Living Life." Regardless of such missteps, which are almost obligatory for any tribute, The Late Great Daniel Johnston is the most accessible and arguably the best collection of the singer's simple, amiable, unassuming songs. -- Stephen Deusner