Magic Wand," the first song on Attack!, the debut album from local band the Bulletproof Vests, leaps out of the speakers on a nimble classic-rock guitar riff and cools down with a splash of soulful organ, all serving as foundation for an identifiably Southern vocal. It sounds more than a little like the Band's "The Shape I'm In."
This wouldn't be unusual, except that four-fifths of the musicians who recorded the album got their start on the local scene a few years ago in Augustine, a buzzed-about experimental indie band that sounded a lot more like Radiohead.
"It's like a journey, where you start with certain influences, and I guess our tastes changed," says singer/guitarist Jake Vest, 24, who, along with older brother Toby, 30, fronts the band.
The younger Vest was an 18-year-old college freshman when Augustine started, driven by his elder brother's then tastes in contemporary rock. Augustine released one record under that moniker, then a second — Among the Wolves — under a new name, the Third Man, but then began to sputter.
"Right after the last Third Man record, we were meeting to plan our promotional attack, and after taking two years to make that record, it was extremely difficult," Toby says. "Not only did we drive ourselves crazy, we drove [producer Kevin] Cubbins crazy. The enthusiasm, for the moment, was not there. So we decided to put the band on pause for a while. We didn't have plans to start another group."
The band did still have a show scheduled to open for fellow locals Antique Curtains but couldn't get everyone together, so the Vest brothers, bassist Dirk Kitterlin, and Curtains drummer Greg Faison did a covers set. The seed for a new band was planted.
In the Third Man, Toby was the primary songwriter, with Jake taking a secondary role. Those roles are reversed in the Bulletproof Vests.
"Jake had a bunch of songs that didn't really fit in the Third Man," Toby says. "I wanted this band to showcase [his stuff]."
The younger Vest's tastes also were changing.
"I became more interested in Memphis, especially after I read It Came From Memphis. I wanted to know about everyone who'd played here. And Dirk was working at Stax and introducing me to stuff — Big Star, Otis Redding. I even started to like Elvis, which was very hard for me," says Jake, who also speaks excitedly about classic-rock touchstones such as the Velvet Underground's third and fourth albums and the Band's concert film The Last Waltz.
"It hit me like a brick, man. This was the kind of music I wanted to play."
The younger Vest had a partial outlet for this interest alongside singer Jake Rabinbach in the swamp-rock and R&B band Jump Back Jake, which also features Faison and current Vests bassist Brandon Robertson and originally included Kitterlin, who has moved to organ in the Bulletproof Vests, taking a crash course in Booker T. Jones and the Band's Garth Hudson to master his new instrument.
But the Bulletproof Vests, which add a more diverse array of '60s and '70s rock influences (witness the Big Star-meets-T. Rex mashup of "To the Moon"), Vest & Co. get to fully explore their newfound classic-rock jones.
The band is celebrating the release of Attack! (available online and in a limited CD run) with a month-long Monday-night residency at the Hi-Tone, playing alongside bands Toby Vest has been helping record at the studio/practice/office space the band shares with Makeshift Records. Among those bands is Jeffery James & the Haul, another bunch of familiar local indie rockers burrowing backward into a more rootsy sound.
Jeff Hullet, longtime drummer for Snowglobe, fronts the Haul. Like the Bulletproof Vests, the Haul was born out of another band's slowdown.
"In 2005, Snowglobe was in a weird place. We sort of went on hiatus," Hullet says. "But I still wanted to play and had some songs."
Hullet had picked up a guitar a couple of years into Snowglobe's run and had begun to contribute some songs to the band, but the Haul was a chance to do his own thing. With help from guitarist Luke White (Coach & Four and, later, Snowglobe) and Snowglobe horn man Nashon Benford, Hullet fashioned a sound that is more of a "rootsy, countryish folk-rock deal."
"I'd don't really know how that came about," says Chicago native Hullet. "I sound like a Southerner."
Where Snowglobe's classic-rock influence tended more in the Beatles' direction, Jeffrey James & the Haul evoke Gram Parsons or Basement Tapes Dylan in sound and spirit. The band's second record, Ride the Wind Carnival, is a six-song EP recorded last fall prior to the departure of original drummer Aaron Rehling. The band will celebrate the record with a release show at the Hi-Tone this week, then join the Bulletproof Vests at their Monday residency on July 27th.