Last January, the three members of the Strengths, vocalist Alyssa Moore, guitarist Will Forrest, and drummer Daniel Anderson, were living together in a condo off Sycamore View when a neighboring unit caught fire. Forrest recalls that, as the flames spread to their home, "The firemen had time to run in and get some stuff for us, so they asked what to grab. I said 'Instruments! Anything that makes noise!'"
Soon, a pile of instruments grew in the yard: five or six guitars, drums, an autoharp, and a couple of accordions. Once the fire was contained, a paramedic came up to Forrest and said, "So, you play music?"
Forrest, his head spinning from having his house burn down, said, "Yeah."
"What kind?" asked the paramedic.
"I don't know," Forrest said. "Rock?"
That sums up the Strength's strength and the thorn in their collective side. "We can't even describe our music when our house is burning down," Anderson says.
Listening to their new self-released album Ten Strong Songs, it's quickly apparent that no other band in Memphis sounds like the Strengths. They combine stunningly complex instrumental workouts with Moore's dreamy vocals, turning from one genre to another on a dime.
"It's great to be in Strengths because you can be pop punk for a few seconds, then metal for a few seconds, then whatever else," Forrest says.
He and Moore both come from musical backgrounds. "My dad's been playing down on Beale Street for 30 years in blues and R&B bands," Forrest says. "I grew up jamming with him and his friends. I had to learn how to make my guitar solos a little more atonal when I got to be a teenager."
Moore is the daughter of Mike Moore, a veteran of the 1980s Antenna Club-based punk scene and co-founder of Truant Records. "I was friends with Noel Gallimore, who is Stan Gallimore's (from the Grifters) son," she recalls. "I was at their house once, and Tripp Lamkins was there with Stan. I picked up a guitar and started playing, and Tripp said 'You're not a guitarist, you're a bassist.' I had never even played bass before, but he said, 'When you get older, you'll realize you're supposed to be a bass player.' And he was right."
Moore holds down the low end on Strengths' technically challenging songs while singing. Her vocal melodies unify the quick-cut music on songs such as "Slugfest," which veers between haymaker power chords and dreamy pop, while she coos "Nothing is cohesive."
"My sister was pursuing opera for a long time," Moore says. "She is just an amazing singer. When we were growing up, she would show me choir pieces she had, and I would sing the harmony. So I've been singing with other people since I was a little kid, and I've been playing the guitar since I was 8. I was always writing my own songs, not learning other people's songs, so it just made sense for me to sing and play at the same time."
"Just remembering these songs and trying to play them is hard enough," says Forrest, "But trying to remember all of the lyrics, and singing, and all of the things that go along with singing ..."
"It's really impressive," says Anderson.
The young trio has been playing together since high school at White Station, and they can finish each other's sentences musically as well as in conversation. Most recently, they provided muscle for Whose Army?, making a name for themselves among the Midtown rock cognoscenti, even though they mostly played house shows. "I don't think we ever played to more than 20 people," Moore says.
But when that group dissolved, Moore stepped up as lead singer. "When I was little, I would listen to Hole and Nirvana. When we were in Whose Army?, people constantly compared me to Kim Deal, which I thought was goofy, since I was obviously ripping off Courtney Love."
Their idiosyncratic sound evolved organically from constant exposure to Midtown Memphis punk. They played with other bands such as the venerable Adios Gringo, whose taste for complexity and uncompromising spirit were influential on the Strengths. "They've got a lot of weird time signatures," says Forrest. "To me, it's metal, but I don't think you can call us metal. But I've always loved them because they're so not boring."
But once Ten Strong Songs drops, everyone will have a chance to decide for themselves what exactly the Strengths are.