If you're looking for a local comparison for Retrospect, a young quartet that was the highest-finishing rock band at the 2003 Mid-South Grammy Showcase (finishing third overall), you might have problems. In some ways, the band splits the difference between the easy-on-the-ears college-rock of Ingram Hill and the glistening pop-rock of Crash Into June, except that Retrospect boasts a stronger guitar sound and surer beat than either. In a city where the rock scene sometimes seems like a four-point compass heading into directions heavy, rootsy, garage-y, or jammy, Retrospect might be the best bet for a straight-up rock breakout.
Though they certainly know their way around the alt-rock version of a power-ballad, the band's at their best when rocking out a little. On their eponymous full-length debut (Ardent; Grade: B+), moody songs such as "One in a Million" and the overly emotive "Fall Like a Star" don't hold up as well as more guitar-driven gems such as "Where Have You Been Hiding," which has a faint roots-rock gallop, and especially the pure-pop gem "Forgetting Evelyn." With its chiming guitars and circular chorus ("Morning brings a yellow light that turns to blue and then fades into night "), "Forgetting Evelyn" is so undeniably catchy that it can firmly implant itself in your hum matrix after only a couple of listens. The relatively modest vocals on these songs work well for singer Drew Thomas, who boasts an attractive, grainy yelp between emo and modern-rock, sort of like Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst aiming for AOR.
On the strength of this debut full-length, which was not only recorded at Midtown's venerable Ardent Studios (where it was produced by Ross Rice and John Hampton) but released on the studio's own imprint, Retrospect sounds like the kind of band that could score on a rock-radio lottery ticket and actually deserve it. You can catch the band this week on Saturday, February 19th, at the Skatepark of Memphis. Showtime is 7 p.m.
Local label Inside Sounds chimes in with a couple of wildly different compilations of local artists. Goin' Down South: Blues Sampler Vol. 2 (Inside Sounds; Grade: A-), a sequel to a highly successful collection the label issued in 2001, and this sprawling, diverse follow-up is proof that the well is far from dry when it comes to contemporary Memphis blues.
Robert Belfour's acoustic hill-country lament "Old Black Mattie" was recorded by local musicologist David Evans in 1994 but sounds timeless in both sound and content ("I work seven days a week/Still can't make ends meet"). "Country Days" by Blind Mississippi Morris & Brad Webb tells the quintessential blues tale of urban migration with a slinky, slide-guitar wallop. Daddy Mack Orr's stomping, electric "Goin' Back to Memphis" testifies to the best of the modern Beale sound. "Chicken and Gravy," a sweet generations-spanning duet between hill-country legend Jessie Mae Hemphill and young inheritor Richard Johnston, uncovers the gentler, sadly unmarketable side of the blues rarely remarked upon now. Onetime Muddy Waters acolyte Willie Foster pays tribute to his mentor with a live version of "Hoochie Coochie Man" recorded live at a Cleveland, Mississippi, juke. Elsewhere, blue-eyed blues such as the blues-rock of the McCarty-Hite Project's "So Many Roads, So Many Trains," Sid Selvidge's folky "Mama You Don't Mean Me No Good," and the pure soul of Phil Durham's "Steal Away" attest to other strands of a traditional music with almost too many tributaries to count.
That doesn't mean good things last forever. Don McMinn's "Junior's Place" pays tribute to the late icon Junior Kimbrough and his namesake club, but it's the splendid trio of closing cuts on Goin' Down South Vol. 2 that combine joy with loss most compellingly. The late Mose Vinson's barrelhouse piano "Rock 'n' Roll Blues" nails an immensely pleasurable pre-war style few get right anymore, while the late Big Lucky Carter's album-closing "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" is a patient hymn to a proud genre and culture that will likely never be as strong again. In between, Hemphill returns with "Lord, Help the Poor and Needy," offering homemade percussion and one simple voice. Hemphill is still with us, of course, but in this context she sounds like a last link to a passing treasure.
Though it's a pretty compelling listen the first time through, when you want to hear how the song/artist match-ups fare, Fried Glass Onions: Memphis Meets the Beatles (Inside Sounds; Grade: B) probably isn't as durable a record as its straight-blues colleague. As the title implies, Fried Glass Onions is a collection of Beatles covers from a diverse array of local artists. What's most interesting is that, instead of copying the Beatles style, most of the artists here make a conscious effort to infuse the songs with their own style and that of Memphis itself. The notion, as label chief Eddie Dattel explicates in the record's interesting liner notes, is to bring out the latent Memphis influences in the Beatles music itself. The artists who do this most forcefully are perhaps the most interesting. There's the Steve Cropper guitar that laces Bob Simon & Eddie Harrison's take on Let It Be's "Two of Us," the swampy blues treatment that Daddy Mack Orr gives to "Get Back," the smooth Hi soul arrangement Bertram Brown works through on "You're Gonna Lose That Girl," and the Staple Singers bassline that the Memphis All-Stars add to "Drive My Car." Other artists either play it straight or are more subtle in their Memphisms. Gospel singer Jackie Johnson takes Paul McCartney's "Blackbird" to church a little, and listen for the wisps of organ and bass evoking Booker T. & the MGs near the end of John Kilzer's "Across the Universe."