Local Record Reviews 

Goner debuts new bands on seven-inch EPs.

Local independent garage/punk label Goner Records has been on a hot streak again in 2011, having released excellent new recordings by New Orleans musician/inventor Mr. Quintron and Jackson, Mississippi punks the Overnight Lows, as well as must-have reissues on local acts the Reatards and Limes.

Well, the hot streak continues with the release of a pair of very enjoyable 7" vinyl EPs by two of Memphis' most promising up-and-coming punk rock bands.

Sex Cult is a relatively new local band, consisting of members of Noise Choir, the Magic Kids, Vile Nation, and Bake Sale. Sharp Balloons is Goner co-owner Zac Ives' newest project, a trio that also includes True Sons of Thunder's Joe T. and newcomer Heather Simpson. Both groups trade in similar styles on one level — noisy, aggressive rock with classic punk riffs and hooks and lo-fi/honest production value. What sets them apart is the finer details.

Sex Cult benefits greatly from the unique and at times downright psychedelic guitar work of J.B. Horrell and the group's occasional musical detours into post-punk/indie territory. The five-piece band is extremely tight and dynamic, and frontman Chris Shaw is more than capable behind the mic. In fact, my only real criticism of the record is that the vocals were recorded with way too much distortion and effects.

On the other hand, Sharp Balloons are a much looser and ramshackle affair, as each of the members is new at the instrument he/she plays in the group. But oddly enough, something about that just works. There is a feeling of both danger and fun that comes from listening to the Evening News 7" — one gets the feeling that the songs could fall apart at any moment. But they don't — and I find the group's success, even in this modern era of recording where takes are easily fixed and perfected, almost exhilarating.

Grades: Sex Cult: B+; Sharp Balloons: A-

Memphis has seen its fair share of so-called vintage music acts in recent years, from Professor Elixir's Southern Troubadours to the Bluff City Backsliders to the Tennessee Boltsmokers. The latest to emerge is the Side Street Steppers, a group composed of two married couples: Christian and Vera Stanfield and Nathan and Emily Breckenridge.

Side Street Steppers' debut album, Memphis Stomp, covers much of the same ground as the group's local forerunners — classic Americana songs (a style which can include elements of blues, country, bluegrass, jazz, and just about anything else) faithfully reinterpreted by modern musicians. And there's nothing at all wrong with that. The band's musicianship is on point, and the song selection on Memphis Stomp is a heap of fun and features a few off-the-beaten-path choices (the vaudeville era black-comedy duo Butterbeans & Suzie's "Elevator Papa, Switchboard Mama," for instance).

That said, I'd love to hear what this band could do with original material.

Grade: B

Local singer-songwriter Chris Milam debuted this double-sided single, his fourth official release, as a digital download last week. The A-side, "Never in Love," features contributions from a slew of well-known local musicians, including Jeremy Stanfill, Star & Micey's Josh Cosby and Geoff Smith, and the City Champs' Al Gamble. But, for my taste, the song is a bit too by-the-numbers, easygoing, folk-rock-sounding (aka the dreaded Jack Johnson comparison) ... which is what makes the stunning B-side such an absolute sucker-punch.

"Always in Love" is stripped down and gorgeous, featuring essentially only Milam's voice, his guitar, and a few sparse piano tinklings here and there. The song is heartfelt and memorable — it reminds me of some of Cory Branan's best moments. I find myself listening to it over and over.

Grade: B

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