Jack Of All Trades
It might be called "Flip Side Kid," but Jack Yarber's latest release is garage, all grown up.
In the mid-to-late '90s, Jack "Oblivian" Yarber was one-third of the Oblivians, one of the most important Memphis rock bands of the past 30 years. In its own time, that band may have been strictly a subterranean sensation, but the messily soulful garage-punk trio set the foundation for later eruptions in the form of such Oblivians-influenced bands as the White Stripes and the Hives.
But for Yarber and his bandmates, status as key influence, beloved cult band, and colorful rock history footnote has so far taken the place of the more tangible riches that sometimes come to successful rock musicians. Perhaps some are born for Rolling Stone covers and others to inspire those who find the spotlight. As Yarber sings on the title song of his new album, Flip Side Kid, a reference to the song on the other side of a single: "Running all my life/Trying to find a hit/Everybody knows I'm a flip-side kid."
In the years since the Oblivians' demise (the band has regrouped occasionally for a few lucrative, high-profile reunion gigs), Greg "Oblivian" Cartwright formed the band the Reigning Sound, which became one of the city's most popular rock bands before Cartwright relocated the band to North Carolina. Eric "Oblivian" Friedl, while continuing to make music, has made a bigger impact as owner-operator of the influential local store Goner Records. And this has left Yarber to carry the Oblivians torch on the Memphis music scene.
Yarber has been prolific, releasing solo albums and appearing with a variety of garage-rock combos, including the Natural Kicks, Knaughty Knights, and South Filthy. But his primary outlet has been his band the Tearjerkers, with whom, over the course of three albums (2001's Bad Mood Rising, 2005's Don't Throw Your Love Away, and the late-2006 Flip Side Kid), Yarber has expanded the garage-rock template of the Oblivians.
In that band (and in the Compulsive Gamblers, an earlier group Yarber fronted alongside Cartwright), there was a latent musicality that few peers on the band's garage-rock scene could match, filtering an honest feel for blues, country, and early rock-and-roll into a thrashy, punk-fueled sound.
But with the Tearjerkers, Yarber has evolved into more of a roots-rocker, bringing those country and R&B influences closer to the surface while at times evoking more mainstream roots performers such as Steve Earle, Tom Waits, and even Bob Dylan. The new Flip Side Kid, recorded piecemeal over the past couple of years with a rotating cast of back-up players (Yarber goes the one-man-band route on some tracks), captures this versatility, albeit with a surface layer of grit and grime that may turn off less adventurous listeners.
There's nothing on Flip Side Kid that leaps out of the speakers with the emotional eloquence of Don't Throw Your Love Away's lovelorn "Still Got It Bad," a great song that sounded like nothing if not a low-rent outtake from Dylan's Love & Theft. But it's a strong record, with noirish songwriting steeped in Yarber's affection for pulp-fiction settings and a sound that's surprisingly coherent song to song, considering the circumstances of its creation.
"Dirty Nails" is a blast of gutbucket R&B that approaches the pre-Elvis Sun blues sound with the same kind of simultaneously playful and respectful spirit as the early Rolling Stones. "Black Boots" is catchy straight-ahead rock. Yarber flexes his guitar chops on a lovely instrumental reading of Memphis scene cohort Jeffrey Evans' "The Man Who Loved Couch Dancing." And a cover of garage-rock obscurity "Chills & Fever" is a gently psychedelic organ-driven romp that, appropriately, sounds like a lost flip-side answer to so many mid-Sixties hits.