Songs in the key of irony, honesty, or just plain insightful.
Earlier this year, the Smithsonian Rock N Soul Museum posted a list on its website of 899 recorded songs that mention the city of Memphis, citing it as the most mentioned city in pop songs. Whether that's true or not, the idea of "Memphis" songs typically means stuff like Chuck Berry's "Memphis" or Marc Cohn's "Walking in Memphis," records by nationally known outsiders who put the city right there in the title.
But what about songs from and about the city? Few of the following would ever be used in a city-boosting campaign — there's a streak of negativity unlikely to surprise those who think Memphis has a self-esteem problem — but here's a list of some of the better recent songs by local artists that take the city itself, at least in part, as subject:
"Breathe Easy" — Tunnel Clones: In a time of celebration for Stax Records' 50th anniversary, this local hip-hop crew evokes the past in the service of a defiant lament for what's been lost: "We put soul on the map/Down the street a couple blocks at a place called Stax/Artists used to make hits now some working for scraps."
"Drowning" — Reigning Sound: Set "down by the river, under the bridge to Arkansas," this Greg Cartwright gem is like Bruce Springsteen transferred from the Jersey shore to the banks of the Mississippi.
"Green Street Lullaby (Dark Sad Song)" — Cory Branan: At least half of the local-release version of Branan's debut album, The Hell You Say, could be on this list. No Memphis songwriter has written about the city better than Branan, and this eloquently depressive examination of local stasis is the hardest medicine: "Copperheads fill all the ditches/The kudzu chokes the trees/Mosquitoes hum like window-units/But you gotta move if you want a breeze."
"Memphis" — Charlie Wood: Maybe the funniest and most knowing song ever written about the city, by a guy who used to spend seven nights a week banging out blues and jazz on Beale Street and seems like he's been waiting for years to tell the truth on wax: "What is it about people from out of town?/You feel like you're on TV when they come around/They say they love it here, they love the atmosphere . . . They take their lives so literally, they got no sense of irony."
"Memphis City Blues"/"Memphis" — 8Ball & MJG: The stirring "Memphis City Blues" has MJG delivering a variation on the city's slogan, proclaiming, "I come from a city where the R&B run deep and the blues was the music that paved the whole streets." The more conventionally hood-repping "Memphis," which pairs the duo with fellow local rap pioneer Al Kapone, is also more detailed, with 8Ball coming in last to take things to a deeper level: "Orange Mound-born, I was torn out my momma's womb/Shotgun house, me and momma had the same room."
"Mouth Shut" — Subteens: Mark Akin has written lots of songs about hanging out in Midtown dives, but this fly-on-the-wall glimpse of tending bar at the Hi-Tone during a Lucero show ("Punk rock girls and Lone Star beer means everyone will run their mouths in here") is about as Memphis as it gets.
"901 Area Code" — Iron Mic Coalition: This turf-repping posse anthem weighs the good and bad, painting a bleak picture of "Gangland feuds and thrown-away .22s/Three-o'clock roadblock, time for curfew/The children are growing up gone berserk too" before letting the sunshine in with "But that's one aspect/Here's another/Those fly girls raised on cornbread and butter."
"1989"/"East Memphis Girls" — Halfacre Gunroom: This tandem of songs from the lone full-length album by a since-disbanded alt-country band situates a series of love-lost songs in a specific time and place. "1989" is set a decade later, looking back at a high-school-era relationship that didn't last: "He bought you a house right off Poplar/He's alright, but he ain't no doctor/I'm sure he makes a mighty fine check/I'm sure he's everything your momma expected." And the mocking "East Memphis Girls" underscores the geography of class animus, Memphis-style: "East Memphis Girls only want to get married/You better have some money, she don't care about cool."
"Reasons to Kill"/"1620 Echles St." — Lost Sounds: A double shot of bad stuff from a confrontational band's opus, Black-Wave. Jay Reatard's outraged "1620 Echles St." is about watching a neighborhood crumble from the front porch. "Reasons to Kill" is Alicja Trout's suffer-no-fools civic anti-anthem: "This town is filled with reasons to kill/But everybody wants to play the blues."
"Thirteens" — Kontrast: In their righteous, comic response to the trend of hip-hop songs about expensive, gaudy car rims (T.I.'s "24's," Three-Six Mafia's "Ridin' on Spinners"), Kontrast makes clear their critique is no hometown renunciation with Jason Harris' opening lines: "Rollin' down Park Avenue bumping bass/Got that Eightball & MJG Comin' Out Hard in my system gettin' played."
"Tiger High '85" — The Coach & Four: Singer-guitarist Luke White delivers a charming kids-eye remembrance of the University of Memphis' failed Final Four run in the Keith Lee/Dana Kirk era. White retired the song this season as the team made another bid for history. The fallout would seem to provide fodder for a follow-up lament. No word on whether White has "Tiger High '08" in the works.