In 2007, Memphis music was focused on Stax's 50th anniversary. Now, the focus is back on the future, with a handful of artists making major waves.
Movin' On Up
The past year has seen several young artists on the Memphis scene increase their profile both locally and nationally.
At the head of the class is punk prodigy Jay Reatard. A fixture on the local scene since he was a teenager, Jay Lindsey took his surname as a member of the late-'90s punk band the Reatards then later made a bigger local splash as co-leader of the aggressive new-wave band Lost Sounds. In late 2006, his solo debut, Blood Visions, was released to little fanfare on the Los Angeles indie label In the Red. Uniting the skeletal drive of the Reatards with the musical ambition of Lost Sounds, the album captured the twentysomething Reatard in the midst of an artistic growth spurt, newfound melody rippling beneath his furious speed and volume. The album's reputation grew and, after a whirlwind string of performances at the 2007 South By Southwest Music Festival, Reatard became a hot commodity and rising national name.
He has kept the fires burning over the past year with a series of singles and recently signed a three-record deal with venerable New York indie label Matador, a label that's launched many an indie and alternative star over the past couple of decades.
Another of Memphis music's emerging stars, versatile roots musician Amy LaVere transcended the local with her rapturously received, Jim Dickinson-produced 2007 album Anchors & Anvils, an album that drew great songs from sources generally close to her (including three from the artist herself and two from boyfriend/drummer Paul Taylor) and put them across with a gritty musical intimacy rooted in LaVere's own upright bass playing. This spring, LaVere was one of the few artists to play multiple official showcases at Austin's vaunted South By Southwest festival, including being tabbed for the Americana Music Association's showcase. This summer, she parlayed her growing success into performances at Nashville's Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival and a European tour.
Another local act that double-dipped at Austin's South by Southwest festival and Bonnaroo this year was the outlandish "aristocrunk" crew Lord T. & Eloise. It had been two years since the "old-money" rap duo/performance art act had become a local cause celebre via their genre-starting debut Aristocrunk, a comedic rap album that tweaked that genre's money lust. But Lord T & Eloise returned with a vengeance late this summer with their follow-up, Chairmen of the Bored, an epic album that includes guest appearances from a variety of Memphis rap heavyweights, including Al Kapone, 8Ball, and Kingpin Skinny Pimp. The group — which also includes rapper/singer/producer MysterE and DJ Witnesse — also strutted their stuff at the Beale Street Music Festival this year.
And if Lord T & Eloise think they've been busy, they should talk to Tim Regan. The Memphis-bred singer-songwriter-bandleaders is juggling three bands these days — Midtown institution Snowglobe, Austin-based indie-rockers Oh No, Oh My!, and, most recently, his own semi-solo project, Antenna Shoes.
If Regan is dedicated to all three bands, it's Antenna Shoes, where he is the lone songwriter and frontman, that has become the focus for this prolific musician, whose often-piano-driven songs suggest the most melodic side of classic rock from the Sixties and early Seventies. The band released its debut album, Generous Gambler, earlier this year via established local indie imprint Shangri-La Projects.
Antenna Shoes pairs Regan with some of the city's finest musicians: Snowglobe bandmates Brandon Robertson (bass) and Nashon Benford (trumpet), Coach & Four guitarist Luke White, and two of the city's most talented sidemen, drummer Paul Taylor and guitarist Steve Selvidge.
But, it hasn't just been upstarts making waves this year. Memphis soul legend Al Green is also having a very good year, as witnessed by the recently released Lay It Down.
Produced by Amir "?uestlove" Thompson, drummer for the hip-hop band the Roots, the album finds Green backed up by a younger generation of neo-soul and hip-hop musicians he's inspired. The resulting work may be Green's third album of the decade (following 2003's I Can't Stop and 2005's Everything's O.K.), but it's also probably his best since the Seventies. Lay It Down sounds vintage without trying too hard to sound vintage. It's a subtle, moody, slow-burning groove album in the classic Green tradition, but the difference is somewhere in the grain and texture of the music that defies description. If Lay It Down hadn't been preceded by I Can't Stop and Everything's O.K., very solid records with the great back-story of Green's reunion with Willie Mitchell, it would be getting even more attention. It's probably the best album by a classic-era soul star since Aretha Franklin's Who's Zoomin' Who? in 1985.
Some local artists may be making a leap of late. But plenty of other Memphis-music heavyweights are merely living up to well-established high standards.
Two years ago, local rap-scene pioneers Three 6 Mafia had their biggest year ever, bracketing their biggest crossover hit singles — "Stay Fly" and "Side 2 Side" — around the most unlikely of triumphs with their Oscar win for "It's Hard Out Here For a Pimp," their contribution to the soundtrack of Hustle & Flow.
In the aftermath, Three 6 struck quick, with cameos on television shows Entourage and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip setting up their own hip-hop Beverly Hillbillies-style reality series for VH-1, Adventures in Hollyhood, in which Three 6's Juicy J and DJ Paul moved to glitz city with camera crews in tow.
This year, the duo capitalized on their newfound fame with the album Last 2 Walk, a long-delayed follow-up to 2005's pre-Oscar Most Known Unknown that, surprisingly, doesn't spend all that much time referencing a celebrityhood that's exploded since their last album. High-level R&B collaborators (Lyfe Jennings on "Hood Star" and Akon on "That's Right) make Last 2 Walk the group's toniest album by far.
Popular local rockers Lucero celebrated ten boozy, noisy years of existence in 2008 by taking a bit of a recording hiatus, though the roots-punk quartet have maintained a blistering touring schedule off the strength of their sixth and best studio album, 2006's Rebels, Rogues & Sworn Brothers, which debuted an enhanced sound big enough to fill the arenas they don't quite play. The drums boom, the guitar riffs reach for the rafters, and, in an unexpected twist, rock-and-roll piano (courtesy of local session ace Rick Steff) comes rising out of the mix.
Lucero got their start opening for another beloved local band, the North Mississippi Allstars. Earlier this year, the three-piece blues-rock band released Hernando, an album named for the trio's North Mississippi hometown and the first album (their fifth studio-recorded release) disseminated through the band's own Songs of the South label. A band built around the virtuoso guitar playing of frontman Luther Dickinson and the limber rhythm section of his drummer brother Cody and the pair's longtime friend, bassist Chris Chew, the Allstars have had a constant but evolving relationship with blues tradition.
Hernando is the band standing alone — modern blues-rock on almost all original songs — but with that blues heritage as a foundation. Here, the Allstars draw on the language of the blues to spice recordings that foreground guitar and groove. Lyrical references ("standing on a corner in Holly Springs," "in the backwoods under the syca-more trees") and hill-country blues echoes ground the record in a specific place, but the music grabs for harder-edged blues-rock in the vein of Cream, ZZ Top, or the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and sometimes veers into metal. The result sounds like a trio no longer obsessed with their own blues-world background but with making their own brand of heavy rock with the blues, helplessly, in their veins.
Soon after the release of Hernando, Luther hit the road as a hired-gun guitar ace for Southern rock institution the Black Crowes. Meanwhile, Cody and Chris Chew have dabbled in a side project, the Hill Country Revue.
A somewhat more recent local sensation, Harlan T. Bobo is a left-of-center singer-songwriter in the Tom Waits mold who became an instant icon in some corners of the local music scene a few years ago with his debut album Too Much Love. To his credit, Bobo declined to offer up Too Much Love 2 with his 2007 follow-up, I'm Your Man, which instead investigates the roots and limitations of the romantic messiness that made his debut so popular.
Bobo frequently pairs with garage-rockers Jack O. & the Tearjerkers, both at home and on the road. One of the city's best current rock bands, the Tearjerkers are the primary outlet for quintessential Memphis roots rocker Jack "Oblivian" Yarber, who, after years on the local punk and garage-rock scene (most notably with the classic '90s garage-punk band the Oblivians), has really come into his own in recent years with a pair of terrific, rootsy, rock-and-roll records — 2004's Don't Throw Your Love Away and 2006's The Flip Side Kid.
If the preceding artists have been at the forefront of contemporary Memphis music, there's still plenty of other action going on across the local music landscape, in a variety of genres and scenes:
LET THERE BE ROCK
The Midtown Memphis music scene has long been an incestuous network. It's almost hard to find prominent musicians who haven't worked together at one point or another. But one of the more interesting pairings in this world might be Robby Grant and Alicja Trout, who co-front the under-recognized indie-rock quintet Mouserocket, whose ramshackle sophomore album, Pretty Loud, is a strong contender for 2008's best local album. When Grant and Trout aren't collaborating in Mouserocket, they keep their hands full in disparate separate projects — Grant concocting quirky, cozy, homemade indie-pop under the moniker Vending Machine; Trout playing howling garage-punk at the head of the power trio River City Tanlines.
Elsewhere on the Midtown indie scene, the Makeshift Music collective continues to be a strong force, with flagship band Snowglobe re-emerging in the past year with other notables including bracing guitar bands the Third Man and the Coach & Four, sunny pop addicts Two Way Radio, and singer-songwriters Holly Cole and Blair Combest.
Other noteworthy acts include: Jump Back Jake, who infuse elements of Southern soul and swamp rock into their sound; eclectic roots-rockers Giant Bear; Hi Electric, where newcomer Neil Bartlett's moody, melodic alt-pop is backed by local luminaries such as ex-Grifter David Shouse and former Big Ass Truckers Robert Barnett and Steve Selvidge; and experimental folk-rockers the Warble.
A slightly different strain of local rock is the punk and garage-rock centered around the Cooper-Young shop Goner Records.
Goner had a huge success last year with the release of Make It Stop: The Most of Ross Johnson, a collection of recorded rants from a scene elder who got his start playing drums for the likes of Tav Falco and Alex Chilton. It wasn't the most accessible local record of the year, that's for sure, but Johnson's "career"-spanning collection of spoken-word rants "set" to music is a sneaky-smart and self-aware series of whooping nonsense, comic tall tales, and raw-but-funny confessionals. Johnson can still be seen regularly at local clubs, typically alongside fellow garage-scene stalwart Jeffrey Evans.
If Goner has a house band, it's probably the Final Solutions, a noisy, idiosyncratic punk outfit in the vein of Cleveland cult legends Pere Ubu. But the local punk/garage scene — which also includes the aforementioned Reatard, Bobo, Tearjerkers, and River City Tanlines — contains multitudes: The popular Subteens have regrouped, playing sweaty shows to rock-and-roll true believers with more regularity of late. The Secret Service is an ace outfit for guitarist Steve Selvidge to unleash his six-string power. The Wallendas have given former Reigning Sound sideman Jeremy Scott a great outlet for his own songcraft, while the Perfect Fits attend to the rock-and-roll basics with similar aplomb.
Other local rockers of note include Egypt Central, a five-piece hard-rock band whose style of hip-hop- and alt-rock-tinged metal was a next big thing that got derailed by record-label problems. The band finally saw its eponymous debut album get a national release earlier this year.
Joining Egypt Central among the ranks of Mid-South rockers getting national exposure are Saving Abel, a band of Southern-rockers from north Mississippi who made a Virgin Records debut this year, and Ingram Hill, whose melodic radio-ready rock is displayed on the band's second national release, Cold in California.
One to watch: Oracle & the Mountain, a promising new quartet whose music evokes grunge, alt-country, and contemporary indie rock in equal doses and are scheduled to release their debut this year.
IN THE GROOVE
Three 6 Mafia is only the most recognizable act on the local hip-hop and R&B scene. Rivaling Three 6 (and cohorts Project Pat and Lil Wyte) for beat-and-rhymes supremacy are the old-to-the-new school duo 8ball & MJG, who pre-date Three 6 and released another major-label record last year with Ridin' High. In 2008, the duo is splitting up for a pair of solo albums.
Elsewhere, upstarts Yo Gotti and Kia Shine have made a push to the top via their associations with national labels TVT and Universal, while veteran Memphis rapper Al Kapone has benefited from providing music for the Craig Brewer film Hustle & Flow and has been working with a new live band, the Untouchables.
On the indie hip-hop scene, the trio Tunnel Clones have led the way, dropping an excellent second album, World Wide Open, last year, while cohorts the Iron Mic Coalition also returned with a second full-length album this year.
On the neo-soul flip side, promising fusion act Free Sol has been busy recording tracks from Justin Timberlake's production company Tennman, while soul singer Tonya Dyson-Jerry has been highlighting a soul scene around the Edge District venue the Hattiloo Theatre.
North Mississippi-based producer/side-man Jim Dickinson has been making music in one form or another since the '60s but, until 2006, had only released a grand total of two solo albums. Now he's released two in two years and both on the same label (the local imprint Memphis International), with last year's Killers From Space following 2006's terrific Jungle Jim & the Voodoo Tiger, both records highlighting Dickinson's charismatic growl, ragged-but-intimate musical tone, and talent for finding good songs you've never heard before. Recently, Dickinson has rounded up a younger cohort of garage-rock and roots musicians for a new band, Snake Eyes.
Speaking of talented local record makers who haven't exactly been prolific, singer-songwriter Rob Jungklas went 14 years between official album releases before resurfacing in 2003 with Arkadelphia on the local roots label Madjack. That album was a departure from his more commercial '80s music, coming across as something like a personal tour of Delta mythology (including the eternal title "Drunk Like Son House"), a foreboding song cycle populated by a vengeful Old Testament God and an ever-resourceful devil. Four years later, Jungklas returned with Gully, a sort of spiritual and sonic sequel to Arkadelphia. The result was a rattled, atmospheric, bluesy roots-rock record that evokes artists such as Nick Cave and Tom Waits, though with more gothic/biblical authenticity.
Other roots-rockers of local note include former Nashvillian John Paul Keith who, along with ace backing band the 145s, are one of the acts to watch in the coming year. The bluegrass/folk group the Tennessee Boltsmokers blend original songcraft with fine acoustic musicianship. Honey-voiced chanteuse Susan Marshall always sounds great whether belting out torch-song soul or Gram Parsons-style alt-country. And Deering and Down, a recent addition to the local scene, separate out the guitar and vocal chores with a collision of inventive, classic-rock fretwork and soulful singing that's one of the city's more exciting new sounds.
On the bluesier side of the equation, organ master Charlie Wood continues to shine. The onetime Beale Street stalwart is probably more identified with that instrument than any Memphis musician since Booker T. Jones. But jazz/soul chops are only the tip of Wood's musical iceberg. A longtime fixture at Beale's King's Palace Café, Wood left his nightly gig a couple of years ago to concentrate more on recording and producing, which has made the once-sporadic recording artist quite prolific of late.
Similarly versatile is Alvin Youngblood Hart, an internationally known "blue" musician who calls Memphis home, even if his local performances are rare treasures. When Hart does play, almost anything might happen: gutbucket blues, delicate acoustic blues, stomping boogie-rock, Stax-soul, honky-tonk, and, um, ska. Over the course of five masterful, searching albums, most recently 2005's Motivational Speaker, Hart has proven to be a commanding, consistently pleasurable musician.
Over on Beale Street, the blues and classic soul torch is kept alive by artists such as James Govan, Preston Shannon, Ruby Wilson, Eric Hughes, and Barbara Blue, with one-man-band Richard Johnston sometimes setting up out on the street. Elsewhere, artists such as harmonica master Billy Gibson, down-home bluesman Daddy Mack, and the North Mississippi Juke Joint Duo (Cedric Burnside and Lightnin' Malcolm) can be found at venues such as the Center for Southern Folklore and the new Memphis location of the Ground Zero Blues Club.
Justin Timberlake isn't the only hometown musical product to make good outside the city. This year, one of the hottest new rock bands around, Brooklyn's MGMT, was led by a Memphis product, White Station High School graduate Andrew VanWyngarden. VanWyngarden made a minor splash on the local music scene at the beginning of the decade via his teen band Accidental Mersh. But this year local-kid-made-good hit the big time when MGMT released its major-label debut, Oracular Spectacular.
MGMT, in which VanWyngarden is the lead singer alongside musical partner Ben Goldwasser, landed a multi-album deal with Sony/Columbia soon after the duo graduated college. Produced by alt-rock notable David Fridmann (Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev), Oracular Spectacular is an ambitious blast of psychedelic pop that echoes David Bowie ("Weekend Wars") and even Prince ("Electric Feel") at times. The album's lead single, the sardonic anthem "Time to Pretend," was a college-radio smash that became a theme song in the major motion picture 21. On the band's rapid path to success, they were named one of the "Artists to Watch" for 2008 by Rolling Stone magazine, performed on The Late Show with David Letterman, and played a sold-out showcase at the South By Southwest Music Festival. On tour, VanWyngarden reunites with another Memphian, former Accidental Mersh bandmate Hank Sullivant, who joins MGMT on guitar.
At a slightly lower level of national — and international — exposure was the duo of Bob Frank and John Murry, who released the collection of newly written but traditional-sounding murder ballads, World Without End. Expatriate Memphians Frank, 62, and Murry, 27, found each other in Northern California and concocted a high-concept album that tops what either of them produced when they lived here.
Finally, look for another much-missed Memphian, Reigning Sound frontman Greg Cartwright, to return in the coming year when his garage-rock band par excellence releases its next Memphis-recorded album.
From punk to hip-hop, roots-rock to blues, and beyond, these are the artists forging Memphis music today. Where will they take it in the coming year? Stay tuned.