Is 2008 the year of the Reatard?
Memphis music fans who first encountered the hyperactive and hypertalented young rock savant via his blistering late-'90s teen band, the Reatards (which gave the former Jay Lindsey his nom de rock), and then followed him as co-leader of the dark, noisy punk-meets-new-wave local band Lost Sounds, might have been caught off guard by his latest evolution — as a triumphantly melodic tunesmith who adeptly blends power-pop hooks with gutter-punk energy.
This latest incarnation of Reatard debuted on Blood Visions, his first solo album, which was released to little initial fanfare in late 2006 on the California-based, garage-rock-oriented indie label In the Red. A locomotive blast of a record (15 songs in 29 throttling minutes), Blood Visions united the skeletal drive of the Reatards with the musical ambition of the Lost Sounds. As impressive as the record is, though, Reatard's subsequent work has revealed Blood Visions to be a transitional work — a sneak preview of even better things to come.
Released this spring, Singles 06-07 collects stray work Reatard had done in those years for a collection of indie labels, including the local Goner imprint, and includes four tracks that are also on Blood Visions. But there's greater musical and emotional dynamics to this collection.
With Reatard playing every note except for a stray guitar solo on "All Wasted" (courtesy of former Angry Angles bandmate Alix Brown), Singles 06-07 alternates agitated rockers with bracing, melodic love songs. Reatard's musical peak thus far may have come on the Goner single collected here that pairs the original "I Know a Place" with a cover "Don't Let Him Come Back" by the Australian indie-pop band the Go-Betweens (a melodic gem that, at a mere 3:04, is the longest track on the disc).
....In its own way, "I Know a Place" is Reatard's most romantic moment. "I know a place where we can go to be alone/I know a place where we can crawl to die," Reatard sings, before letting even more darkness and regret creep in beneath the music's swooning veneer: "Yes, we both got what we asked for . . . and please don't you cry." "Don't Let Him Go Back" opens with a precise, bright guitar overture before bursting into chiming pure pop that makes room for a surprisingly expressive guitar solo.
Around the time Singles 06-07 was being released, Reatard embarked on a more purposeful series of singles for the vaunted New York indie Matador, a label that's helped launch the careers of some of the biggest names in independent rock over the past couple of decades, including Pavement, Liz Phair, and Yo La Tengo. While negotiating with several labels — indie and major — to release the follow-up to Blood Visions, Reatard agreed to test-drive Matador via a series of increasingly rare single releases. The first of these, "See/Saw"/"Screaming Hand," was released in a quantity of 3,500 copies, with each of five more releases getting increasingly limited runs, down to a mere 400 copies for the last in the series.
Matador compiled the 12 songs from these five singles, along with an additional bonus cut, onto Matador Singles '08, released on CD in October, the first chance many listeners had to hear the rare singles. This music shows that Reatard's roll shows no signs of abating. "See/Saw" is rattling, bouncy pop that erupts into what seems to be someone who dubs himself "Reatard" might consider a soaring romantic chorus: "She creeps me out/She crept me in again." "Screaming Hand" boasts one of Reatard's most direct and effective lyrics in its merciless look back at a troubled childhood: "When I was a young boy I didn't need much/A kind word or two . . . but instead I got a man with an empty beer bottle and a screaming hand."
Other highlights abound: The swirling, driving "You Mean Nothing to Me"; the delicate, restless, regretful "No Time" effectively roughed-up with some intentional distortion; the assaulting "Dead on Arrival" sounding like old times up against the folkie departure of "You Were Sleeping."
But the 30 songs on these two collections might only be a warm-up for Reatard's next chapter. Soon after a hype-generating series of appearances at the South By Southwest Music Festival in March, Reatard signed a multi-album deal with Matador. He's been writing and recording in between an active and volatile touring schedule (a minor altercation this spring in a Toronto club with a rowdy patron brought Reatard some minor YouTube infamy and suggested that the longtime punk provocateur hasn't mellowed that much), with plans to release his official follow-up to Blood Visions on Matador next spring.