London Calling

Memphis musician Charlie Wood on the UK, new records, and whether you can come home again.



On his 2005 album Somethin' Else, Memphis organ master Charlie Wood delivered a sardonic, knowing paean to his hometown, pledging fidelity but with a comic caveat:

"This is where I'm from/And it's where I'll stay/My heart and soul's in Memphis. . . But if you think you can get me a gig/And it pays pretty well/In a Paris café or New York hotel/Or some Tokyo nightclub/Oh man, what the hell/Come talk to me in Memphis/I wouldn't come back 'til fall/If I dig it, I might not come back at all/But I'd dream sometimes of Memphis." 

That flourish became prophecy this summer when Wood made a "full-on move" across the Atlantic.

"I've been based in London since late May," Wood says. "I really love being here, got a lot of friends and colleagues here, but I can't say it's a permanent move at this point. Musicians are in transit a lot of the time. But London is such a thriving cultural center in general and a music-business center specifically, plus it's logistically and geographically convenient for the kind of touring I've been doing lately. So I think it's a good spot to hang my hat for now. I'd never rule out returning to Memphis, though."

Wood returned home in September for a concert at Levitt Shell to celebrate the U.S. release of his latest album, Flutter and Wow, his first for Memphis' Archer Records label.

Wood, a Memphis fixture known, in part, for his longtime residency at Beale Street's King's Palace club, signed with Archer roughly a year ago and recorded Flutter and Wow at the label's Music + Arts Studio with producer Adam Levy (a Norah Jones collaborator).

The album was released in Europe in May and will get a wide release in the U.S. on October 20th.

"I've been playing gigs in Europe for a long time now and have built up a following, as well as relationships with promoters, club owners, etc., so [Archer Records honcho] Ward [Archer] and I thought it would be a good idea to do a European release first," Wood says. "Also, the retail market for CDs is still much stronger in Europe than it is in the States."

Wood first met Levy at the 2008 Folk Alliance conference in Memphis, a connection encouraged by Wood's friend, Memphis saxophonist Jim Spake, who had played on an album Levy recorded in Memphis.

Working together, the pair came up with a batch of material — originals and covers — that emphasize Wood's pop/jazz side and his compositional and interpretive skills, with versions of songs by Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, and Wood originals in a similar vein.

"We deliberately drew on work by the composers of the 'New American Songbook,' if you will," Wood says. "The CD is as much about songwriting as it is performance or production, so we really wanted to stress that element in the covers we chose as well as in my work. Adam selected almost all of these covers, by the way. He had this amazing ability to pick less-recorded material from often-covered artists that always seemed perfectly appropriate to me and to the project."

Wood says that about half of his own contributions were written specifically for the album.

"I've been participating with Adam in some songwriting workshops in recent months and a big burst of creative output often follows those workshops, so I guess we timed that well for the recording," Wood says. "For the ones written specifically for Flutter and Wow, the covers we'd chosen definitely informed my writing and also affected my selection of which of my originals to record. I'm in pretty illustrious company on this record in terms of songwriters, so I had to try to measure up."

Falling Up

Charlie Wood isn't the only talented Memphis musician making a name for himself internationally and celebrating his first studio album for a new label. After building his reputation with a couple of years of constant U.S. and overseas touring, local punk prodigy Jay Reatard recently released Watch Me Fall via venerable indie-rock label Matador.

If you held Jay Reatard's Watch Me Fall in your hands and merely scanned the available info, you would think you'd be in for a pretty dour and angry experience once you played the thing. The artist — a punk rocker who calls himself "Reatard," after all — is wearing all black on the cover and is hunched over, cold and scowling. The album's title suggests rueful, masochistic exhibitionism. And the song titles: "It Ain't Gonna Save Me," "Wounded," "Hang Them All," "There Is No Sun." What more do you need to know, right?

Well, the lead track/single "It Ain't Gonna Save Me" is pessimism conquered by guitar. "Wounded" bursts forward with a "da-da-da" refrain cut off by a shouted "Hey!" leading into bright acoustic melodies. "Hang Them All" is moody, string-laden, and nearly choral rather than assaulting. And the closing "There Is No Sun" is swooning rock classicism, a symphonic (in the Phil Spector sense) pop lullaby that ends the album on a tone of contentment Reatard's lyrics can't quite accept. As another squirrelly but gifted rocker from an earlier era once proclaimed: It goes to show you never can tell.

Jay Lindsey was barely a teenager when he first became recognized on the Memphis music scene, a precocious one-man-band before finding like-minded accompaniment in the Reatards, the attitudinal noise band that cemented the Reatard moniker could never shake. He developed a reputation over the next decade as the enfant terrible of the local music scene.

Watch Me Fall acknowledges Reatard's controversial reputation — grapples with in, works through it. On the agitated rocker "Rotten Mind," Reatard dreams himself floating alone in a hot-air balloon. In one glimpse, he sees "people around me hoping I don't die." In another, "people that want to watch me fall."

"But in my mind I will kill them all/Seeing enemies dying at my feet/But really I'm just frightening," Reatard muses, letting his reputation speak. But then he comes clean, musing over autobiographical snapshots firing off in his head — "I see myself crawling on the floor/Time and time again/It's such a f*cking bore" — before asserting over whiplash riffs: "I know where I wanna go and I don't want to be this way."

Watch Me Fall feels familiar at first — hard-charging, frenetic, head-spinning. The first five songs click in at a total of 10:41. This is punk-pop in which the two impulses are locked in a blood feud.

Then it starts to open up. "I'm Watching You," a fuller re-recording of the bonus track from his Matador Singles '08 album, is a comparatively epic 3:46, built on acoustic guitar and keyboards and opening instantly into its triumphantly melodic chorus. Reatard begins to slow down enough to clear his head and also allow you to appreciate his song construction: the hollowed-out vocals on the chorus midway through punctured by a buzz of feedback and cut off by a keyboard riff that carries the melody on through the fade.

The journey from the relentless "It Ain't Gonna Fade Me" to the elegant "There Is No Sun" feels like real-time evolution — an overactive, worried mind settling down, getting a grip, forging ahead.

Urgent, catchy, conflicted, surprising: Watch Me Fall's title predicts a decline that the music vaults right over.

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