About halfway through Ex-Cult's eponymous debut album, the song "Shade of Red" introduces itself with a fanfare of clanging power chords. It's a move that barely registers on the standard scale of rock-and-roll bombast, but coming in the context of the Memphis punk band's austere aesthetic, it feels huge and portentous.
Even though it is produced by San Francisco garage-punk wunderkind Ty Segall, Ex-Cult eschews the Nuggets psychedelic nostalgia that manifests itself in much contemporary garage rock with singsongy choruses and tossed-off girl-group harmonies. There is nostalgia here, but it is for '80s American hardcore. Ex-Cult sounds like a band in a hurry, with no time for messing around. The tempos of these 12 songs stay frantic, even though the lengths of the songs often go beyond the standard hardcore two-minute mark.
But Ex-Cult is not a doctrinaire hardcore band. The closest analog is Fugazi, whose members, like Ex-Cult's singer Chris Shaw (currently a Flyer intern) and guitarist J.B. Horrell, cut their teeth on hardcore but moved beyond its restrictions. If that sounds like high praise, it is. Ex-Cult may not be breaking ground like Fugazi did, but songs like the album-opening "Knives on Both Sides," where the band coils through the verses and punches on the choruses like a boxer softening up his opponent, would not sound particularly out of place on 13 Songs. The lead single "MPD" contrasts the pounding drums and pulsing bass with Horrell's impressionistic guitar work. The soaring guitar lines on "Better Life Through Chemistry" evoke the Dead Kennedy's masterpiece "Moon Over Marin." And Shaw's vocals on this track, as on most of the album, function more like a rhythm instrument than a supplier of melody. He is the charismatic glue that keeps the rest of the ensemble grounded, seeming to egg them on with wicked laughter in "Day To Day" and trading sneers with bassist Natalie Hoffman on "Young Trash" before stepping aside to let the reverb guitars wash over everything.
Ex-Cult is another entry in what has been a great year for Memphis music, and the poise and potential displayed on this debut album makes me eager to go back to punk's future with them again. — Chris McCoy
Ex-Cult plays an album release show at 1372 Overton Park on Saturday, December 15th. Doors open at 8 p.m., show is set to end before midnight. Cover is $5. True Sons of Thunder open.
Jason Freeman, a longtime fixture of the modern Memphis string band the Bluff City Backsliders and the man who tutored Samuel L. Jackson for his bluesman role in Black Snake Moan, releases his debut solo album with Hex & Hell, a 10-song collection put out via filmmaker Craig Brewer's BR2 imprint. (The slow-burning "Magic in My Home" previously appeared on the soundtrack for Brewer's Footloose remake.)
Where the Backsliders are an acoustic lot, Hex & Hell is electric, at times evoking the classic hill-country blues of the past couple of decades and at other times suggesting the Sun Studio moment when blues (the music) merged into rockabilly (Freeman's voice).
The album of original songs was recorded in Memphis and Los Angeles with Daniel Farris on drums and, primarily, Jayme Silverstein on bass. Freeman's slide-guitar drives the core trio on the opening "Dirty Heart," but after that several other ace local players come aboard to add color to Freeman's gutbucket blues foundation. Adam Woodard (Tearjerkers, Star & Micey) provides some Memphis organ to "Florida Watah." On the title track, Freeman spars with the strong response of his "Hexen Trio" — Heather Trussel on violin and Memphis Dawls Krista Wroten on violin and Jana Misener on cello. Suzi Hendrix joins on the stomping "Love Baby" to suggest what it might have sounded like if Howlin' Wolf added a saxophone to his band. And bassist Amy LaVere adds some strut to "Teasin' Me."
Rather than traditional liner notes, Hex & Hell comes with a four-page comic book from Memphis filmmaker and artist Mike McCarthy titled Haunted Sounds of Hex & Hell, whose cover proclaims "Beware the Curse of the Voodoo Guitar!" and creates a mythology for the album. See hexandhell.com for purchasing info.
— Chris Herrington