Music » Record Reviews

The Year in Memphis Music

Sophomore discs from Amy LaVere and Harlan T. Bobo and a "career" retrospective from Ross Johnson were among the local highlights of 2007.

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A lot of the usual suspects in local music were quiet in 2007. Recent headliners Three 6 Mafia, North Mississippi Allstars, Lucero, Snowglobe, the ex-Oblivians (Jack Yarber and Greg Cartwright), and ex-Lost Sounds (Alicja Trout and, to an extent, Jay Reatard) all took the year off as far as releasing new albums. Meanwhile, the past loomed large again in the form of a relaunch of Stax records, which spurred a welcome avalanche of reissue and archival material.

But into this new-music breach, lots of good stuff emerged, including (obviously or arguably) improved sophomore releases from the likes of Tunnel Clones, Harlan T. Bobo, and breakout star Amy LaVere.

Here's the local music that hit hardest for us in 2007:

Chris Herrington:

1. Anchors & Anvils — Amy LaVere (Archer Records): This second album from the versatile Amy LaVere transcended the local scene more than any non-rap record this year and deservedly so. Produced by Jim Dickinson, it slays her too tasteful, too dawdling debut, This World Is Not My Home, drawing great songs from sources generally close to LaVere (including three from the artist herself and two from boyfriend Paul Taylor) and putting them across with a gritty musical intimacy that echoes Dickinson's own fine recent solo work. LaVere doesn't have a showy American Idol voice but arrives here as a sharp, rich interpretive singer, especially on such sure-shots as her own "Killing Him" (one of the best album-openers on any 2007 record) and Taylor's personal, perceptive "Pointless Drinking." Smart, sexy, swaggering, funny — this star turn was the highlight of Memphis music in 2007.

2. King Cobras Do — Vending Machine (Shoulder Tap): Where so much indie rock this year (ha — "this year") felt insular, Robby "Vending Machine" Grant's King Cobras Do is instead cozy. It's a home-recorded gem that takes domestic intimacy as its great subject: His son contributes free-associative lyrics; his toddler daughter is the subject of the delicate "Tell Me the Truth and I'll Stop Teasing You"; his wife gets a tribute on "Rae" that includes images of "dancing in the den" and memories that are palpably lived-in ("Remember when our room was just a bed?"). Even the house itself gets into the act with "Good Old Upstairs," a song about the attic studio where King Cobras Do was created.

3. I'm Your Man — Harlan T. Bobo (Goner): Harlan T. Bobo became an instant icon in his corner of the local music scene with his lovelorn 2004 debut Too Much Love. To his credit, Bobo declined to offer up Too Much Love 2 with this follow-up, which instead investigates the roots and limitations of the romantic messiness that made his debut so popular. And, over time, I've found I'm Your Man to be smarter, funnier, and braver (especially on "Baptist Memorial," "Pragmatic Woman," and "So Bad") than the local masterpiece-by-acclamation that it followed.

4. Make It Stop! The Most of Ross Johnson — Ross Johnson (Goner): Not the most accessible local record of the year, that's for sure, but Ross 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 from a self-described "king of the middle-aged garage-band losers" whose self-deprecation and shamed moral center punctures any threat of hipster romanticization.

5. World Without End — Bob Frank & John Murry (Bowstring): Expatriate Memphians Bob Frank, 62, and John Murry, 27, found each other in Northern California and concocted a high-concept album — a collection of original murder ballads written about legendary crimes — that tops what either of them produced when they lived here.

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6. Killers From Space — Jim Dickinson (Memphis International): Dickinson has been making music in one form or another since the '60s but, until 2006, had (as near as I can tell) only released a grand total of two solo albums. Now he's released two in two years and both on the same label! I didn't find Killers From Space quite as revelatory as 2006's terrific Jungle Jim & the Voodoo Tiger, but Dickinson's charismatic growl, ragged-but-intimate musical tone, and talent for finding good songs you've never heard before are all very much present here. Highlight: Dickinson's phrasing of the word "mendacity."

7. World Wide Open — Tunnel Clones (Hemphix): More than just a useful alternative to the aggressive monotony of most local rap product, World Wide Open is strong, assured hip-hop on its own terms: soulful and ambitious; sad, but defiant.

8. Blood Visions — Jay Reatard (In the Red): A late 2006 release that I didn't get hold of until 2007, this solo debut unites the skeletal drive of the artist's teen band the Reatards with the musical ambition of Reatard's subsequent band, the Lost Sounds. Even then, as impressive as this locomotive blast (15 songs in 29 minutes) of pop-rock is, it's still transitional; a sneak preview of even better things to come, as witnessed by Reatard's 2007 single for Goner.

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9. Break This Record — Deering & Down (self-released): I'm far from the world's foremost expert on Fleetwood Mac, but I wonder if, had blues guitarist Peter Green and pop chanteuse Stevie Nicks ever crossed paths in various incarnations of that band, the stylistic result would have been something like the charged guitar-and-voice duets of Deering & Down on this novel-yet-familiar local debut.

10. City Lights — Ron Franklin (Memphis International): Whereas too many young musicians who dabble in roots forms like blues and country play up the gravity and torment, Ron Franklin never lets concept impinge on musicality. There's a playful assurance to his music that suggests jug bands and early rock in the Chuck Berry (covered here) or Bo Diddley vein.

Chris Davis:

1. Make It Stop! The Most of Ross Johnson — Ross Johnson (Goner): A year ago, if somebody told me that Goner was going to put out a best of Ross Johnson collection, I would have probably split my britches laughing. A whole disc devoted to the Panther Burns drummer and longtime Memphis scenester with a reputation for getting sloshed and ranting hilariously on the mic? What a nutzo idea. But Goner did it, and it turned out to be a transcendent collection of wickedly funny Southern gothic literature you can shake your ass to. The liner notes — a thoughtful, funny, and endearing history of the birth of punk in Memphis — are worth the price.

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2. Accidentally stumbling across Harlan T. Bobo's homemade video for the unreleased song "Dreamer of Dreams": Don't misunderstand. The release of Bobo's I'm Your Man was a big deal too. As doomed follow-ups to celebrated debuts go, the new disc is strong. But this impossibly low-tech and completely irresistible video showcases Bobo's alchemical ability to turn garbage into gold.

3. Falling in love with Amy LaVere ... again: Let's face it. Until this year, the gorgeous, throaty-voiced chanteuse had never put out a recording that lived up to her vast potential. But all of that changed with the release of Anchors & Anvils. "Killing Him" is probably the year's best original song. And if there were any justice in the music industry, "Tennessee Valentine" would be the theme to every prom from Memphis to Bristol from now until the crack of doom.

4. Among the Wolves — The Third Man (self-released): Smart pop is hard to come by, and the Third Man's latest release, Among the Wolves, is borderline brilliant. The relentlessly dark, organ-soaked groove of "Psyops Marching On" borrows elements from such great local bands as the Satyrs and Snowglobe and wraps it all up in Nuggets-worthy psychedelia. Mixing electronic flourishes with guitar thunder sounds old as dirt and brand spanking new.

5.The Blasters at the Hi-Tone: In the spirit of full disclosure, my own band, the West Coast Turnaround, opened for the legendary L.A. roots-rock band. And boy, did we get schooled when the Blasters took stage and played the greatest set of pure American rock-and-roll I've ever seen anywhere. Period. These guys have been the most underrated band in the world for 30 years. And there they were in Midtown Memphis, in front of maybe 50 people, mixing country, rockabilly, blues, and jazz into a genre-defying stew of sonic bliss.

Andrew Earles:

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1. Make It Stop! The Most of Ross Johnson — Ross Johnson (Goner): I'm not sure what I can write about this fascinating document that I or someone else hasn't already written, so I'll defer to Johnson and Monsieur Jeffrey Evans' performance earlier this year at Gonerfest 4. Strategically slotted around 10 p.m. on one of the festival's busiest nights, their music-to-banter ratio (about 75 percent the latter) resulted in hilariously confounded stares among patrons expecting another succinct set from one of the event's rock bands. Aside from the messy King Khan & BBQ Show set from two years ago, it was the closest the Gonerfest institution has come to providing a stage for a Situationist prank.

2. Among the Wolves —The Third Man (self-released): Among the wolves is indeed the place that any young indie band will find themselves this day and age, but the Third Man play a strong card with their Southern-tinged, Memphis-centric answer to psych-rock contemporaries like Dungen. Memphis' shining beacons within the realm of indie rock can usually be counted on one hand at any given point in history (or at least the last 10 years), and Among the Wolves puts the Third Man ahead of the pack for the time being.

3. Oscars/Evil Wizard Eyes split 7-inch (Soul Is Cheap): Solid sides from both bands, with the sludgy Evil Wizard Eyes providing (perhaps unwittingly) Memphis' fuzzier, friendlier version of the agro-noise-rock revivalist movement led elsewhere by bands such as Pissed Jeans and Clockcleaner.

4. Songs by Solutions — Final Solutions (Goner): In the words of the Goner Records website, Final Solutions finally "belched up" their second full-length album this year. That pretty much says it all.

5. Walkin' Bank Roll — Project Pat (KR Urban): If you're thinking this is my token local hip-hop entry," you'd be 100 percent correct. Regardless, Walkin' Bank Roll is a great album.

David Dunlap Jr.:

1. Make It Stop! The Most of Ross Johnson — Ross Johnson (Goner): I must confess, Ross Johnson used to drive me crazy. I'm sure that he, in his self-deprecating way, would say that that was the point. But what used to be drunken yammering now seems to my ears to be clever, soul-baring music that is an artistic cousin to classic confessional literature like the books of Frederick Exley or the comics of Jeffrey Brown. With a lifetime's worth of mistakes stuffed into a decade and a liver that throbs like an injured appendage in a Tex Avery cartoon, I now understand Johnson's songs much better these days, and he makes it worth the price.

2. William Bell live at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music: William Bell may not be considered first-tier talent on the Stax roster, but his songwriting skills were second to none. Without a doubt, Bell was an A-lister when he performed in the legendary Studio A this past July. His delivery was as smooth as ever, and he was the consummate showman. His performance even featured a half-time wardrobe change. All class.

3. "I Know a Place"/"Don't Let Him Come Back" 7-inch — Jay Reatard (Goner): My favorite single of the year, Memphis music or otherwise, "Don't Let Him Come Back," the Go-Betweens cover, is as beautiful as it was unpredictable, but "I Know a Place" is the best example yet of Jay Reatard's growing talent. It's a tuneful strummer that somehow manages to be cocky and contemplative at the same time. When Reatard's inevitable Behind the Music episode is made, this is the song that will be playing during his slo-mo, "suffering-from-the-ravages-of-fame" final act.

4. "Memphis Flu" — Elder Curry, compiled on People Take Warning! Murder Ballads & Disaster Songs, 1913–1938 (Tompkins Square): This stomping, energetic gospel song from 1930 about Memphis' catastrophic epidemic is one of the most rocking pre-war recordings I've ever heard. The disturbingly judgmental lyrics — "Yes, you see!/Yes!/He killed the rich and poor/And He's going to kill more/If you don't turn away from your shame" — only add to the song's emotional power.

5. "Is This Love?"/"Don't Talk To Me" 7-inch — The Preacher's Kids (Wrecked 'Em): The A-side of this single is high-energy garage rock for which Oxford's Preacher's Kids are known. The flip, though, is a great cover of a snarling punk classic from G.G. Allin's old band, the Jabbers. It's a testament not only to the rocking abilities of the Preacher's Kids but also to the fact that Allin had the ability to write infectiously catchy rock tunes.

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