Memphis music fans vividly recall a spate of shows by drummer Hunt Sales in 2017-18. With a work resume as long as your arm, including stints with Todd Rundgren, Iggy Pop, and David Bowie, the powerhouse drummer was nevertheless relatively obscure, and his Bluff City appearances seemed to come out of the blue. Even more surprising, for fans of Iggy Pop's “Lust for Life,” or the Tin Machine, was the groovy R&B Sales ended up playing in those sets. You half expected an emcee to announce “It's showtime!” as the band laid down classic sounds right out of the playbook of James Brown and the Famous Flames. And Sales' voice, weathered by years of heroin addiction, was so well suited to the blues that when he and the band laid into Tin Machine's rock ballad “Sorry,” sung by Sales with gravelly abandon as on the original recording, it was all of a piece.
Now, the fruit of those sporadic Memphis gigs has arrived. Austin native Will Sexton, now a happily married Memphian, helped bring Sales to Memphis in the first place, and went so far as to introduce him to Big Legal Mess/Fat Possum's Bruce Watson. That in turn led to Sales' debut album as a solo artist, the Hunt Sales Memorial's Get Your Shit Together, released two weeks ago. Recruiting some fine Memphis- and Austin-based players, he's tossed out the R&B chestnuts that peppered his live sets, and cooked up a platter of originals.
Those chestnuts are missed, in a way. Sales' live sets were perfect showcases of his early influences. As the son of celebrity Soupy Sales, he was exposed to, or taught by, such masters as Earl Palmer, Art Blakey, Elvin Jones and Buddy Rich. Such points of reference, combined with the sheer power of his attack, made for some mighty swinging music at those Memphis gigs. The new album is bleaker than that, and angrier. It rocks mightily. As always, he hammers the drums, yet they are heavily compressed, blended with gritty guitar tones like some literal tin machine in his garage.
Which is not to deny the power of the songs. Though Sales is not a conventional “good singer,” his wail perfectly suits the tales of regret, frustration and hedonism that he's crafted. Heavy, down and dirty guitar riffs ground the proceedings, courtesy Dutch Austinite Tjarko Jeen. But there are some stylistic detours as well. “I'm sorry, baby, I put that needle in my neck!” he sings on “Sorry Baby,” the album's nearest thing to good time R&B. Another track, “Magik,” is a second cousin to the Eddie Floyd classic “Big Bird,” rocking all the harder with it's heavy horns. “When life gets tragic, you bring out the magic.”
The horns do indeed bring out the magic in this record, and its most palpable R&B flavor, thanks to Memphians Jim Spake and Art Edmaiston. (Pat Fusco and Mark Edgar Stuart also make cameos, on piano and bass, respectively). Indeed, the grooviest number here is the horn-driven instrumental, “Cleveland Street Memphis.”
On other tracks, they are in rock horn mode, blending in with the chunky guitar tones seamlessly. And over it all soars the anguish of Sales' voice, carrying the listener through desperate addiction and cathartic release alike. “When I met you, you had a re-purposed life/I had an ex-wife and a kid, yes I did ...You say there's a thin line between love and hate/I cross the line every night and day,” he wails on the head-turning rock steady soul of “Angel of Darkness,” and you know it comes from a life lived on the edge.
“What I really am is my kids’ father and my wife’s husband,” Sales says in his press release. “And I’m a heroin addict. A bad heroin addict for 40 years. I’ve been a crackhead. And I’ve been a criminal. Those are the facts. But I don’t do drugs anymore. I'm sober now. All I do is make music — so let’s not be late for the show.”