Like the soundtrack to a faded, ancient scrapbook, the music on Vending Machine's latest, 5 Piece Kit, conjures up hundreds of images, thoughts, and memories. The gently strummed guitar notes of "I Know, We'll Last" ring out like the last kisses in a forgotten romance, vocalist/instrumentalist Robby Grant building on the Chris Bell/Alex Chilton foundation of songwriting on the exquisitely bare track. "Spinning Chair" melds a clanging drum beat with piano runs and the sounds of summer; as frogs croak, owls call, and cicadas chirp, you can almost picture a group of neighborhood kids rallying for a final game of kick-the-can before dusk.
Even the name Vending Machine sounds evocative, like an invention in a Haruki Murakami story that spits out songs for thirsty commuters on a Tokyo subway platform. Insert coin, select memory, receive three-minute tune. Questioned about the moniker, Grant demurs, insisting that its origins are "nothing fancy. This was off the top of my head, and I just kept it," he says.
For the former Big Ass Truck guitarist, the evolution from party mainstay to low-fi creator came naturally. "Robert [Barnett, Big Ass Truck's drummer] was playing with Alicja Trout in Mouse Rocket, and he invited me to join that band. Alicja got busy with the Lost Sounds, and so one November, I opened up for the North Mississippi Allstars by myself. Since then, I've gone through a couple different iterations of the band," Grant explains.
Even while he played in Big Ass Truck, the idea for Vending Machine was germinating. "A lot of the songs I was writing wouldn't really work in that band," Grant says. "When we came home off tour, we were sick of seeing each other. I started working on my own for obvious reasons: I get complete control and don't have to ask anyone else's opinion."
Grant recorded a single (a split with Brad Pounders) and an album (The Chamber from Here to There) on his own, before, as he puts it, "I realized how much fun it is to hear other people play." His brother, Big Ass Truck bassist Grayson Grant, cellist Jonathan Kirkscey, guitarist Yazan Fahmawi, and friends like Trout and Paul Ringger Jr. all make appearances on 5 Piece Kit.
Although Grant makes it clear that Big Ass Truck is on "permanent hiatus," he's returned to making music with the musicians from the group. Barnett, Grayson Grant, DJ Colin Butler, and guitarist Steve Selvidge show up for the bubbling rock number "Shoulder Tap," which takes listeners on a Money Mark-inspired excursion midway through 5 Piece Kit.
Barnett, Ringger, and Quinn Powers will anchor Grant's ethereal sounds next Sunday, August 31st, when Vending Machine performs at the Hi-Tone CafÇ alongside The Bloodthirsty Lovers and comedian (and Flyer contributer) Andrew Earles. "It'll be Steve Selvidge's first local appearance with the Bloodthirsty Lovers," Grant notes. Big Ass Truck fans -- or any pop-music aficionados -- shouldn't miss it. For more information on Vending Machine (or the upcoming show), go to ChocolateGuitars.com.
While the first two episodes of the original musical documentary Keeping Time: New Music from America's Roots have already aired on the Sundance Channel, locals will want to tune in for Buy This Record, the third program in the series.
Keeping Time takes a look at traditional American musicians, including country-folk singer Gillian Welch, bluegrass band Nickel Creek, and Native American trio Ulali. In Buy This Record, Grisman concentrates on four independent music labels, including Memphis' own MADJACK Records and Oxford's Fat Possum.
Rousing commentary from bluesman T-Model Ford dominates the Fat Possum story, as the camera follows him on the road and into the studio ("I think I'm about 20 years old sometimes," the elder statesman notes gleefully); other interviewees include label founder Matthew Johnson (who laments that "it's still an uphill battle" for independents), producer Bruce Watson, and blues-rock duo The Black Keys.
The MADJACK segment features an impromptu concert by Andy Ratliff and Eric Lewis before the camera follows Cory Branan to New York for his Late Night with David Letterman appearance. "It was like New Year's Eve," label co-owner Mark McKinney crows onscreen. The documentary includes fascinating behind-the-scenes footage of Branan's rehearsal with bandleader Paul Schaeffer.
Back in Memphis, the powers that be at MADJACK furiously work the phones and faxes, doing whatever they can to broaden that window of opportunity into a full-fledged door. When it comes to promoting a record, "a major [label] only has six weeks," McKinney's partner Jeff Jenson tells the camera. Pointing to MADJACK's long-term commitment to Branan's full-length debut The Hell You Say, which was released locally in 2001, Jenson explains that "we can take as long as we want."
Buy This Record will air locally at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, August 21st. Check listings for repeat broadcasts, or go to SundanceChannel.com for more info.
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