The Gamble Brothers Band is on a roll. Earlier this year, the local four-piece took home over $35,000 in prizes by beating out 1,200 other bands in the Billboard-sponsored Independent Musicians World Series in Nashville. And now they've followed up their strong debut, last year's 10 Lbs of Hum, with the even more impressive Back to the Bottom (Archer Records; A-).
As perhaps the most dynamic act in a compelling Archer Records stable (which boasts jazz singer Kelley Hurt, classical guitarist Lily Afshar, and folk stalwart Sid Selvidge), the Gamble Brothers Band emerges on Back to the Bottom as a band whose celebrated live reputation is equaled by its ability to fashion radio-friendly studio music.
While the band's sound is generally compared locally to Memphis soul (Booker T. & the MGs) and New Orleans funk (The Meters), which are acknowledged foundations, Back to the Bottom, ably produced by Ross Rice, sounds more like classic '70s radio rock -- and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. The band's jazz chops signify Steely Dan while the soulful vocals are blue-eyed R&B in the Van Morrison tradition. A couple of instrumentals aside, the well-structured songwriting here is something few groove- or jam-oriented bands could match (the strong originals spiked by an ace cover of Randy Newman's "Little Criminals").
The record is given cohesion by a trio of standout cuts that examine and celebrate the band's own music. The relaxation-friendly "Tiki Bar" imagines an oasis where the Gambles are always the house band, and they "don't need no damn guitar." "Land of Soul" might be their anthem, a tribute to the musical gumbo of Memphis-Muscle Shoals-New Orleans, which lifts off with a series of rhyming exhortations: "From the shores of Alabama over to the Bluff City," "The downhome sound is the thing for me," "Ain't no place I'd rather be," "Otis, Rufus, and Booker T.," etc. But best of all is the lead single, "Record Store," which is both a joyful hymn to the band's own work ("I got a song to sing/It's got words and everything/For what it's worth and a little more/I'll put it in the record store") and the best testament yet to the band's ability to unite jazz chops, soul feel, and pop songwriting. You can hear all those elements come together when Art Edmaiston's sax leads the band out of the taut, jazz-heavy music on the verses into a welcoming, soulful sing-along chorus.
Given those songs, you might assume that the title track is also self-referential. Well, "Back to the Bottom" isn't really about music, but the message still applies. The perpetually interesting interplay of this band's rhythm section may be its greatest strength. The syncopated rhythms and in-the-pocket groove of drummer Chad Gamble and bass player Will Lowrimore provide a deep, strong foundation for keyboard player Al Gamble and sax-man Edmaiston to play off of. You can see for yourself at the band's next local gig, Friday, October 24th, at Young Avenue Deli.
Since the breakup of his much beloved local band the Pawtuckets, singer/songwriter/guitarist Mark McKinney has been a lot more active working on other people's music through MADJACK Records, the label he co-founded, than on his own. After having released and promoted records from acts such as Cory Branan, Lucero, and Rob Jungklas over the past couple of years, McKinney returns with a new band, The Tennessee Boltsmokers, a bluegrass and folk outfit also featuring MADJACK duo Eric Lewis and Andy Ratliff and rounded out by bass player Todd Cook.
On Songs from the Floor (MADJACK; Grade: B), the Boltsmokers offer up a gentle, lovely, all-acoustic song-oriented mix of bluegrass and folk. Aficionados of the former may be a little disappointed that Lewis and Ratliff don't get to show off their instrumental chops a bit more, but the music here is always in the service of putting across songs that, collectively, give the band a very friendly, agreeable personality. "Never Be Mine" pines for a tattooed rocker girl who is perpetually out of reach, while the daydreaming "Carry Me Away" envisions romantic scenarios with a traffic-light colleague. One nice moment is when the harmony-laden, vaguely gospel "Heart of Stone" segues into the carnal cover "(Turn Out the Light and) Love Me Tonight." But best of all are the lived-in, place-specific lost-love songs "Midtown" and "NYC on the Floor." The Tennessee Boltsmokers will celebrate the release of Songs from the Floor Saturday, November 1st, at the P&H CafÇ.
Local music fans know Greg Roberson as the drummer for the Reigning Sound, but you see another side to Roberson on One of Our Astronauts Is Missing (Label Music Group; Grade: B+), the debut album from his side-project Her Majesty's Buzz, in which Roberson teams with Don Main of the band Late Show.
Recorded in Indianapolis and mixed in Memphis, One of Our Astronauts Is Missing is a significant departure from the Reigning Sound sound, trading in that band's loose, live rock-and-roll for studio-crafted art-pop and resulting in a guitar-bass-drums aesthetic that's less Byrds, early Beatles, and R&B than Bowie, late Beatles, and Big Star. (Check out the guitar sound on the opening "Angels in a Whirlwind" for a taste of the last.)
One of Our Astronauts Is Missing is a collection of smart, twisty, catchy little pop songs, with highlights like the downbeat anti-love paeans "My Big Dumb Heart" ("It's there for the taking/Come tear it apart") and "Lose a Little Sleep Tonight."
You can e-mail Chris Herrington at email@example.com.