With the year winding down, let's check in on some of the more notable recent local releases:
Hola Day -- The Carlos Ecos Band (Young Ave. Records): Recent participants in the Mid-South Grammy Showcase, the bluesy rock trio the Carlos Ecos Band show off an eclectic sound on their six-song debut EP. The anthemic "Sing" is a straightforward arena-sized rocker that evokes the best of '80s AOR. The bluesy stomp of "Everybody Wants" is spiked with wah-wah riffage and an aquatic Hendrixian solo. The nimble, Latin-tinged percussion and bracing, precise guitar work of the title track is a slice of salsa-rock worthy of Santana. The instrumental "A Lil' Sumpin' Sumpin'" is moody and jazzy. The more lyric- and vocal-driven "The Hardest Thing" is roots rock that skirts the edges of alt-country. And the closing "You're a Part of Me" is a head-bobbing blast of pure pop. Six songs, six distinctly different sounds. But the impressive thing is that each style works in concert with the other. The Carlos Ecos Band never sounds like a cover band playing dress-up one song at a time -- just an accomplished rock band with the chops to set sail in a lot of different directions.
Break Free -- Susie Salley (Peg Allie): On the title track and on "You Don't Believe Me," Bob Salley laces electric guitar onto his singer wife's serious, hard-charging songs. The sound is very '80s rock radio, and it doesn't really fit in with the rest of the album. I think these two songs are such turnoffs for me because of how much I like the rest of Break Free, which is more charming when it's acoustic and conversational.
Salley proves to be a winning vocalist -- earthy, twangy, immediately likable -- on much of Break Free and a deceptively sharp songwriter. The album is best when the music matches her virtues with a front-porch intimacy and spontaneity. This especially happens whenever Bob Salley puts down the electric guitar and picks up a mandolin, as on the pretty, little, old-fashioned Southern-pride instructional "Manners" where Susie Salley's down-to-earth vocal touch evokes Loretta Lynn, and on "Somebody's Baby," an onlooker's compassionate consideration of a downtown homeless woman, which is affecting without being a bit maudlin.
Other highlights include the opening "I Don't Think About It," an alt-country toe-tapper with a Beatlesesque tinge; "Delta Land," a high-stepping blues about a sibling on a prison farm in which Salley sinks her wry but soulful voice into some bemused, self-penned lyrics ("Yeah, the warden said, 'Well you'll eat just what you grow'/But bell peppers mornin', noon, and night/For a vegetarian, well it'd be all right Farming never was a lot of fun"); and the jaunty, lived-in parent's lament-cum-celebration "All Over Again."
All I Know -- Keith Sykes (MADJACK): MADJACK made its reputation on younger local acts such as Lucero, Cory Branan, and the Pawtuckets, but the label makes an interesting move releasing the latest from longtime local tunesmith Keith Sykes, a figure with more built-in national name recognition than any of the label's other acts. A songwriter's songwriter, Sykes delivers a batch of typically strong acoustic-based songs. "Baby Took a Limo to Memphis" is a sardonic bit of bluesy mood music in the Lyle Lovett mold. ("The shortest distance between two towns is riding in a limo with the windows down.") "Hard Luck and Old Dogs" has a title that evokes Tom T. Hall, but the sound is more in the vintage Willie-and-Waylon mold. With echoes of calypso and rockabilly, "Monkey River Town Girl" is an odd confection of pure '50s style. And Sykes is joined, to great effect, by Jerry Jeff Walker for the swaggering, fun-loving "It Don't Matter." But the highlight might be the comic "Keith Sykes Is Sorry," an over-the-top apology for a missed radio interview.
Memphis Music Today, Vol. 1: Rock & Roll -- Various Artists (Response Records): Despite the presumptuous title, this collection of songs from largely lesser-known bands, put out by recently relocated local label Response Records, gives a pretty diverse snapshot of the Memphis scene and spotlights some compelling new-ish bands.
Content-wise, there's metal (prog-y Thin King sporting a bass solo dude, turgid Simon), modern rock (Trace going grunge, Surreel Music heavy but indistinct), Southern rock (Gabby Johnson heavy and twangy, the Clergy wilder and meaner), alt-rock (brittle, understated Organ Thief, agreeably over-the-top Rabid Villain), blues-rock (the Carlos Ecos Band), and jam-bands (horn-hopping FreeWorld, smoothed-out Yamagata).
There are also plenty of highlights: The Glass contribute "Superimposed" from last year's Concorde, getting an invigorating tension from the match of the band's surging music with lead singer Brad Bailey's wobbly, emotional vocals. Deep Shag's "I Am" is a poppy radio-rock song with strong female vocals and a sunny, danceable beat. Mid-South Grammy Showcase finishers Crippled Nation take their nü-metal pedigree to more artistically (and, perhaps, commercially) fruitful places on the moody, anthemic "Believe." The borderline indescribable Candice Ivory scores big with "New Shoes," a bit of new-wavey electro-soul that sounds sort of like a collaboration between Dirty Mind-era Prince and Parallel Lines-era Blondie. •