Music » Record Reviews

Your Academy Schools You in Memphis Power Pop with New Album


For a certain age group in this region, the two album titles from blind to blue (Craven Hill, 1999) and Another Vivid Scene (Craven Hill, 2002) are sure to conjure up memories. Those were the two albums by the Memphis band crash into june, and for a time it seemed they'd make many more, but it was not to be.

Yet the words "another vivid scene" find their way into a release that just dropped in the past week, Your Academy. That's also the band name of the latest project by crash into june's founding member and bassist, Johnny Norris. He recruited guitarist Chris Gafford and drummer Dan Shumake, both of whom appeared on from blind to blue. Since leaving crash into june, Gafford and Shumake had lately been seen in Stephen Burns’ most recent reincarnation of The Scruffs.
As that pedigree alone might suggest, this is unabashed power pop, full of huge guitar riffs, chiming chords, layered background vocals, and soaring leads. But it's not quite the jump-cut rush of The Scruffs, opting instead for the broader, open sounds of Big Star or the Raspberries.

Such territory demands a great vocalist, of course. Enter Memphis native Brandon McGovern, whose band, Madison Treehouse, often played with crash into june in the '90s. He also had a solo record, 2002's Pala-Dora, from that era. Later he backed the renowned power popper Dwight Twilley on guitar. McGovern went on to release three other LPs: Bowling Alleys, BBQ Joints & Billiard Halls, Pet Food, and Signal Heights.

Finally, running with their Big Star-centricity, the group also recruited Adam Hill, who has not only produced many national and local bands, but assisted Ardent Studios founder, the late John Fry, with locating, transferring and mixing long-lost Big Star and Chris Bell tracks for inclusion on box sets released in the early 2000s. He does double duty here, playing lead guitar in and engineering the recording.

And the polish of this record bears the mark of one who worked with John Fry. Between the rich, jangly-but-chunky recording, the tight, rocking band, and the natural bent of the songwriting, this is a great addendum to the annals of Memphis Power Pop.
  • Larry Hsia/Sierra Hotel Images
  • Your Academy
Because of the depth of the talent they're drawing on, a listener can forgive the overt wearing of the power pop emblems on their sleeve. One song, "Heaven Knows," has the line, "Nobody can dance to the tortured voice of Christopher Branford Bell," then goes on to a chorus of "You drink red wine and sipping yellow pills/You're guided by voices and you're built to spill."

Happily, these similes can be enjoyed at face value, embedded in the song's mood, rising above in-jokes. But clearly these are proud power pop nerds who revel in the sounds that came before them. Another song, "Better Alone Together," a song about the tumultuous relationship between Alex Chilton and Lesa Aldridge during the recording of Big Star’s Third, inspired by Aldridge’s quote about their relationship in Rich Tupica’s There Was a Light: The Cosmic History of Chris Bell and the Rise of Big Star: “We did better alone together.” All backstories aside, the number also happens to be one of the album's catchiest, propelling itself along in a manner befitting #1 Record more than Third.

The quieter "Sunrise" may be the greatest track here, evoking the folksier side of Big Star, even as it develops Your Academy's own unique sound. That's a sound very rooted in the early- to mid-'70s, but ultimately the group forges its own identity, a kind of band out of time, purveying the Platonic ideal of power pop.

There are other Memphis influences, naturally. “Talent Party” features bass by John Lightman (Big Star) and keys from Rick Steff (Lucero), and is an homage to Memphis garage bands of the 1960s, inspired by Ron Hall’s book, Playing for a Piece of the Door: A History of Garage & Frat Bands in Memphis, 1960-1975. Other songs touch on Elvis and the Bluff City's sense of its own importance, or lack thereof.

That last sentiment is ironic, even as Your Academy pulls together some of the city's most astute masters of power pop to revel in that style's sense of celebration and, yes, fun. It's great to hear that these sounds aren't being forgotten, but live on in new and inventive ways no one could have predicted. 

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