Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Tennessee Trick Deck

It’s maybe the laziest tendency of the national media when covering “underground” music to sell the image of a modern day Laurel Canyon, to attempt to recapture the mythical days when the most creative and popular artists of the day collaborated on one another’s best works during the 60s. This inclination in covering new music is really quite natural. After all, simply naming a young band that most folks have never heard and who might never appeal to the masses is largely pointless, but depicting those same artists as being a part of a scene- even if merely by circumstances of time and place- lends otherwise anonymous talent the collective weight of community. It’s intuitive form of marketing both the bands and the news, and when media outlets can’t find a localized narrative to suit a general audience, they’re often apt to just invent one.

The same article that the Times published as an 80s retrospective on Sonic Youth and the influence of No New York was again written in the early 2000s when we became re-obsessed with Manhattan and all things Strokes-ian. The New Yorker recently published its love letter for Los Angeles’ art space The Smell and the new record by No Age, and Salon reached for the holiest of hyperbolic metaphors when they proclaimed Portland “America's Indie Rock Mecca” (while, oddly, also somehow drafting the image of northern Oregon as sort of an alt veteran’s version of Boca.) Seattle, Brooklyn, and Montreal have all been given the same treatment, along with countless others. In fact, it seems that all it takes for a city to be decreed the new capital of Cool is to have 3 or more bands playing decent music within a 30 mile radius of one another.
The glaring exception to this rule, of course, is Memphis, Tennessee. In fact, I'll go so far as to say the River City is without a doubt the least glamorous “important” place in rock and roll. Its legacy of all-time greats maps like the hub at Dallas-Fort Worth (or, more appropriately, FedEx), a convenient meeting point from which the region’s country, jazz, R&B and blues musicians to cut and distribute records or depart on tours. Despite being touted as the “Birthplace of Rock and Roll,” the city has never sustained much of a scene of its own so much as been home base for a variety of diverse and largely independent artists. Its musical notoriety today is literally as a place where musicians come to buckle down beneath the lip-served notions of history and without the distraction of, you know, stuff to do before a track is finished. Also, sometimes people die there. It’s not an especially bad town by any means, but, having spent nearly 3 years of my former life a quick trip down interstate 63 away, I can tell you from experience that the locals- and the bands- have to make their own fun.
A downside to the recent trend of media coverage is that a city without a featured profile on page 1 of the arts section often leaves its musicians precious few ways to access the national conversation. Jay Reatard has felt the brunt of this neglect. Since his late adolescence he’s been the creative force behind projects like the Reatards, Lost Music and Angry Angles, and he’s spent over 10 years a return to punk's origins as a singles-driven medium, releasing his self-recorded songs without regard for the integrity of who constitutes your band at a given moment or even knowing who was going to press the vinyl. In 2006 he released Blood Visions, his first record as Jay Reatard, a concept piece about possibly murdering ex girlfriends played in the catchiest way possible. And with the buzz he worked up from touring that album (and from occasionally wailing on drunk assholes at his shows), he’s managed to release a steady stream of singles for the last 2 years. Highlighting exactly what kind of exposure Memphians can expect for their hometown’s coolness currency is that Reatard has remained pretty much under everybody’s radar all this time… despite having been releasing his new material on Matador for the last year, one of the most established and powerful independent labels in the world. 17 of these tracks have now been compiled on one disc as Singles 06-07.
Not so much growing out of his punk past as rounding it out, this collection absolutely slays. The DIY aesthetic Reatard carries over from the best old punk acts belies the sophistication of his influences and the subtlety of his new compositions. There are new wave referents (“Night of Broken Glass,” “Let it All Go”), pitch-perfect pop (“All Over Again” and a cover of the Go-Betweens “Don’t Let Him Come Back”) and plenty of thrashing rockers (pretty much everything else) rounding out a near-flawless 40 minute set.
Without our crutch of regional association to buy coverage, we’ve lost some of our ability to self-regulate perspective. The temptation is to compare him and the rest of what John Norris’ hair has recognized as the new lo-fi “scene” to acts like Guided By Voices, but that would be faulty. Not just because Reatard’s own endowments stop well short of the attention span required to appreciate Quadrophenia but because at least in GBV’s heyday the term “lo-fi” was a de-facto descriptive for an emerging genre of home-recorded bands that broke through established ceilings of critical and mainstream acceptance. It was actually a relevant thing for GBV, Pavement, Liz Phair, Sebadoh, and others collectively defined an aesthetic that was more than an arbitrary group of good bands- they were a substantial part of what made the 1990s music boom an “alternative” in the first place. The same can’t be said of today’s supposed movement, which conveys little more sense of community than an overlap of MySpace friends.
But even a man whose choice of surname is, frankly, pretty retarded (he was born Jay Lindsay) deserves more than that. What impresses most about Singles 06-07 exists independent of its recording quality, which is nowhere near emphasized to the point that bands like Times New Viking have chosen to make theirs. Upon one listen, it seems glaringly obvious that the production value on this year's Rip It Off are intended to be as inextricably tied to the songs as their melodies, and this seems to make them wear thin in a way that Reatard’s more sturdy, road-worn compositions don’t. A record that “sounds bad” usually translates into a great live show, and TNV certainly have their share of pop hooks and a sense of hip that certainly owes little to their being from Columbus, but Reatard just has something that the Vikings lack.
No, the most impressive thing about Reatard’s Singles is that you have to be reminded that that the compilation represents the fruits of a single year. It’s merely a chronological document and nobody, least of all the man himself, has even claimed that it’s his best work. The fact is that he’s just so shit-hot right now that he can shuffle together his output any which way and is still dealing aces that trump nearly any other rock release of the year.

1 comment:

Darryl said...

While musicians should be able to thrive absent communities, isn't one of the most powerful and interesting things about non-mainstream music the underground scenes of which it drives the development? Not just on a musical level (tracing the sounds and band members between projects and labels, etc...) but on the close-knit bonds that don't just make the story of punk rock interesting, but make the communities worthwhile places in themselves.

Everything that Ian Mackaye did was great and should have gotten all the accolades in the world, but building the DC community not only helped him build exposure, it was a worthy end in itself.