1. JEFF the Brotherhood – Zone
If you’ve heard the advance single “Punishmemt,” you know what you’re in for with Zone, Nashville duo JEFF the Brotherhood’s new studio album. It’s punchy with plenty of guitar crunch. A blazing guitar solo (with a nice rangy wah pedal to warp the tone) nestled in a bed of thick synth and chugging distortion. Noisy rock and roll fun. But there’s a little more to it. It doesn’t have a typical verse/chorus arrangement – it’s kind of a sonic sandwich, opening and closing with verses with instrumental sections and a solo in the middle. It took me a couple of spins for Zone to blossom for me. (After the first listen through the album, I thought, does this prove guitar rock’s not dead? Then I thought, really? Don’t be that guy.) There are a lot of references to getting stoned and partying, which is just the goofy sheen that covers some smart and unusual musical choices. The title track throbs and drones, but the dissonance of the synth lines create movement. “Juice” sounds like the Ramones doing metal, with the appropriate level of goofy mischief. “Cruising space just making trouble,” they sing, “I’m getting busted in my space shuttle.” It’s not all that complicated. You don’t have to dig too deep to enjoy Zone, but if you do dig, the band has a treat or two for you.
2. Grifters – Crappin’ You Negative and One Sock Missing (Reissues)
I have to cop to being unfamiliar with Memphis indie rockers Grifters until recently when I listened to One Sock Missing (1993) and Crappin’ You Negative (1994), both getting reissued today from Fat Possum Records. It’s a wonderful mixed feeling when you run across material like this. I have a lot to explore, but I could have been listening to this stuff for 20 years. One Sock Missing is low-fi to the point where you can hear tape hiss, and sometimes it sounds like the whole thing was recorded with the band playing in one room into a single mic set up by a buddy testing out his recording equipment. But there are some moments, as on “Just Passing Out,” where the band is experimenting with overdubbing drums, that give it an abstract feel. “Sain” sounds like a field recording of a band playing an apocalyptic basement party, the sonic equivalent of Mikey in the corner at the end of Blair Witch Project (sorry – spoilers!). Crappin’ You Negative is more polished. The band is tighter and production is smoother, but the music retains some of the rougher elements that make One Sock Missing so appealing. The guitars are a tad out of tune on the intro, adding a bluesy bite to “Get Outta That Spaceship & Fight Like a Man.” The band is patient with the elegiac “Junkie Blood,” giving it plenty of space to breathe between movements. There’s something very pure about this music. It sounds like the band was never too far from its initial impulses, even in their stranger moment. The band called it quits sometime around 2000, but have been playing shows again since their 2013 reunion. And then there’s this intriguing note from the press release for the reissues: “New songs? Yeah, there are one or two. New recordings? That’s up to you.”
(On a side note, Blue Mountain, one of my favorite bands from the 90s, recorded “A Band Called Bud” on their second album, Dog Days, as a tribute to the band that eventually became Grifters).
3. Evening Bell – Dying Stars
Evening Bell covers a lot of ground within the Americana genre on this, their full-length debut. The opening track, “This Bar Room Ain’t Your Church,” is strongly reminiscent of The Jayhawks, with its simple vocal harmonies and dreamy steel guitar. A few songs later comes “Western Theme,” which sounds exactly how you’d think it would, with a lush arrangement and twangy guitars perfectly suited the opening credits of a movie about a lonesome cowboy riding through the desert. Except his horse would have a name. Singers and songwriters Hart Kingsbury and Caitlin Sherman have great chemistry, and sound equally convincing singing dramatic ballads (“Tail Light”) or cheeky kiss-offs (“Dead End Friends & Fair Weather Lovers.”) Evening Bell is a versatile collective. Hopefully there’s more where this came from.