It’s nothin’ new for a shit-ton of bands to cram in a bunch of overlapping shows over a short time in Memphis, so in comparison to the town’s several solid (sometimes awesome) festivals, last Thursday and Friday weren’t necessarily that busy. But I bitch because the shows I didn’t want to miss on Thursday and Friday — Destruction Unit with Manateees and Data Drums, and The Nots with Moving Finger, respectively — took time and money, and precluded my presence from last Friday’s Titus Andronicus show. (And from an apparent Ex-Cult event that I didn’t hear about until after-the-fact?)
Even though I hate having to miss Titus Andronicus, whose recordings I love, I’ll take what I did get, which was a great time and a free solo record from Ryan Rousseau, who doesn’t know me from Eve, much less that I’ve been meaning to write more about music.
So here’s my thanks: Rousseau’s Destruction Unit was fucking great — no: the entire nights Thursday and Friday were just that, the musicians all firmly rooted in the city’s recent rock’n’roll past, while at the same time showing possibility and hope for the near future. Destruction Unit was sandwiched between Thursday’s openers Data Drums and its closers The Manateees, and Destruction Unit featured an absolute absence of screwing around, forcing our gaze toward panicked spiritscapes. Rousseau & Co. surfed the margins quickly into feedback phantasm, lending what seemed like crucial reinforcement to some otherworldly battle, which, from Memphis’s perspective, all made for an exhilarating sonic-spiritual ricochet. D-Unit dangerously bounced their balls-out three-ax attack off the dialectic void back into the Bucc’s band space, and several gig-goers expressed real amazement afterward that the walls of the joint were still intact. The Destruction Unit leader was proud once again to be back in the city where he’d begun his days as a post-Wongs rock’n’roller under the tutelage of his best friend and mentor Jay Reatard, who, with Alicja Trout of course, once rounded out the original Destruction Unit lineup. Rousseau, dedicating to Jay a song he’d written for his old friend, made it clear into the mic that his return was something of a struggle for him – and how could it not be? The D-Unit 5 wailed on for a half hour, leaving us wanting more and doubting not. It was dark and frantic in the Bucc at that hour, though the good Brandi Rinks managed this photo of a D-Unit kneeling noiseprayer:
Some have noted a significant change in the D-Unit’s sound since the lineup changes in recent years, and you can hear it on the newer recordings — a “krautier” sound. I wouldn’t call their live show kraut rock, though I wouldn’t call it simple freakout either (not that anyone has called it that). Rousseau’s vocals broadly range from a bluesy tenor down to an Englishy, gothy baritone, and his chord structures range from the Floydian epic — a pole explored in greater depth in the 2012 Discover solo LP (the one he gave me, which I’ve listened to twice and dig) — to punkier playing, as the two other D-Unit guitarists and a bassist add tube-driven layers atop fevered drumming. Destruction Unit’s Nov. 1 show at the Buccaneer sounded more like Puffy Areolas than the psyched out kraut rock in the band’s more recent recordings, though in any case the 2011 Sonoran album is worth hearing, and owning.
All bands playing the Bucc last Thursday had a common thread worth talking about: They each featured members who collaborated with Jay Reatard. Of course Ryan Rousseau was the bassist for The Reatards and the leader of D-Unit, but in addition, Manateees leader Abe White drummed in The Oscars with singer/guitarist Chuck Vicious, who now leads Data Drums, the band that opened the Buccaneer show on Nov. 1 with a smart set of post-punk-flavored rock. According to the Goner online store, Jay was an unofficial bassist for The Oscars (c.f.), and his playing is credited in this awesome Oscars vid. (Were there other bands in which all these folks played together? Probably. If I’m missing some scene-historical aspect worth talking about please let me know. Is this game called six-degrees-of-Jay-Reatard? Or perhaps slap-the-yapper?)
I should say I greatly appreciate the years of hard work that Jay Reatard put into his music, because I like to listen to it, and, if for no other reason, then because it has obviously opened so many creative and social horizons for the people he knew and the people they know. I didn’t know Jay, so it’s not difficult for me to talk about him as a historical or spiritual influence, though I know it hasn’t been easy for his friends and family. On the positive side, and I think we must look for one, I for one imagine that Jay would be glad to see his old bandmates and friends making music worth getting rowdy to.
I don’t, for instance, have the time here for a full discussion of The Manateees — though I’d be glad to write one for this publication, because they deserve it. I’m not sure if they’re the best band in Memphis, as someone claimed at Gonerfest 8 (does Alicja Trout still live in Memphis?), but Abe White’s lyrics, replete with teenage frustration and fully grown misanthropy, combine with the airtight rhythm section of drummer Charlotte Watson and bassist Keith Hall for a punk experience that, in context of genre, is as pure as you’ll get in Memphis. As far as lyrics go, off the top of my head consider the lines, “Tonight I want to shoot someone, / Tonight I want to start a fight,” as honest Abe sings. And as is oft-repeated, another song of theirs, “Wolf Creek,” and maybe it’s the same song, is about murdering someone and throwing the corpse in the river. (I also fondly recall Abe saying to some fans over the PA at a Gonerfest 9 afterparty, “Get the hell away from me!” <3)
But if The Manateees are the best band around, it has to be the energy of their badass and flawless rhythm section that affords them that status; Charlotte and Keith make up for the absence of vocal melody in this way, as Abe is mostly a screamer — which is great, because there’s plenty to scream about. Keith has mentioned that the ‘Teees’ recent recordings at Jack Oblivion’s place should yield a number of forthcoming singles on different labels throughout the land if all goes as planned. Look for one on Goner I would imagine, and possibly another on Tic-Tac-Totally, he said.
As for Chuck Vicious’s Data Drums project, which once featured Abe White on drums and Alicja Trout on keys, I think we’re right to call them “post-punk” insofar that Vicious’s uniquely technical guitar work combines rock chords and scalar nerdiness atop funk drums and unwavering bass guitar, all below a goth-pop vocal style that sounds like so many bands from 1981. Gonerfest 9’s Saturday night afterparty PA levels spoiled me, so I was frustrated on Nov. 1 with my failure to better understand Rousseau and Vicious’s lyrics, respectively. (I know some of the Manateees’ lyrics already.) I’m also frustrated that I was too wrecked to write down the names of the other band members, but I can say that Data Drums’ set last week had bass and no keys, with some tight adventure-rock arrangements.
When Chuck missed a section change in his only noticeable messup of the night, it was cool to see him ask the band to play that part of the song again so we could get the full effect. Some of the wackiness that fans of Jay Reatard or The Oscars may have come to enjoy shines through in Data Drums’ arrangements, and seemingly in their lyrics too (did I hear something about pastries?); at one point the drummer left the kit to helm a hacked Gameboy: unnecessary, therefore fun. Apparently Data Drums are set to play with some other great bands Saturday, Nov. 10 at The Lamplighter in Memphis.
I think one reason I love Memphis music is that I’m such a lover of the electric guitar, and so many shows have a guitarist doing something interesting — Chuck Vicious is a prime example of this. The Nots‘ show at the Goner store last Friday, Nov. 2, just as well featured Natalie Hoffman playing her own bluesnoise style, and she made me regret not seeing her play more with bassist Carly Blackwell, with whom she and Nots drummer Charlotte Watson (same person as mentioned above) obviously share a locked-in chemistry. As for Blackwell, she is/was the best bassist I’ve heard on the Memphis DIY scene, what with her free-as-Entwhistle-while-never-leaving-the-pocket style. It sucks that she’s leaving town (for Phoenix?) for whatever reason, though whatever she’s doing I hope she gets with a group that knows how to play as well as Bake Sale and The Nots, or, selfishly, that she comes the hell back to this area.
Before The Nots last Friday of course was the J.B. Horrell-fronted Moving Finger, which I also hope to write more about soon, since J.B. was nice enough to give me a cassette of theirs at the last Gonerfest, and since his guitar style is also something to see (!) and hear: It’s less melodic than Natalie Hoffman’s guitar playing and probably more blatantly derivative of Richard Hell or whomever, and that’s just perfect . I know his guitar playing suits fine his and Hoffman’s other band, Ex-Cult, though his playing in Moving Finger is more chordal, this perhaps by necessity, since he’s the only guitarist in the band. I can’t wait to hear Ex-Cult’s new Ty Seagall-produced LP, and I can’t wait to find more good in these parts. Long live Jay Reatard and long live rock’n’roll.
Note: The Goner online store lists at least a few items containing Chuck Vicious’s music, including some stuff by The Oscars.