A pair of musical
savants reclaim and resurrect the city’s rich pop legacy as originally forged
by Big Star et al.
BY STEPHEN DEUSNER
music history extends not just deep, but broad. In addition to the early rock
sounds of Sun Records, the soul of Hi and Stax Records, the snarling lo-fi rock
of the Grifters and the Oblivians, and even the nasty hip-hop of Three-Six
Mafia, the city has a strong pop legacy, with bands as cult-big as Big Star and
the Scruffs or as obscure as any of the garage-bound acts playing the frat
circuit during the ‘60s. Since then, the form has been taken up by different
artists over the years, including two performers who have spent nearly a decade
playing Bluff City clubs: J.D. Reager, who has performed with a variety of acts
over the years, is finally releasing his solo debut, and Bret Krock, who toiled
with the power trio Eighty Katie earlier this decade, is make his own debut as
Good Luck Dark Star.
The obvious touchstone for Reager is Matthew Sweet; his vocals
on opener “Water” recall the Midwestern singer/songwriter/Winona fan very
closely, but where Sweet has his head in the past, Reager’s is, well, somewhere
else. The Repechage (Makeshift; www.makeshiftmusic.com) crackles
with ideas and ambience. “Panic,” which shows off Reager’s upper register,
two-steps its lament against a guitar that wants to be a bagpipe, and “I Can’t
Decide” pogos on a spiky chorus and a needling organ that wants to get to the
next song. Venturing into lite-country territory, “Knoxville Song” is
nudged gently along by Tim Regan’s lap steel. The stand-out here may be
“No One Wants to Know,” which glides on a patient, pointed guitar theme and fluidly
segues into Justin Jordan’s outta-nowhere sax solo that may be the album’s
best, most devastating moment. There’s grit and dirt in these songs – what
sounds like lived experiences rather than pop constructs.
That there are more obvious historical precedents in Krock’s
first album as Good Luck Dark Star shouldn’t diminish his accomplishment on You’ll Need It, which was originally
self-released but is getting a wider digital release via local label Shangri-La
With energy to spare, Eighty Katie devoted itself to heart-on-sleeve pop songs
about unattainable girls and the Who’s Meaty
Beaty Big & Bouncy. GLDS has more to do with life’s harsher
disappointments and ELO’s Out of the Blue.
He’s not just making the old sound new, but space-age: Especially on the
lower-key second side, Kevin Cubbins’ production is airy and open, creating a
roomy ambience for Krock’s layered vocals and some melodies inherited from
Chris Bell. Softer, keys-based songs like “Good Luck and “Phenomenology” sound
weightless, while the guitars on “Mirror Ball” and “Last Hurrah” sound
jet-propelled. “Map of the Sun,” with its arcing George Harrison guitars, is
immediately catchy but only deceptively sunny: That chorus will stick with you
for days until you realize how heartbreaking it is. Like Reager, Krock is using
pop’s energy and effervescence to explore darker ideas about isolation and
emotional drift. Every night he tells himself he is the cosmos.
Ultimately, both of these albums have ideas to spare and
songs that never quite go where you expect, which only makes them more
rewarding with each listen. That neither sound like any of their Memphis peers or
forebears only makes the sound even more Memphian.