THE YEAR IN REVIEW: Twelve albums released by local artists in 2012 you need to own
By Steve Wildsmith (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Marquee names and big ticket shows are well and good, but it’s the working men and women of an area’s music scene that gives it life and vitality.
Many of East Tennessee’s most talented bands will never headline Thompson-Boling Arena or score a No. 1 Billboard hit, but they can and do entertain thousands of people throughout the course of their careers. They play in area bars and clubs for the simple joy of it, and when they scrape up enough money to cut an album, they do so for the same reason.
Here are 12 essential albums that any self-respecting East Tennessee music lover should have in his or her collection. It’s by no means a comprehensive list of all of the albums released by local musicians, and it’s exclusivity is meant as no slight toward those not on this list. In fact, you can pretty much take it from us: If there’s a show by a local band, be it at a Neyland Stadium or in a dog house, we’re gonna recommend you go, support and enjoy.
And while you’re there, pick up a record.
Jack Rentfro and The Apocalypso Quartet, “Damascus By Sundown”
Spoken-word genius from a guy whose arsenal is rapier-sharp. There’s certainly no shortage of danceable grooves and generous portions of fun as well. “Elvis Limousine,” for example, combines both, with a rockabilly stutter-step weaving behind Rentfro’s fantasies of driving The King’s ride; “We Are the Boat” channels sunny grooves and jammy hooks around Rentfro’s wink-nudge backhanded commentary (“Was Eisenhower the last good Republican?”). But Rentfro traffics best in cryptic spirituality (the Middle Eastern soul of album opener “Benediction”) and lines drawn in the sand. (The best line in the song “Things That Ain’t Funny”: “Ayn Rand was a lousy writer, even worse when the entitled talk about her ...”)
The Black Cadillacs, “Run”
Although it’s only two years removed from the band’s debut album “All Them Witches,” “Run” sounds as if The Black Cadillacs has jammed a couple of decades worth of living into that time. Front man Will Horton moans and howls like a voodoo priest with a pocketful of bones collected from the graves old blues men; the other guys, bolstered by local singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Kevin Hyfantis, build this monstrous wall of sound that draws on The Black Keys, My Morning Jacket and The White Stripes in equal measure.
The Dirty Guv’nahs, “Somewhere Beneath These Southern Skies”
With albums like this, is it any wonder the Guv’nahs have won Metro Pulse’s Best Knoxville Band category for five years running? “Somewhere Beneath These Southern Skies” is a bold record — not in terms of an abrupt shift of direction or a change in style, but in the emphatic nature of every song. If ever an album was meant for raised lighters, pumping fists and singing along as loud as possible without caring who’s staring at you from the adjacent car at the red light, it’s this one.
LiL iFFy, “Wand Ambition”
Harry Potter gangsta rap? Just trust us and go with it. Wil “LiL iFFy” Wright introduced East Tennessee to the concept a year ago with the album “Wandcore,” a gangsta rap record filled with references to the Harry Potter canon instead of thug life. And if “Wandcore” was a cherry red muscle car with a lift kit and a glass-shattering stereo, then “Wand Ambition” is a time-traveling Delorean that runs on nuclear fire. DJ Thomas “Tom Ato” Thibus’s beats sound like what the Taliban must hear before bunker buster munitions turn them into paste; Wright’s rhymes make the “Wandcore” version of iFFy sound as if he was on Ativan; the addition of the Magic Hu$tle crew on many of the tracks adds an us-vs.-them pack mentality that would make Wu-Tang Clan jealous. Novelty? Yes. Genius? Yes. Original and wonderful and crazy-fun? Yes, yes and yes.
The Theorizt, “Samurai Love Songs”
Knoxville’s answer to “The Roots” combines the way of the sword with the ways of the streets better than “Ghost Dog” did on this full-length debut. Hip-hop over live instrumentation is a thing of beauty unto itself, but the way the guys in The Theorizt go about it makes the band one of the best things to come out of East Tennessee’s urban scene in a while. This is so much more than a group of musicians bringing a couple of rappers on board to add a little color to the musical mix. This is a full-fledged unit of finely tuned warriors, bound by a common vision and determined to share it with all those who take the time to listen.
Mic Harrison & The High Score, “Still Wanna Fight”
A dense, meaty record that draws as much from The High Score catalog as it does from Harrison’s alt-country past or the Southern rock the two forces have made so well over the past four records. The lead-off track, “Don’t Change Your Plans,” sounds like something Harrison might have offered up during the sessions for the final Superdrag studio record, “Last Call for Vitriol.” “Rock and Roll Clothes,” featuring guitarist Robbie Trosper on lead vocals, would fit nicely on the next record by The High Score by their lonesome, and the manner in which it all comes together underscores the fact that Harrison and the boys are so much better together than they are apart.
The Lonetones, “Modern Victims”
Given that The Lonetones have trouble classifying their own sound, it’s better to tell you what listening to the band’s new album, “Modern Victims,” feels like: Plunging fingers into freshly tilled soil, imagining the possibilities of things that may soon grow. Finding a decades-old love letter beneath the floorboards of a mountain cabin. Watching the sun set behind distant hills, fingers intertwined with those of your beloved, knowing that sometimes making it through another day together is enough to assuage the aches of a scarred heart. It’s lush and vibrant and rich and earthy, at times playful and a little sad, but like so many things in the Knoxville music scene, wholly unique.
The Barstool Romeos, “Twisted Steel and Sex Appeal”
This record (recorded at Music Row Studios here in Maryville) won’t get an official release until early next year, but it’s already for sale online ... and you shouldn’t wait to get a copy. Songwriters Andy Pirkle (formerly of the punk outfit Speed Shifter) and Mike McGill (a founding member of The Drunk Uncles) have crafted a record that shifts easily between brokedown honky-tonk so genuine you can smell the smoke of unfiltered Pall Malls and spilled beer and country rock so authentic you’ll want to shoot your TV the next time one of those Nashville country-pop poseurs comes on it.
Kevin Abernathy, “Some Stories”
After some bruisers and brawlers on his previous rock ‘n’ roll albums, Kevin Abernathy strips down and gets a little introspective on his first singer-songwriter album. On the surface, it may seem like a stripped-down solo affair, but the little touches — strings, harmony vocals, gentle brush-drum padding — serve to elevate Abernathy’s words to a place of levity, wonder and observation that’s both poignant and thought-provoking. “Some Stories” proves that he’s one of the most versatile, and talented, members of the East Tennessee music scene.
Kelsey’s Woods, “One More Heart to Break”
It’s obvious on listening to “One More Heart to Break” that the restlessness of spirit and the compelling nature of the more shadowy parts of life tug at songwriter Dave Kennedy; what’s amazing is how Kennedy takes those things and writes such stellar songs, played so sweetly by himself, fiddler Shawna Cyphers and bassist Russ Torbett. “Americana” is a term so overused these days that it loses its effectiveness when describing good music, but it’s the only thing that fits this band. “One More Heart to Break” is the soundtrack to the American heart — restless, yearning, hungry, simmering with a little dread at the unknown highway ahead but anchored in the hope of what lies over the horizon.
Marina Orchestra, “Take on the Silence”
You’d be hard-pressed to find anything like Marina Orchestra elsewhere in East Tennessee. This tropically tinged pop-rock ensemble of 11 musicians is all about making fans dance and feel good, and “Take on the Silence” succeeds admirably. Hand claps, girl-group harmony vocals, swinging horns, calypso rhythms, sunny guitar riffs ... it’s a lot to throw into the mix, but it all works. The whole thing sounds like it should be a local release somewhere in South America, so beautiful and exotic is this record, which makes Marina Orchestra a shining example of what makes the local music scene so unique.
Kudzu, “Not Afraid”
As bar bands go, the Blount County-based Southern rockers in Kudzu are a cut above. Not only did they rock the big stage at the Foothills Fall Festival earlier this year, they put out a heck of a solid record back in the spring. From the Springsteen-esque feel of the blue-collar anthem “I Work,” which has been part of the Kudzu live set for more than a year now ... to the gritty rock of “Six Feet Closer,” which is as close as the guys will get to a murder ballad ... to the foot-stomping salute of “Waylon Jennings,” which picks up steam like a runaway train toward song’s end and lets the listener know there’s nothing formulaic about this band ... this is fun stuff, and even better to see performed live.