In the Old Testament book of young Nashville bands, there are many tangled connections. "And MEEMAW begat Heavy Cream and PUJOL, who from King Arthur begat Bully, and MEEMAW also begat Kintaro, who begat Natural Child. Later, Heavy Cream's ex-drummer — who was neither their first drummer, nor their last — did drum for PUJOL, and it was good ... "
Through the rotating lineup of his band, The Jets, Chris Denney is a long-lived branch in this gnarled family tree: PUJOL frontman Daniel Pujol and Natural Child co-frontman Wes Traylor were Denney's sidemen early on, and brotherly rhythm section Joey and Evan Scala were backing him up before they started Promised Land Sound. But while JEFF the Brotherhood, Turbo Fruits and others have taken the national and international spotlight along with our fair Music City, Denney and the Jets have yet to get their due. Previous lineups trickled out a couple of singles and an excellent five-song EP, but outside of the local circle, little notice was taken.
That may be about to change, thanks to D and the Js' debut full-length. Two independent labels, Miami's Limited Fanfare and L.A.'s Burger Records, have pooled their resources to issue Mexican Coke, a 10-song slab of the raucous Chuck Berry-meets-Stones-and-Velvets ethos that has been Denney's hallmark from the beginning. There's a big helping of rock 'n' roll, with muscular, sharp-toothed guitars and Denney's country drawl out front, but there's also a strong emphasis on groove from vintage R&B and other members of the family known to incite a boogie.
Intimately familiar with this sound, recent Brooklyn-to-Nashville transplants Clear Plastic Masks are a natural fit in their role as The Jets on this album. Natural Child guitarist Seth Murray also supplies some riffage to "Mama's Got the Blues," a shuffle-step rocker in the vein of the Stones' "Slave" that ends all too soon. Producer-engineer Andrija Tokic — who's worked regularly with both Denney and CPM, as well as Grammy nominees Alabama Shakes — recorded and mixed Coke at his East Side analog studio The Bomb Shelter. As with previous Bomb Shelter projects, setting aside digital recording technologies and new-school production techniques helps Mexican Coke easily find a home on the shelf between Beggars Banquet and Sticky Fingers.
Just as there is no shortage of bands that can do a great Rolling Stones impression, songs that tell the stories of violent men and damaged women with grace and eloquence are not uncommon. However, Denney's writing takes a different path — not that different from the one taken by Jagger and Richards themselves in songs like "Let It Bleed" and "Stray Cat Blues." He stares these folks right in the decaying, snaggle-toothed grin and asks them for a dance. Seeking out dignity in the depths of despair is one kind of respect, but Denney's catalog — populated by meth-addled beauty queens, Oxycontin dealers and insecure guys who beat in their girlfriends' faces while insisting "That's really not the kind of man I am" — offers an unvarnished look at lives of the less fortunate that our romanticizing can ignore.
Even the tender songs have a dark streak. With the rest of the record for context, affection in the '50s-teen-pop ballad "Darlin' " turns to possessive jealousy. "Runnin' Through the Woods," an apology to a wayward sibling, friend or cousin whose death is indirectly down to the singer's bad influence, is ultimately unrepentant, closing with, "Still, we had our fun." The semiautobiographical sing-along "Pain Pills" sets up a "don't judge me and I won't judge you" argument that implicitly illustrates a pretty nihilistic thought process.
In the end, you can take Mexican Coke as a philosophical undertaking or a candidate for rock 'n' roll party record of the year, or let it stand for both. In any case, it goes down great with a shot of rum.
Order Mexican Coke via Burger Records.
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