10 p.m. Sept. 3 at Exit/In
One of the most promising shows to come to Nashville in a while takes place this Monday, when Olympia, Wash.’s Unwound play Exit/In. The trio are currently touring in support of their seventh full-length release, Leaves Turn Inside You, a mature and self-aware record for a group whose previous six platters had already placed them at the top of the heap of underground rock bands. The album is the fruit of Unwound’s new in-house MagRecOne Studio, and it also marks their 10th anniversary.
Like Fugazi and to a lesser extent Sonic Youth, Unwound appeal both to dogmatic hardcore punk fans and to fans of Public Image Ltd.-inspired post-punk. But where Sonic Youth’s increasing tendency toward non-rock experimentation and Fugazi’s rigid politics have alienated segments of their audience, this younger group strikes an ideal balance. In perhaps the same way that Yo La Tengo create sugary, melodic riffs out of dissonant feedback, Unwound pursue their experimental impulse in visceral songs that possess a confident, linear physicality while sacrificing none of their brain-melting potential. Although they’re part of the well-known and well-documented Olympia scene (an adjunct to Seattle’s even better-known grunge scene), their sound is born out of a love of ’80s punk/hardcore bands such Minor Threat, Hüsker Dü, and Minutemen.
As its title implies, Unwound’s latest is an introspective work, but the members prefer to let the music do the talking. The album is filled with the contradictory impulses fans have come to expect, opening with stacked guitar feedback and keyboard harmonies before fading to a surprisingly clean-sounding guitar riff. The sound, more spacious than on previous releases, gives the band room to stretch out. Vern Rumsey’s bass is still subtle and as reliable as death, and Sara Lund’s superlative drumming is even more nuanced than on the group’s 1998 release, Repetition.
Endless touring has also given them the instrumental telepathy to impose convincing structures onto organic improvisations or extended jams. Freed from certain harmonic roles due to the addition of keyboards (by the band’s former drummer, Brandt Sardeno), and abetted by a rhythm section so tight you’d swear they were conjoined, guitarist Justin Trosper alternately plays straight and drapes sheets of expertly controlled feedback. The tautly written songs have been distilled to their essence with the help of longtime producer and extended band member Steve Fisk.
Leaves Turn Inside You is plain great and marks a giant leap forward for a band that were already ahead of the pack. But like Yo La Tengo, Sonic Youth, and Fugazi, Unwound are best experienced live. At the Exit/In, they’ll be joined on by Mobile, Ala., noise-rock quartet XBXRX, who have left local audiences thrilled, benumbed, angered, frightened, and downright pissed off after performances. Their main strengths are their unpredictability and their boundless energy. The other opening band, Drums & Tuba, provide a darker take on the instrumental-groove genre. So while they play it funky and free, they steer clear of the jam-band concessions that Medeski, Martin, and Wood have made to their own detriment. For more information about Monday’s show, call 321-4400.
Despite not having a new album issued during the voting period, Nashville bassist Victor Wooten was a winner in the prestigious 49th annual Down Beat Critics Poll. Wooten topped the balloting among electric bassists in the category Talent Deserving Wider Recognition. He also finished fourth in the established electric bassists balloting behind winner Steve Swallow, John Patitucci, and Christian McBrideall players with much bigger jazz profiles.
Wooten’s bandmate Bela Fleck finished second in the Miscellaneous Instrument category to the perennial champion, harmonica soloist Toots Thielemans. Fleck and the Flecktones also tied with the fusion group St. Germain for third in the category Beyond Album for Outbound. They finished sixth in the Electric Jazz Group voting.
Emmylou Harris’ Red Dirt Girl should have headed the list for Beyond Album, but it placed second to Steely Dan’s woefully overrated Two Against Nature. Harris came in fourth in the Beyond Artist listings, behind winner Caetano Veloso, vocalist/ trumpeter Olu Dara (a former TSU music student), and D’Angelo. More than 120 critics nationwide took part in the voting, with the participants largely being members of the jazz print and broadcast media.
Bluff City saga
Anyone who’s spent any time playing with a pickup band at home or in the family garage will enjoy Ron Hall’s Playing for a Piece of the Door: A History of Garage & Frat Bands in Memphis, 1960-1975 (Shangri-La Projects, $16.95). Hall spent three years researching and tracking down various Memphis bands. Some, like The Box Tops, Big Star, The Gentrys, and Butterscotch Caboose/Caboose, had a modicum of fame. Many others either only made a couple of singles and disbanded, cut a lone album, or never even got anything down on vinyl. Yet in many instances, these groups enjoyed local or regional fame and were celebrities for a fleeting moment before eventually turning to other careers.
While Hall occasionally makes some debatable statements (like when he says Big Star may have been more influential than Booker T. & the MG’s), his accounts make you want to go looking for many of these records. The book is also quite valuable as a social history of Memphis during this periodand to some extent, Nashville as well: Some groups, including Caboose, eventually came here to record, while racial politics may have affected Nashville bands much like they impacted Memphis acts. Hall contends Stax’s inability to promote white bands sabotaged some promising careers, while other groups simply couldn’t adapt to an environment where soul was the dominant genre. Still, this is no diatribe or invective, but a fan’s view of a period he dearly loves. Both the book and companion CD are highly recommended and available through Shangri-La Projects, P.O. Box 40106, Memphis TN 38174.
A book-signing/CD release party featuring Jim Dickinson and the Catmandu Quartet, The Guilloteens, The Rapscallions, The Castells, The Coachmen, Judy Love of The Goodees, BB Cunningham of The Hombres, and others takes place this Saturday in the parking lot of Shangri-La Records, 1916 Madison Ave., Memphis. For more information, call (901) 274-1916.
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