Maybe it’s something in the water (or the barbecue sauce), but Memphis has made a habit of spawning folks — from Alex Chilton to this wry foursome — with a metaphysically skewed notion of what makes pop really, well, pop. Like Guided by Voices, the Grifters portend the graying of indie-rock. Weaned on ’60s Top 40, sustained by the punk revolution of the ’70s and allowed to flourish in the lo-fi environs of the ’90s, the Grifters have enough historical perspective to pirate the spoils from the good ship classic rock while leaving the fool’s gold behind.
Initially known as A Band Called Bud (a name they eventually hypothesized might cause a lawsuit on the behalf of the Clydesdale-borne brewmasters), the group issued a cassette and, as the Grifters, a pair of undistinguished EPs marked by ardent Sonic Youth worship and a hazy grasp of song form. But after further seclusion in their flower-shop practice space — perhaps the best use of a cooler since Ed Gein — they re-emerged, covered in tape hiss and prepared to apprise the world about the trials and tribulations of the over-educated under-employed Dixie intellectual.
So Happy Together, which does exactly that, is a bit overbearing in its negativity, but songs like the droning “Hate” (a litany of antipathies that basks in self-loathing) glean their subtext from the stirring interplay between guitarists Dave Shouse and Scott Taylor. Although the Grifters go out of their way to underscore the artifice of recording — dropping in audible tape splices and count-offs, thereby upping the pretense level plenty — there’s enough emancipating squall on pieces like “Love Explosion” to make up for that. The band lowers the octane a degree on One Sock Missing, focusing on the underlying lo-fi “charm” of its agreeably shambling soft-focus songs and burying the pulsing bass of Tripp Lamkins, which is the crux of the band’s best material. It’s not an altogether misguided approach, but Shouse and Taylor (who split vocals) often slip into a laconic saunter that’s a little too close for comfort to Pavement frontman Stephen Malkmus’ slacker slump.
While that likeness is again audible on stretches of Crappin’ You Negative, the Grifters manifest their Southern roots more clearly in dark, inscrutable parcels of Americana like “Skin Man Palace” (which is kicked into high gear by the bug-eyed shout with which Shouse proclaims himself “the Mambo King”) as well as the hyperventilating spazz-blues “Holmes.” Yes, quirkiness does factor into the equation on wheel — spinning digressions like “Get Outta That Spaceship & Fight Like a Man,” but the bulk of Crappin’ You Negative sounds like the product of some sort of bizarro-world psychic union between Jerry Lee Lewis and Flannery O’Connor. The Eureka EP furthers the band’s survey of Dixiana: although they never inject more than a molecule or two of identifiably “country” content into their sound, songs like “Whatever Happened to Felix Cole?” and “Founder’s Day Parade” crawl along the underside of the psyche with the uniquely Southern persistence of kudzu vines.
The thoroughly engrossing Ain’t My Lookout continues that thread, even going so far as to excavate the customarily buried drumming of Stanley Gallimore — which adds a firewater boost to most of the better-recorded songs. The positive effect of the tension between warped meditations (the scenester-phobic “Boho/Alt”) and more immediately infectious compositions (the doo-wop dada-fest “Mysterious Friends”) is palpable, but not distracting. Each gauntlet a member lays down gets picked up and carried to new realms, making Ain’t My Lookout as much fun to hear as it clearly was to make.
Hot Monkey is Taylor’s nom de doodle; the friendly Lion is a full no-fi dose of his late-’80s homebrew noises and loosely transcribed songs, some of which (at least “Arizona”) wound up as full-fledged (er…) Griftertunes.