With the potent, pliant vocals of Kelly Hogan leaping over slap bass, brush-stick drumming and acoustic guitar, the Jody Grind brought rocked-up energy and attitude to a pre-rock era sound. The Atlanta trio’s debut, One Man’s Trash Is Another Man’s Treasure, is steeped in a be-bop, swing and jump blues vibe, with credible interpretations of a wide range of 20th century non-rock tunes: Henry Mancini’s “Peter Gunn,” Duke Ellington’s “Mood Indigo,” the Gershwins’ “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” Even the band’s originals, ranging from the hard-swinging “Eight-Ball” to the jug-band blues “My Darlin’,” wouldn’t have sounded out of place in a 1940s speakeasy. Fortunately, Hogan has enough vocal gusto and the band plays with enough snap and humor to make this more than just gimmicky revivalism — but just barely.
The Jody Grind expanded to a quartet for Lefty’s Deceiver, adding bassist Robert Hayes to the original lineup of Hogan, Bill Taft (guitar) and Walter Brewer (drums). The moodier, slightly darker and more textured sound — fleshed out with pedal steel, mandolin (played by R.E.M.’s Peter Buck) and additional percussion by producer Michael Blair — makes the debut seem quaint by comparison. Such superb originals as the atmospheric “3rd of July” comprise the bulk of the album, and the band successfully attempts straight-ahead rock for the first time on “Hands of June” and “Superhero”; “Lounge Ax” blends power chords with jazzy rhythms. Hogan’s agile singing again makes the biggest impression, but it’s the title of a swinging little instrumental, “Blues for the Living,” that underlines the band’s determined transition into the now.
Just as the Jody Grind should have been celebrating this triumph, the band was shattered by the deaths of Hayes and new drummer Robert Clayton in a car crash in April 1992. Taft wound up joining Smoke; Hogan next turned up playing spelunker guitar and doing crazed out-back vocals in the Rock*A*Teens, a souped-up reverb-guzzling jalopy fronted by yelping singer/guitarist Chris Lopez (ex-Opal Foxx Quartet). The quartet’s eponymous album, produced by David Barbe with single-minded purpose — using echo as a blurring tool the way other bands rely on distortion — is spring-delayed into a different time zone. If that leaves cool tunes like “Down With People,” “Picks Her Teeth” and “Who Killed Bobby Fuller?” lagging behind the sonic frenzy, the swampy tension thus created gives the album a powerful hallucinatory dimension.
On her own, Hogan wears a less distracting habit: The Whistle Only Dogs Can Hear is a casual and sincere record that presents her as a versatile, confident, personable singer and (with help from Taft) songwriter. Rather than fix on a single style here, Hogan uses her light stylistic touch, strong voice, sensitive band support and some smart, arcane covers to tap into country (“Lucky Nights”), acoustic folk (Vic Chesnutt’s “Soft Picasso”), swanky blues (Dairy Queen Empire’s “Do Right”), chamber pop (“Map”), New Orleans soul (“Nothing Takes the Place of You,” a song by Toussaint McCall included on the Hairspray soundtrack) and ragged indie-rock (“Feel Good Hit”) — all without seeming indecisive. Good one.
Hogan left after a second Rock*A*Teens joint, and took up her solo career in earnest, working at times with the Mekons collective in Chicago, where she had relocated. The Rock*A*Teens continued on as a trio.