During an immensely productive five-year span, Knoxville, Tennessee’s JudyBats (or Judy Bats, or Judybats; the band was inconsistent) distinguished itself as one of the most consistently tuneful and articulate alt-pop outfits to emerge from the South since R.E.M. and Let’s Active awakened interest in the region’s homegrown music. Despite a major-label deal and strong fanbases in places like Chicago and Baltimore, the band never really emerged from the college rock ghetto to the wider acclaim that they deserved.
Much of Native Son’s initial appeal lies in the ringing guitars of “Daylight” and the title track, provided by Ed Winters. If that was all the band had, though, they might have been a Southern-fried Ocean Blue. It’s really Jeff Heiskell’s remarkable singing and bittersweet lyrics that distinguish the record — “Incognito” provides an elegant précis of a relationship that can’t quite be publicly acknowledged, and “Convalescing in Spain” and “Don’t Drop the Baby” address fear and desire with both grace and humor. Heiskell came out as gay in small-town Tennessee early in his musical career, and his lyricism often addresses both defiant pride in his Southernness and the intrinsic vulnerability of being exposed. There’s also a brilliant cover of Roky Erickson’s “She Lives (In a Time of Her Own),” whose slightly unhinged psychedelic tunefulness is a useful template for the band. Acoustic guitarist Johny Sughrue also contributes the finely wrought “Perfumed Lies.”
Two CD singles provided the memorable B-sides “When Southern Belles Ring (Here Comes X-Mas),” which still receives airplay on alternative rock stations in late December, and a cover of Gary Numan’s “Cars,” from the single for “Daylight.”
Down in the Shacks Where the Satellite Dishes Grow isn’t as strong a record, but provides room for growth, especially in the artful acoustic guitar soloing and gorgeous choruses of “Lullaby – Weren’t We Wild.” “Saturday” is a Walter Mittyesque portrait of a man living in a dream world to escape the mundane reality of work, a girlfriend and college football. Heiskell’s songwriting is convincingly elegant — the album’s opening lyric is “This is our story / and it’s a short one / But it’s a hard harsh read / Between the lines a little aching need.” But the band is also periodically hilarious — you can’t listen to “Margot (Known as Missy” without grinning at the tale of fleeing small-town Tennessee for cooking school in Manhattan. Continuing the clever cover selections, the JudyBats do the Kinks’ “Animal Farm.”
The JudyBats hit their peak on Pain Makes You Beautiful, a 12-track meditation on love, loving, loss and the phases between. Paul Noe joined the band on bass; between his contributions and those of Winters, Sughrue and Heiskell, the musicianship is at a consistently high caliber, and the songwriting is tremendously diverse. Witness the band’s range, from the delightful double-time romp “Ugly on the Outside,” in which Heiskell mercilessly dissects the object of his affection as someone too plain to be seen with in public, to the spiralling pop song “La Dulcinea,” to the gently strummed “Being Simple.” For Heiskell and the JudyBats, love can be “Scarlett down the stairs”; “Every torture I put you through”; “Parceled out like oxygen / Everywhere but very thin”; an “endless parade of mimes”; or, possibly, “Pure light pure delight pure delight.” A remarkably articulate and persuasive record.
Full-Empty rounded out the band’s stint at Sire. The lyrics are even more pervasively grim, but the melodies on “What We Lose” and “Don’t Wait for Me” are superb. The dominant theme is regret over a poorly ended relationship, although glimmers of sunlight poke through. The album is a gorgeous bummer of the sort that doesn’t get made frequently: “Drought” and “Stoned” are achingly melodic and just as mournful.
The band went on extended hiatus and members emerged in Doubters Club and the Opposable Thumbs. None of their releases show much of the spark that animated the collective work of the JudyBats. But somewhat surprisingly, Heiskell reformed the band with new members, including brothers Doug and Mike Hairrell on guitar and drums, to release Judybats ’00 on the eve of the new millennium. The tone here is urgent, with an unaccustomed electric drive. Not only does Heiskell name-drop My Bloody Valentine in one lyric, the blurry pop fuzz and wash of electric guitar on a few songs seems to draw from old Bats and Straitjacket Fits records. The aggressive pop squall here is less variegated than any of the first four albums, but Heiskell is still the dominant voice as lyricist and singer. His elegant, slightly haughty tone remains, as does his love for an articulate turn of phrase or sly bit of wordplay. On the best songs (including “Always”), Heiskell turns the nostalgia that’s a recurrent theme in his songs — “The places that we used to love, torn down / Anachronistic me, another footnote to this town” — toward a wry optimism or a whimsical self-examination. “Hiding From the Face of God” is an alarming coming-out anthem in which Heiskell dissects an affair with haiku-like brevity: “No saving grace / With each embrace one hand / goes to pull the blinds.” The record closes with “Full Forward Angel,” an elegaic farewell for a dying lover, and it has the memorable melodicism and sense of grace that the best JudyBats songs always had.
In recent years Heiskell has re-assembled the band on an ad hoc basis for touring, with the Hairrells as well as original member Johnny Sughrue.