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500 Miles to Memphis – BLESSED BE THE DAMNED
Genre: Cowpunk, Alt-Country
Favorite Tracks: “Hold on Tight,” “I Said Babe,” “Blessed Be the Damned,” “Piggie Boy”
Seven months ago I moved to Los Angeles away from my home of seven years, Orange County. I’ve now been here long enough that when people ask me how I like living in L.A. or, more specifically, how I like living in L.A. in contrast to Orange County, I have pretty concrete answers. When approaching the topic of things I miss, beyond the craft beer and the parking and the pace of living and the community I’d built for myself over the formative years of my life, I’ve realized something else I oddly miss: the dive bar. In Los Angeles, the “dive” bar is frequently commodified, always lacking in either history, grunge, cheapness, or danger, and frequently some combination of the four. In Orange County, the dive bar can be sacred. There’s one down the road from you, there are locals who seem to have never left, the drinks are cheap and the toilets disgusting, and the stories, whether you’ve lived them or not, are apparent.
BLESSED BE THE DAMNED, like X, Social Distortion, the Knitters, and the other legends who used to frequent the speakers of my local Orange County dives, embodies this experience. Over a decade-and-a-half into their careers, journeyman alt-country rockers 500 Miles To Memphis have made a record that both feeds on and rejects that burnout townie energy, fusing bouncing, rockabilly punk anthems with cowpunk rippers seven shots of well tequila deep. Where as past releases from the band have leaned a bit more into the lighter elements of their alt-country sound (re: the bending twang of “Broken, Busted, Bloody,” the piano stomp of “Cheers,” the bluesy pop of “By Accident”), BLESSED BE THE DAMNED is mostly a hootin’, hollerin’ blitz, with songs that double down on the punk elements of their sound, most notably through the recording of the drums. Opener “The River” begins with what could be a traditional Southern blues anthem, with its hand clapping accent of a singular drum beat and a chorus of tired voices coming together, the start of what could be a sweaty, chain gang R&B track. Quickly the drums gallop in, and the rush with which they enter serves as a sonic precursor for the rest of the record. What follows is a series of fast-paced bombs, from the snarling ‘90s pop rock of “Hold on Tight” to the pick-a-long strings and staggering punk drops of “In My Chest,” not to mention some serviceable Bad Religion-worship on “Save Me,” the dazzling psychobilly growl of “Piggie Boy,” and as good a SONS OF ANARCHY theme as we’ve heard in a minute in the title track (for real, Kurt Sutter, consider it). Our only return to something resembling simplicity is closer “I’m A Bastard,” a dusty mid-tempo ballad that could admittedly strip itself down to yield more effective emotional results but instead builds into a pretty rousing conclusion that sonically and passionately matches the defiance found in the rest of the record. You don’t hear a lot of what 500 Miles To Memphis are cooking up on BLESSED BE THE DAMNED anymore given it’s a sound still mostly coming from those who helped pioneer it in the first place. With its tattooed swagger, tequila-laden vision of bluegrass, alt-country, and punk, and it’s obvious ‘90s worship, it not only reminds me so much of Orange County and those formative bars I once drank in, but it could be a stand-in for any of those musical interludes. Give BLESSED BE THE DAMNED a listen on Bandcamp.
The Smarthearts – ON THE LINE
Genre: Power Pop
Favorite Tracks: “Only a Name,” “Let Us In,” “Dry Your Eyes,” “Make My Misery”
It’s kind of weird how much we demand something different from the solo or side project. I mean, I get it: If someone gave you a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with white bread, and then gave you one with wheat bread trying to sell you something new, the difference for many is so negligible you’d be right to call bullshit. (Note: Before you doth protest, I know this analogy is flawed. The difference between white and wheat in regards to PB&J is absolutely huge for many, myself included, but out there somewhere is some mom who is going to be saying to herself “Wheat is just like white bread but better for you, you can’t taste that much of a difference,” and so while that’s fucking bullshit, I suppose this review is dedicated to them.) But ON THE LINE, the debut from The Smarthearts, really is the white to Sheer Mag’s wheat. Guitarist Matt Palmer’s side project is, in many ways, a superior version of the Sheer Mag we saw in their rushed debut NEED TO FEEL YOUR LOVE, and that Palmer delivers an eerily similar male version of Tina Halladay’s ferocious party growl is nearly unbelievable. While NEED TO FEEL YOUR LOVE lacked the dance party pop of those early, promising singles, ON THE LINE delivers a pretty fleshed-out version of that sound, still carrying with it the classic rock by-way-of Philly DIY that people were so intrigued by early in Sheer Mag’s career while nailing the ebbs, flows, and memorable hooks required for a full-length record. Notably the mid-tempo tracks here work splendidly; elevated to a place of blissful excitement by Palmer’s gruff, lo-fi vocals; tracks like “Dry Your Eyes” and “Without Violence” aren’t just memorably good, but are nice breakups to ON THE LINE’s frequent bursting at the seams punk rock. Nothing has yet delivered on the promise of Sheer Mag’s early singles (notably “Can’t Stop Fighting” and “Worth The Tears,” two of 2016s finest) but at the end of the day, The Smarthearts are quite literally doing the same thing and that’s absolutely fine; the novelty of hearing this sound has yet to wear off, and if you’re not having fun with opener “Only a Name,” we’re not friends. Check out ON THE LINE on Bandcamp.