Playing on Prefix is a feature on KCRW’s Music Blog in which writers from the eclectic music site Prefix hip you to what’s coming out of their computer speakers each week.
It’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that music was a huge motivating factor in my decision to attend college in Memphis. My profound love of the Stax catalog, Big Star, rockabilly, and southern rap was enough to make me rethink getting the hell out of the South and take my 18-year-old self to the Bluff City instead.
But until I moved there, I had no idea Memphis’s musical tendrils had wound their way into garage rock.
It was an unexpected treat, and the longer I lived there, the more I found myself painstakingly listening my way through the backlog of singles and albums by bands like The Oblivions, The Neckbones, The Reigning Sound, and The Reatards (featuring the late great Jay himself).
I started spending a lot of time shopping at Goner Records’ retail store and Shangri-La, and I went to see tons of shows at the Hi-Tone and the Buccaneer. Not to get too misty-eyed here, but immersing myself in that genre circa age 19 (a formative point in the development of one’s musical tastes) was a real game-changer, setting into motion a long-standing love of shouted vocals and shitty production values.
Which is why I was pretty excited to pick up The Parting Gifts’ album Strychnine Dandelion in the fall. Consider this band to be something like a ’00s-era Memphis-garage-rock greatest-hits album, happening in real time. The Parting Gifts were born out of a collaboration between Greg Cartwright (frontman of The Reigning Sound) and Coco Hames (lead singer for The Ettes). The initial plan was to record a few tunes, but one song led to another and the pair produced an album’s worth of songs — the origin of Strychnine Dandelion.
Dandelion pulls from the best ‘60s tropes and the songwriting strengths of Cartwright and Hames to great effect. The result is an album that echoes the “supergroup” assemblage by piecing together some of the most redeeming aspects of Southern music.
You get psych-tinged garage rock, blues, and old-time country spaced across 15 shambling tracks, each of which balances grit and polish — an equilibrium vital to a pop song’s success, and a combination that sounds something akin to a homespun wall of sound. All of these elements cohere especially well on the album’s second and third tracks, “Bound To Let Me Down” and “Strange Disposition“:
An impressive guest list — including Dan Auerbach (The Black Keys), Patrick Keeler (The Greenhornes, The Raconteurs), and various members of both the Ettes and the Reigning Sound — fills out the band, and this backing power is used to great effect on the rollicking “My Mind’s Up” (bonus: Hames sounds a bit like a countrified Ronnie Spector):
Making an album that taps into nostalgia-laden genres can be dangerous: You run the risk of sounding stale, inauthentic, or like you’re trying too hard. But through a combination of genre patchwork and songwriting chops, Cartwright and Hames have evaded this trap. It’s a side project deserving of the spotlight — and for me, an excellent mental escape to Memphis.
— Susannah Young