Ragged But Right

Memphis 59

Independent release, 2009


REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


“Americana” has become such a broad genre descriptor that you almost have to go deeper when describing music that falls within its wide boundaries.  Yes, the Arlington, Virginia trio Memphis 59 plays rootsy, verse-chorus-verse alt-country-rock, but what do they sound like?  How about Steve Earle and the Jayhawks?  Paul Westerberg and the Mavericks?  Tom Petty & the Old 97s?  Or this: honky-tonky rock n’ roll with a twang around the edges that adds depth and character to these songs.

On this strong debut disc, the considerable talents of vocalist-guitarist Scott Kurt, drummer Chris Zogby and bassist Richard G. Lewis are supplemented by a pair of seasoned pros from Mary Chapin Carpenter’s band – John Jennings produces and plays guitar and Hammond organ, and Jon Carroll contributes piano and Wurlitzer.  The end result is exactly as Jennings described it when he inadvertently gave this album its name – my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 Ragged But Right.

Opener “Me, Myself And Eyes” set the tone beautifully, an earnest, clever rocker in which Kurt wraps his dusty yet forceful voice around a lyric that dares to pun successfully in the service of an urgent falling-in-love narrative.  From there the album is populated with foot-tapping rockers (“Black And White TV,” “Hotel Room,” “Killing Time”) that churn with dynamic changes, tight solos and satisfying payoffs, alternating with quietly appealing laments (“Way With Words,” “Putting Up A Fight”). 

Fresh colors come to the music by way of choices like the slide guitar that lights up the loping, rather Allman Brothers-ish “Knock Me Out” and the jangle-licious, catchy-as-all-get-out “Gone,” with its signature line “Don’t be rough on an easy heart / ’Cause baby, I was gone right from the start.”

The alt-country influence is apparent in lines like the above and song titles like “Heartbreak Luck,” “Girl At The End Of The Bar” (better than it sounds) and “Quit Kickin’ My Heart Around.”  The latter is actually only the third-most-obvious Petty reference here, after you get past the group’s focus on jangly, propulsive hooks inside arrangements that feel tight and loose all at once, and the “American Girl” homage that opens “Hotel Room.”

Jennings is the perfect producer for Memphis 59, adding complementary flourishes to their spare arrangements while respecting and embracing the spacious, beautiful rawness at the core of their sound.  The thing about this sort of earnest Americana is that it can come off as contrived unless the songs are both very strong and performed with complete conviction.  Here, they are.

Ragged But Right is that and more – a showcase for one of the strongest new alt-country/roots-rock acts to come along in many years.  Memphis 59 has got the songs, got the sound and got the conviction and chops to back it all up.

Rating: A-

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