Graded on a Curve:
Six from Black and Wyatt Records

We’ve commenced the second decade of the 21st century, and record labels still matter. This applies equally to enduring companies and recent upstarts, though the men behind newer enterprise Black and Wyatt Records, namely Dennis Black and Robert Wyatt, are longtime music fans. Based in Memphis, they transformed their shared love of attending live shows into a tandem effort to get some unheard hometown sounds into brick and mortar shops. The results, with the crucial exception of an archival 45 by The Heathens, all date from the 2000s, with full-lengths by Fingers Like Saturn, The Toy Trucks, Jack Oblivian, The Opossums, and a just-out 45 by Mario Monterosso surprisingly and satisfyingly varied. The whole discography is available now, and it’s reviewed below.

The release that has thus far thrown the brightest spotlight onto Black and Wyatt Records’ nascent activities is the outlier in the discography, “Steady Girl” by The Heathens, a group of five teenagers enrolled in Memphis’ East High School who cut two takes of their sole song at Memphis Recording Service (a.k.a. Sun Studio) four days after the Presley-Perkins-Lewis-Cash Million Dollar Quartet session (which dates from Dec. 8, 1956).

The song, co-written by 15-year old Colin Heath (his surname giving the band their moniker) caused a considerable if long belated stir, and was reviewed in TVD’s New in Stores column in March of last year, with its grade holding strong. The idea was floated (and persists) that “Steady Girl” was the earliest example of garage rock, which is understandable as the tune’s utterly nonfancy rhythmic thump is a component in the recipe of many future garage 45s.

But to my ear, the song, co-written by Heathens’ guitarist Kaye Garren (notably, an early gal in the R&R scene) is a wild and fun example of Memphis’ rockabilly bedrock crossed with the burgeoning youth music (aka Teen Beat) impulse. Issued in a sturdy and attractively designed picture sleeve with informative notes on the back, its historical importance is matched by its sheer oomph.

We’ll return to The Heathens below, but it’s necessary to delve into the meat of why Black and Wyatt Records matters, specifically their documentation of contemporary Memphis action that might’ve otherwise slipped through the cracks. This is especially true of their first release, the self-titled effort by Fingers Like Saturn, a band that existed from 2006-’08, but whose sound strikes me as impacted by/ derived from early ’80s melodic pop-rock.

A similarity to the college rock of that decade has been mentioned, and is surely extant, but their album’s opening track “Heaven,” partly due to the fully developed frontwoman swagger of Cori Dial, strikes my ear like the output of ambitious ’80s bands who honed their original songs in bars and cut their initial records for regional indies before being ushered into the major label lifestyle, however briefly, and by extension getting a taste of commercial FM radio play.

Fingers Like Saturn’s sound blends sophistication with toughness and heft that could win over the inevitable “I came here to drink” club denizens as the sax blowing of Suzi Hendrix intensifies the ’80s angle, though I don’t want to imply that the record is calculatingly throwing back to that era. There are additional motions suggesting the Alt rock ‘90s and numerous spots pointing to the heart of the ’00s, with these up-to-date passages occasionally blended with Memphis rock roots (think Chilton) and general neo-’60s-isms (e.g. “All Ages Show,” where Tom Petty meets up with Ted Leo).

Fingers Like Saturn’s highlights would’ve made a killer mini-LP, but altogether the set’s weak point is that the punch gets diminished by a duration that’s a smidge too long, and in fact longer as a digital album, with two bonus cuts. Complicating matters a bit is how the first of those, “Four Arms to Hold You,” is amongst the strongest tracks. Additionally, the vinyl download expands the ten-song total to 41 from demos sessions, including a visit to Sun Studios (the grade below pertains to the core record and its two extras).

The impression that lingers is of music deserving of its liberation from the realms of the unreleased, status it shares (with less hubbub) with The Heathens’ 45, which was Black and Wyatt’s second release. After that, the label delivered a nice twist with Jack Oblivian and the Dream Killers’ Lost Weekend, a collection of 16 home recordings, many of them featuring Jack all by his lonesome.

While remaining consistent with his garage punk background, Oblivian covers a lot of territory here, from psych guitar burn right off the bat in “CRO2,” to some drumbox driven movers, to glam-laced uprisings, to the bluesy horn-spiked “La Charra,” to “Guido Goes to Memphis,” which suggests an instrumental demo for a (purely fictitious) early ’70s album Tommy James cut at Ardent studios with Jim Dickinson producing, to some vaguely Seeds-like action (it’s in the keyboards), to a folky number that brings Dylan to mind. In closer “Loose Diamonds” there’s even a hint of Peter Laughner.

As a roundup of home recordings, Lost Weekend might not seem like the best introduction to the man’s work, but that’s up for strenuous debate, as the contents have made a deep enough impact that two labels other than Black and Wyatt, namely Ghost Highway Recordings in Spain and Beluga Records in Sweden, have dished out their own editions (completists should be aware that the Euro pressings feature one different cut). What’s for sure is that I’m utterly jazzed to have heard it.

Lost Weekend cozies up nicely with Rockets Bells and Poetry from The Toy Trucks, in part because of a shared preference for rocking sans frills. A big difference is that the Trucks, who feature an ex-member of Reigning Sound in Jeremy Scott as their songwriter/ leader, are a finely tuned but not too fussed over full-band experience.

With opener “I’m on the Dish But I Ain’t No Rag” they tear into a fast-paced punky rocker with an irresistible riff, but from there little time is wasted in varying the program. Black and Wyatt mention The Rascals in relation to “Don’t Be So Easy,” but to my ear the tune is as power-pop-infused as it is blue-eyed soul inclined, and that’s cool. And if not for its dark subject matter, “57 Bayview” could be mistaken for ’80s Hoboken guitar pop.

But the heart of The Toy Trucks’ thing, perhaps best displayed in the brief “CDB” leading into the revved-up catchiness of “Hot Tears,” is disheveled classicism, and it’s the kind of sound that might suggest Black and Wyatt are spelunking the same stylistic caves as their fellow Memphians at Goner Records (as co-owned and operated by Eric Oblivian). However, the sheer sensitivity of The Toy Trucks’ “Show You Love” complicates this comparison somewhat.

The eponymous album from the Opossums is another hearty (and classique-rooted) rock affair, though the scoop here is that the band began as the lo-fi home recording project of vocalist-guitarist Patrick Jordan, with this early period hypothetically in the neighborhood of Lost Weekend. Having recruited bassist Jesse Mansfield and drummer Liv Hernandez to give his songs a live-band boost, they cut a pair of cassette EPs.

Black and Wyatt’s LP compiles a dozen cuts from those tapes (leaving off five). Opossums unwinds without a weak cut as visions of Robert Pollard and Teenage Fanclub swirl around in my head. There are also a few spots, like “Left in the Ground” especially, that remind me of Beserkely Records-style power-pop (but not Jon Richman), and that’s just dandy.

Even dandier is the caffeinated energy of a young band that could turn on fans of the Buzzcocks. It all stands considerably apart from the two tracks comprising the latest Black and Wyatt release, a 45 from Italian singer-guitarist Mario Monterosso, though he’s a transplant to Memphis who recorded this single at Sun Studios. Circling back up top, it features a cover of The Heathens’ “Steady Girl” as the a-side.

The finesse in Monterosso’s approach to rockabilly is considerable next to the unpolished youth hump of The Heathens, but the man has experience playing with Tav Falco, so there’s nary a trace of fraudulence in his outpouring. In fact, the honky-tonk gusto of “Waiting for a Beer” suggests that had Black and Wyatt not issued this 7-inch, it could’ve eventually found a home with Chicago’s Bloodshot label.

But instead, it came out on Black and Wyatt as run by two Memphis pediatricians whose foremost gift to the world is in helping kids get well and stay healthy. Kudos for that. But in operating a record label in their spare time, they’re improving the quality of life of numerous music lovers in their hometown and beyond, and that’s worth celebrating, too.

The Heathens, “Steady Girl” (Version 1) b/w “Steady Girl” (Version 2)
A-

Fingers Like Saturn, S/T
B+

Jack Oblivian and the Dream Killers, Lost Weekend
A-

The Toy Trucks, Rockets Bells and Poetry
B+

Opossums, S/T
A-

Mario Monterosso, “Steady Girl” b/w “Waiting for a Beer”
A-

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