I guess I've written about these guys before, some time way back at the start of this blog. But they're worth revisiting, and my revisiting of their first three LPs over the last 3 days has convinced me of one thing: The Grifters, for the first half of the 1990s, were one hell of a great band and have weathered awfully well over the last 15 years. In regards to rock bands I - and few others - seem to really give a damn about, I'd rate them up there w/ the likes of Die Kreuzen, Dog Faced Hermans and Dawson: three other excellent bands from yesteryear who slip by most people's radar. The first three albums - So Happy Together from 1992 (originally released on the now-defunct Chicago label, Sonic Noise), 1993's One Sock Missing and '94's Crappin' You Negative (both released on the Shangri-La label, and still in print) - still cast a great shadow in regards to first-rate American rock music made in the 1990s. I could break it down to the bare essentials and state that the perfectly band encapsulated the white-boy pop sensibilities of fellow Memphis-ites(?) Big Star, the druggy blues churns of Royal Trux and the slightly askew avant-garage twang of prime Fall, and perhaps I just did. But that simplifies the case way too much. The band got all caught up in the "lo-fi" hoo-ha which swept the US just as music journalists across the land were getting sick of typing "grunge" in every second article they wrote on contemporary music for housewife magazines, and thus they will probably be associated w/ such a scene for eternity. Actually, none of this is to imply that nothing of any good came out of such a "scene": I'll state the case that I still own a ton of cassettes, LPs and 7"s on the Shrimper label; have fond memories of listening to Sebadoh up to and including their III magnum opus (and really not liking anything they did thereafter); and Guided By Voices, a band I haven't listened to for over a decade, released two or three albums which stuck in my head for so long there's probably a very good reason why I haven't had to give them a spin in 10 years. But let's put this into perspective: if your friend told you, in 2008, that they were starting up a "lo-fi" band, you'd probably laugh, then cry, then reconsider your friendship. It's a quaint relic from another era, and not someting I'm prone to bandy about at this stage of the game.
But I digress. What still strikes me w/ the Grifters is just how unique and different from each other the first three albums are. The first has a fuzzy, murky sound, as if recorded in a swamp, w/ extraneous noise tracks scattered throughout. The songwriting style, at least when I first reviewed it in 1993, I described as being caught somewhere between Mission of Burma and the Wipers. I guess you could call it "art-punk", though I shudder at such a trite phrase... then consider it to be apt. In other words, it's a rollicking, punkified mess w/ well crafted pop songs underneath the shambles, a songcraft probably informed by years of kicking back in the Memphis heat listening to a lot of prog/psych. The band, after all were hitting their 30s at the dawn of the 90s and had been bumming around the local scene for years in various incarnations before any kind of spotlight hit them.
'93's One Sock Missing saw them tightening the reins in w/ the noise quota, and simply giving an excellent Southern-fried, raw rock 'n' roll disc anyone who's into early '70s 'Stones, Big Star, Royal Trux or Reigning Sound - all bases covered there - should own and play often. This is the album which saw them getting compared to Pavement at the time, and whilst I gotta say that Pavement never budged my musical loins an inch (and by decade's end irked me like practically no other band on the planet), the comparison wasn't just a lazy stab in the dark. The smarty-pants wordplay and sense of each song collapsing on itself then picking up the pieces was something Pavement were indulging in at the time, a trick pretty much stolen from The Fall anyway, so compare all you want! The Grifters were on the same page somewhere.
The Holy Trinity Of Releases ended w/ '94's Crappin' You Negative. All lo-fi tags were dropped at this stage. This platter is clean, bold and not a shambolic performance is noted. And it's good, possibly their best. The band had perfectly honed their craft, and I'd rate the one-two punch of "Bronze Cast" and "Junkie Blood" on side B as their two finest songs, the former released as a single at the time. When the pace slows and your hear the cry, "If I fall asleep, don't photograph me" come in, there's not a dry eye in the house. And I ain't got the faintest idea of what they're talking about.
Other people were obviously listening. They went on to record two fairly poor-selling albums - Ain't My Lookout and Full Blown Possession - on Sub Pop, then bit the dust some time in the late '90s. The Sub Pop albums in question are OK and all that, though I never spin them. I don't even own them anymore. The band had it their peak and was sliding down the slope. But that takes nothing away from those first three LPs. You need 'em. '90s "indie-rock" is probably not something most people reading this blog really want to hear about right now, though the Grifters transcend all limitations you may expect from such a lame genre, if indeed you even want to place them in such a category (and I don't, even though every/any music-reference site on the web will tell you different). The Grifters were a rock 'n' roll band. Simple as that. And they were one of the best at it, too.