By Sean Jewell ::
Have you ever been to Memphis, Tennessee? It’s a hard luck town. It ain’t like Nashville. It’s really just far north Mississippi. It’s the southern utopia where BBQ was built, WC Handy wrote the first blues, and soul musicians desegregated music. The center of America where Elvis and BB King planted rock ‘n’ roll. It’s landlocked island of musicality. Time and again it has served as an indictment of the music industry’s elitism. It’s given us Isaac Hayes, Sam and Dave, Big Star, The Staple Singers records, and Ardent Studios –itself an unorthodox holy church of the people. Ardent’s founder John Fry saw fit to simply give the musicians around him the keys to the kingdom, so that after hours they could record themselves. The product of this trust among people is some of the finest American music ever recorded and that line extends to present day. Guys like Luther Dickinson (himself a son of the studio) and Reed Turchi (former Ardent label director) carry that torch.
On Speaking In Shadows, Reed Turchi‘s solo debut, he’s stepped out of his North Mississippi blues comfort zone in an attempt to fully realize the potential of a place like Ardent. To put a record on tape here is to get the sound of the floorboards, the machines, the studio walls that made history in tumultuous times. Turchi has crafted an album that deals with internet era ennui, by sounding warm and deep as happy memories.
The album opens on Turchi’s slacker timbre with the minor chord announcement “you can pass me over, you can slip away” easing into a song cycle that reflects the modern musician’s reality: day jobs and obscurity, or heavy touring at the cost of personal relationships. Turchi and his Caterwauls present themselves as bedraggled sages here, beggars with world class chops. The surprises start early on Speaking In Shadows. On “Pass Me Over” there are only two verses sung, one by Turchi and one by pianist Heather Moulder, each followed by a guitar solo. This splits the song in half, the two people in it helplessly drifting apart, last words their only common ground. It’s a clever first track that both disrupts expectations and eases you into the album.
“Everybody’s Waiting” brings in saxophone as Turchi intones “Everybody’s waitin’ for the end to come / headed to their basements with their bullets and their guns / well I even met a man who’d grown afraid of the sun / I wonder how did we get this way” turning counter culture and towards nature the chorus goes “don’t let your life go slip-slippin away / while you are waiting on the judgement day”.
“Juggling Knives”, a rocking blues track, builds on distorted, fuzzed guitars, with fuzzy vocals to match. Turchi brings in Adriano “The Italian” Viterbini on guitar, and he runs away with the track. Viterbini executes a solo that begins in the phrasing of American blues, and halfway through shifts to a Malian/Touareg blues, setting the composition ablaze with the heat of a thousand suns. Turchi is almost vengefully showing off the options he has on a track about having no place left to go.
This is really the point of no return on the album. Big beat creeps in on the next song, aptly titled “Texas Mist” because it’s transcendental blues are thick as night time air in East Texas. It ain’t all blues, though, Speaking In Shadows has an album arc built from an attention deficit surplus. “Offamymind” is road trip rock ‘n’ roll, that spools off the magnetic tape spindle like the recorder is on the fritz. All to get to rock’s favorite past time: chasin’ tail. “Ima Bore” is a boogie woogie blues about how we thought the future would be cooler. There’s mysterious keys, plate reverb, and a bass line filthy enough make you blush.
Industry know-it-alls and devilish purists may blush at the “Drawn & Quartered Blues”, and “Set A Course To Stay” as these elite musicians pervert the blues with the audacity of rockers further west by dancing un-wholesomely with drum machines, and reeking of funk.
For my money, it’s the experimental “Floristella” that burns brightest. Here Turchi has the fuzz, distortion, and vocal effects up to 11. The Caterwauls bring in saxophone, a leslie cabinet, and have effectively turned the studio into an instrument. The sexy, Sun-Ra-has-landed-in-Memphis vibes continue through the next two tracks before Speaking In Shadows breaks on the beach with “View From Angels Landing” a contemplative instrumental featuring some time warping slide guitar from Joey Fletcher. For as long as the journey feels, only one song has gone on longer than four minutes.
Reed Turchi‘s Speaking In Shadows is an expertly crewed musical oddysey using a historically great studio as a vessel. It’s approachable, and experimental. It’s honest expression lands it in the blues/soul category but it’s never regressive. It does not look back at days gone by, or promise to be better another time. It pays homage to the old sounds by being great now, it is an unflinching document of current and future potential of Memphis sound.