ROCK 'N' ROLL was created in the early '50s on small, independent labels by crazy, unpolished kids from the South. Some of today's most interesting rock 'n' roll is still made on small, independent labels by crazy, unpolished kids from the South. Here are some recent examples:
Dash Rip Rock "Not of This World" (Mammoth Records). Jim Dickinson, a veteran of the Memphis soul scene, produced the latest album by this wild and wooly New Orleans punkabilly trio. As he did with the Replacements on their "Pleased to Meet Me" album, Dickinson gets Dash Rip Rock to play in tune and in tempo without losing their anarchic spirit. Singer-songwriter Billy Davis isn't quite as good as Paul Westerberg, but he has a similar affection for melody, roots, jokes and blunt honesty. When Davis sings about going crazy for a woman or following her to the end of the world, he pushes the concept to its absolute limits, and the music does the same.
Anne Richmond Boston "The Big House of Time" (DB). The Swimming Pool Qs' two albums for A&M Records in the mid-'80s were two of the most overlooked gems of the decade, and a large reason for that was Boston's soaring Annie Lennox-like soprano. Boston left the Georgia band amicably, and now she has released her debut solo album with her husband, ex-Coolie Rob Gal, playing guitar and producing. Whether she's singing obscure songs by various ex-Coolies and SPQs or familiar songs by John Hiatt, Neil Young and John Sebastian, Boston reasserts her claim as one of rock 'n' roll's most distinctive female vocalists. Because her voice loses nothing in tone as it rises in pitch, she can fill it with astonishing intensity.
The Jody Grind "One Man's Trash Is Another Man's Treasure" (DB). Boston did the art layout and background vocals for this album by her labelmates. John Keane, part of the R.E.M./Indigo Girls camp, produced this debut album by the Georgia trio, but the results are far more original than the overrated Indigos. Lead singer Kelly Hogan Murray has a great voice, and she sings everything from jazz standards to country novelty songs, from Dusty Springfield covers to Jody Grind originals that combine all these tendencies, with a persuasive passion that gets to the heart of the songs without a hint of camp parody. The austere but apt arrangements by guitarist Bill Taft and drummer Walter Brewer help her get there.
Dillon Fence "Dillon Fence" (No Car Records). This six-song EP is the debut release from this young North Carolina quartet. Like so many of their southeastern brethren, they play a jangly, droning brand of folk-rock, but they redeem the sound with an ability to make small, ordinary events seem as momentous as they do in the midst of teenage innocence. "Frances," for example, chronicles the singer's crushing realization that he just can't summon up romantic feelings for a short woman. Like all these songs, it's sung without camp or irony but with convincing feeling to a bright rock melody that recalls NRBQ and Del Amitri.
The Chickasaw Mudd Puppies "White Dirt" (Wing/Polydor/Texas Hotel). Keane and R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe co-produced this debut album from the Georgia duo of guitarist Ben Reynolds and singer Brant Slay. The band features a beaten green rocking chair in its live shows and favors a primitive, demented form of rocking acoustic blues. Slay's lyrics revel in the eccentricity, perversity and irrepressible individuality of Southern rural life, and Reynolds's foot-stomping music reinforces those themes. If Mojo Nixon & Skid Roper took their cue from David Lynch rather than John Waters, they might sound like the Chickasaw Mudd Puppies.
The Backsliders "The Blues Are Back" (Carryon Records). This young New Orleans quartet would be just another standard blues revival quartet (harmonica, guitar, drums and upright bass) if they didn't manage to sneak a bit of their hometown second-line into the arrangements. Singer Ben Maygarden's original songs sound comfortable next to the standards by Jimmy McCracklin, Merle Travis and the like. The Backsliders haven't quite found a distinctive sound yet -- they'll need to get more New Orleans into their blues -- but they are a band to watch.