Succinct Extinction is more definitive proof that it’s always a mistake to count Memphis out
Though still a neophyte in many ways, I’ve lived in the Memphis area as a working musician long enough to have gleaned one incontrovertible truth about its potholed streets and smoke-drenched Midtown dives.
The truth is that bands here still have the potential to be recalled for generations henceforth as mythic, even legendary, and this half-rusted underdog city I love so dearly traffics tirelessly in the veneration of its many heroes.
Its what is held up as proof of the city’s singular and inscrutable nature whenever its raked over the coals in comparison to ‘hipper’ outposts like Nashville or Atlanta. When you’re united by necessity on the side of where you live, everyone’s on the same side, and the idea of a ‘scene’ still carries some weight, even in spite of the internet and all other contemporary competitions for attention.
Artist: Two Way Radio
Album: Succinct Extinction
Label: Back To The Light Records
★★★★ 1/2 (4.5/5 stars)
JD Reager is someone who has bled for, and stills bleeds for, Memphis music. Like many of us, he has restless hands in any number of projects here, even though he decamped to Chicago in 2017 (a common destination for those who leave Memphis, for awhile or for keeps). Through his podcast Back To The Light he continues to maintain a crucial thread to his home city’s culture, which now includes finally closing a long-frustrating chapter for one of his more beloved musical outlets, Two Way Radio.
In 2009, Memphis indie filmmaker Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow, Black Snake Moan) aired an MTV series focused on highlighting the thriving Memphis music scene, entitled $5 Cover. Around the time of a heightened exposure resulting from their appearance on the show, TWR recorded a full-length album with high-profile producer Scott Bomar (Al Green, Cyndi Lauper) at treasured Memphis recording institution Ardent. Unfortunately, contract difficulties have kept that album from seeing the light of day for over a decade…until now. It’s the kind of story passed around often in the underground music world, but only because it’s a truly classic format. An underdog band from an underdog city, now finally delivering.
VIDEO: Kate Crowder of Two Way Radio on the band’s appearance on MTV’s Five Dollar Cover
And deliver, it does. Any lingering suspicion that an opus so long-shelved may come across dated or obsolete is obliterated with the first glorious swell of ascendant guitars and mellotron that open the loping, disarming “Dirty Dishes”. Kate Crowder’s voice is a profoundly unique instrument, somehow wistfully childlike without ever being grating or precious, capable of an expressive warble or the most hushed of clever intimacies. On “Carrie Rodgers”, the unfurling Spector-esque production breezes sunnily along beneath boy-girl tandem vocals that bring to mind C86 twee-pop filtered through a much more cynical and Americana-tinged lens. Imagine The Field Mice as performed by peak Rilo Kiley or Anathallo.
The immaculate and lushly-orchestral production herein frequently manages to illuminate the thrust of these simple pop gems rather than drowning them in excessive ornamentation. “Waking Hours” trots out a certain sort of pre-war swing with its beguiling call and response verse structure, while sad-eyed waltzes like “Spreading Appleseeds” leak sincerity with zero irony yet never become cloying or sickening-sweet.
It’s a tough balance to manage, but TWR mostly pull it off. These songs never overstay their welcome, managing to make their point and depart for the next leg of the journey while you’re still humming their infectious refrains. And contrary to the expected flow of contemporary albums, Succinct Extinction ends with Two Way Radio’s most nimble, upbeat affirmation in “Total Waste Of Time”, rollicking along at an almost-punk breakneck pace before it and the album conclude, far too soon.
As for lyrics, Succinct Extinction seems to reluctantly bask in the glow of an almost-begrudging sense of domestication and contentment. Personal gripes and petty annoyances are diffused before they can blow up into melodramatic recriminations, and hard-won emotional triumphs are laid bare before breaches can solidify into permanence.
On “If You Should Ever Leave”, our narrator admits that they might “cry all day while burning your clothes” should the title’s fear ever become reality, but the line’s delivered so sweetly that any implied menace belies the actual heart of the matter, the anxiety of an unexpected end to something so promising and cherished.
“I Can Do Better” finds the implied insult coming across more as a half-hearted jest, a gentle ribbing by someone who knows that they stay because they want to, as simple as that. Unexpected bursts of distortion and fluidly-shifting time signatures throughout the album only underline the chaos and uncertainty of these lyrics, echoing plainspoken distress with a welcome musical unpredictability that merrily treads across artificial genre borders, never becoming gimmicky. No matter how heavy the vibes get here, no matter how desperate the laments, this is incredibly fun, lively music.
It’s all too easy to listen to a record this accomplished and feel disappointed that such a skilled band was once cheated out of the potential for something more, but regardless, good things always deliver on their promise eventually, and good art always has a way of finding an audience in time. Let’s hope this most satisfying slice of Memphis indie-pop whimsy will finally find the reception it deserves, in a 2021 where both the city it honors and the country at large could more than benefit from its reprieves.
This album is more definitive proof that it’s always a mistake to count Memphis out; one way or another, what comes from this city will alway find its way to the right destination, and its future will always be brighter for it.