These guys (and for awhile one gal) remain TN’s best-kept secret. In the 90s they had some college rock success, sorta poked the bottom of the mainstream charts and then imploded due to lack of direction and indifference from, as I understand it, all involved.
I first caught wind of them in high school through friends Cybil and/or Susan (one or the other, possibly both), who, though younger, had access to some older folks in the know with good music. (See kids, this was before the internet, so music had to be either well promoted by a label/MTV, which the JBs really weren’t, or passed along by word of mouth before you heard about them.)
The original line up (I think)
Initially I thought they were British, or maybe European, based on their sound and the pix in the first album, Native Son, but soon learned they were just good ol’ Tennessee folk, which was a big “eye opener” when their second album, Down in the Shacks Where the Satellite Dishes Grow, came out and had a big red pick up truck, with a dog and a Knox County license plate on the cover. Ye-ha!
When I went to college, one of the first people I met was this guy named Robert Lee (whom I mentioned back in my Frente! post). Early on in our relationship he randomly quoted a line from She’s Sad, She Said, and I about fell out, so we were close friends for sure after that. Come to find out, a buddy of his was going to school at UT and sorta had some in-connections-access to the goings on of the Judybats, so it was cool hearing about stuff before it “broke” and what have you. Just a good time all around to be 19, listening to good music, and able to see these bands live.
Unfortunately, I missed their epic performance with the remnants of the original line up on the Capital steps, but JT was there, so maybe he can tell you about it sometime. I did catch them three times though “back in the day,” twice in Knoxville and once in Nashville. And while I enjoyed those shows, I considered them “past their heyday,” as their third and fourth releases didn’t really hit the sweet spots like those first two.
Keeping a steady line up was hard for them initially, and folks left for all the reasons you’ve heard before, from not liking touring, to other interests, to major label wankery (sweet & cute Peg Hambright was asked to lose weight…boo, hiss!). While this certainly had an impact on the way songs and performing them were approached, the three principle writers (I assume) in the form of vocalist/lyricist Jeff Heiskell and guitarists Ed Winters and Johnny Sughrue were still intact, so the drop in quality could have been a lack of ideas, or simply Warner Bros pushing them in directions they weren’t suited for in order to capitalize on burgeoning college radio success, pushing it to the next level and therefore ruining the integrity of the music. Really, a lot of that is speculation on my part, but even on the first album the band was well under the label’s thumb, performing a spectacular cover of Roky Erickson’s She Lives in a Time of her Own (and releasing it as a single) when most of them had never heard the song (or even of Erickson I believe).
"Second half" five piece line up
Now, having said some of that, a lot of folks really liked Pain Makes You Beautiful, their third album, with Robert being one, and our Knoxville pals others, so maybe it’s just the difference in musical preference. And that’s why JT and I have, again, taken it upon ourselves to listen to the entire Judybats catalog and see where we stand with these albums today. There are only four, so this has not been as arduous a journey as REM. And yes, I realize they got back together around 2000 and put out the ‘00 album, but that was really just a bastardized version of the band led by Jeff Heiskell, with a completely different sound. And while it was nice to have them back, and those tunes were really enjoyable, and the shows were fun (I think I saw them another three times), it was more of something to do as a bunch of guys in their 30s having fun playing music than actually trying to make a career of it. Also, I think Jeff Heiskell is “solo” now, but I’ve only heard a few songs here and there and don’t think he plays out much.
The big question with the Judybats, for me at least, is did they ever realize their fullest potential with Native Son and Shacks, or simply put out two outstanding and forward moving albums before getting sucked into the mediocrity making mainstream machine? (BAM, take that alliteration!)
Perhaps we’ll unravel a bit of that here, same format as before and, as always, JT goes first…
Also, here is JT’s disclaimer: The Judybats hold a very, very special place in my heart. Growing up in Nashville and not listening to country music (until a little later in my life) I felt isolated, but knowing that there was a band making quirky, catchy, wonderful pop music that lived 3 hours from me was a game changer and gave me a sense of pride. Seeing them at Dancing in the District was, along with seeing Morrissey and the Cure, highlights of my young concert going career and still stands as one of my all time favorite shows.
(See Down in the Shacks review first) So, after I fell in love with their sophomore release I was thrilled to know that they had another album and I didn’t have to wait for a new release, which could take years...and when you’re a teenager years seem like an eternity. What I found upon purchasing this album was another amazing set of songs that were infectious and affecting. I feel like the band had most of the songs written for both this album and Down in the Shacks and had them ready to go when they were signed because they seem to be of the same ilk. Very rarely has a band come out of the box so hard with two perfect albums the way that the Judybats did... (A+)
Fave Song: Don’t Drop the Baby
Least Fave Song: Woman in the Garden
Discovered Gem: The Wanted Man
Native Son in a lot of ways is the epitome of an alt-college rock record in the late 80s or early 90s. But there’s also a bit of a New Wave hold over as well, blending nicely with the more “standard” homespun, folky feel going around in those days. With Jeff Heiskell’s drawl, they’re sorta like a Brit band with a Southern singer, and his droll delivery of oddball yet sincere lyrics is a big part of what separates them from like acts. It’s this humor, without going to the silly extremes of say TMBG or The Farm, that makes them so endearing, offsetting some of the more serious subject matters like mental breakdown and spousal abuse. Musically, Native Son gets the job done, accenting the vocal melodies (or quirks) with enough alterations and subtle tones to keep things interesting, and not diminishing the fact that these are some truly great songs by getting too flashy or extravagant in any one area. There are solos (another oddity of the genre/times/aesthetic), and little counter violins and keys, and fun backing vocals, but they carry the song instead of drawing the focus away from it. Essentially, it’s a good blend of all talents and, despite a couple of minor filler tunes, an ideal alt-pop beginning. There’s technically nothing “earth shattering” about Native Son, but there’s also nothing else out there that I can say really sounds like it, and I can’t really point to any obvious influences or something they’re attempting to be…the kids were just making (good) music. I know some more recent critics and some of my alt-friends back in the day weren’t overly accepting of this record, which to me means it has a truly distinct voice that doesn’t speak to everyone, even those of a like mind, but it’s held up well and remains timeless and is certainly a voice for me. (A)
Fave: Wanted Man
Least Fave: Perfumed Lies
Gem: In Like with You
Once upon a time I was obsessed with Morrissey and would purchase anything that he had anything to do with...this of course included purchasing compilations that he appeared on even if I already had the song that he contributed to said comp. One such album that falls neatly into this category was ‘Just Say Anything’… There were so many songs on this album that I would go on to love, but the one that I literally listened to 1000 times was ‘Don’t Drop the Baby’ by the then-unknown-to-me Judybats. This would’ve been summer 1991 and to my delight I discovered that the Judybats were just about to release an album...so I rushed out to the Cats to pick it up, and when I got home and started feverishly searching for ‘Don’t Drop the Baby’ I was shocked and disappointed to learn that it wasn’t on this album but… From the opening guitar strums of ‘Our Story’ I was hooked. Jeff Heiskell sounds great and anyone from the south that uses the word ‘arse’ is brilliant in my book. I still listen to this album on a(n almost) monthly basis...if you do the math that means I’ve heard this album at least 240 times and somehow it still manages to excite me and make me feel like I am a teenager again and that all is right with the world. (A+)
Fave Song: Saturday
Least Fave Song: Animal Farm
Discovered Gem: When Things Get Slow Around Here
I remember coming across this one in Camelot Music back in PC during my senior year of high school and having no idea it existed, only to learn it had just been released a week or so before. Good timing! I still have that cassette somewhere as a keepsake. Just like Native Son, I loved Shacks from the beginning and appreciated the change ups. These days this one gets more listens because it feels almost “joyous” in the sense of a sing-along type affair, even though many of these songs are about heartache/break and the like. The moody, New Wave vibe is pretty much gone and replaced by a country-folk whimsy, so basically if Native Son was a Brit band with a Southern singer, Shacks is a Southern band who has spent some time in England. Again, Jeff Heiskell comes to the forefront and he’s having a hoot, from falling for lesbian bakers (Margot Known as Missy) to nostalgia over past times (Lullaby - Weren’t We Wild), this is a vehicle for his skewed, wink-wink take on things as they go on around him and always good for a chuckle, though he also takes a stab at environmental concerns (Poor Bruised World), while the sinister frankness of Witch’s Night retains some of the flavor of the debut. From front to back the songs are more solid, and where Native Son admittedly lags ever so slightly during parts of side two, everything on Shacks is top notch. Why this album was basically ignored and didn’t launch the Judybats into at least big time alterno-status is a tragedy that can only be explained, in my eyes, by the reshaping of everything musically with the emergence of Nirvana. But the cult audience in the know certainly holds this album as the greatest thing the Judybats ever did, and deservedly so, and I think it should have only been the beginning of greater things to come. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. (A+)
Fave: She’s Sad She Said
Least: How It Is
Gem: Is Anything
And the eternity became a reality (see Native Son review)... After completely devouring their first two albums and seeing them in concert, the wait was on for their next release, which took a full two years before it came out and I found it to be a (pure light, pure delight) pure delight. While some of their quirkiness was gone, the songs were still there and many of them were extremely strong. This is the sound of a band maturing and while it wasn’t Native Son and it wasn’t Down in the Shacks, it was pretty damn good. (B+)
Fave Song: Being Simple
Least Fave Song: Incredible Bittersweet
Discovered Gem: Trip Me up
Here’s where things begin to go south for me (no pun intended). I remember Ugly on the Outside was on a Sire Records sampler my freshman year of college and I la-la-loved it, so I was super pumped to get the new album. When it finally dropped, Robert and I rushed to get it out at Rivergate Mall of all places. I’ll say right now that the first two songs, one of them being from the aforementioned sampler, are worth the price of the album and darn near the best thing the Judybats ever did. All Day Afternoon especially seems to pick up where Shacks was leaving off, and that should have been the direction for the rest of the album. However, by Being Simple, which was a minor mainstream hit and the song the band is best known for, was nothing more to me than a stab at Hootie-esque adult alternative success, and really, that’s what PMYB boils down to. Acoustic guitarist Johnny Sughrue picked up an electric and things get more rockin’ and “soulful” all around, but it doesn’t make anything more exciting. To me PMYB was nothing but a big letdown, and while Robert and most friends loved it, I listened begrudgingly. Still, at the forefront of things is Jeff Heiskell, who gives it his all, and listening years later this helps me discover some true merits with PMYB that I can appreciate on more than a nostalgic kick. Lyrically it’s the best of the lot, and he delivers them with a cocky, self-assured attitude that makes even generic, Kravitz-esque funk workouts like An Intense Beige and Incredible Bittersweet almost believable. But it’s his croon that really brings out the shining moments, and while Being Simple does have some worth (for what it is), My Dead Friend, My Dulcinea and especially Trip Me Up bring the album to great heights even in their mellow styling. At the end of the day this is a worthwhile effort, but the attempt at mainstream acceptability hampers the charm and quirky naivety that made the first two albums so endearingly accessible. (B+)
Fave: All Day Afternoon
Least: Incredible Bittersweet
Gem: Trip Me Up
Fave Song: Sorry Counts (?)
Least Fave Song: Wounded Bird (!!!)
Discovered Gem: Liquid (?)
When PMYB basically flopped, nobody knew what would happen next. There were a couple of new songs that we’d heard at some shows that were very promising, The Cache of Misery and Nude, but of those two only the former made Full-Empty, and was stuck all the way near the end. From beginning to end this is an album that sounds like, “Here we are now, but what do we do about it?” I have to say that there are several songs here that I like more than a good bit of PMYB, and listening to it again after a few years I have better memories and am more apt to sing out, but the production is so lousy (worst drum sound EVER on a major label release) and the band’s performance is so apathetic, why would anyone want to listen to it again? If this album had the production or performance of PMYB, it would have been a step forward. Yet the biggest loss is Jeff Heiskell, who dropped his trademark twang and now sings with a lax, “Where am I?” posturing that is neither appealing nor even offensive, it’s just there. Still, there are some nice moments, and I quite enjoy Drought, Sorry Counts and In This Maroon, to name a couple, and most every song has moments where the band seems to be finding themselves, but it’s not enough to salvage whatever magic may have been left scattered on the studio floor. Having said all of that, there’s a soft spot in my heart for Full-Empty, though at the end of that day it’s just a dud and a lousy end to such a worthy band. (C+)
Fave: Sorry Counts
Gem: In this Maroon