For most of us, the early 20s are a mixed blitz of nothingness and optimism that usually amounts to diddly squat—or worse, graduate school. But while you and I were spending our salad days flitting in and out of lackluster occupations, watching The Daily Show, and coddling political and spiritual disillusionment, Memphis’s Jay Lindsey was making music at a frenetic rate. From 1998 on, as a member of at least a half-dozen bands ranging in style from thrash metal to garage-punk (his genre of choice), Lindsey gained a reputation as a kind of grungy, punk-rock Weezy, releasing one-off records and singles at a madman’s pace. The virtual auction racks on eBay are brimming with Lindsey’s recorded history, mostly on vinyl and at none-too-cheap a price.
Only in the past couple of years, under solo alias Jay Reatard, has Lindsey received the kind of attention the punk underground usually eschews and which he has avoided for nearly a decade. The Jay Reatard debut, Blood Visions—a gritty, window-rattling opus with most songs clocking in around two minutes—showed up on many 2006 year-end lists. Reatard introduced himself as an unapologetically offensive, improbably talented hooligan, in line with the Black Lips and King Khan but displaying disturbing delusions of grandeur, as if he thought he could be the Stephen Merritt of the piss-drinking, fan-punching set. Now a startlingly mature 28, he’s ready to get serious about living up to that promise.
After signing with Matador back in January, Reatard has kept up his compulsively creative habits, releasing one limited-edition 7” single after another, and Matador Singles ‘08, his full-length debut for the venerable indie label, is a compilation of his efforts over the past calendar year. The album is actually the second Reatard singles compilation to come out this year, as his old label, Into the Red, recently released a Singles 06-07 collection last summer. And yet, after listening to both releases back to back, it’s remarkable to consider how much Reatard has evolved in a matter of months—literally, months. Sure, the snarling, spitting, punk-rock champion of Blood Visions still shows up on Singles ‘08, but he’s much less of a draw. It’s clear that Reatard is moving away from shouting and toward learning to sing; similarly, his songs are defined less by emotions than they are by mood.
The guy who used to flail a flying-V guitar and head-bang without abandon is increasingly going acoustic; to some dyed-in-the-wool moshers, this may stink of selling out, but to anyone else who digs pop songs, however prepared, it’s a certifiable boon. Opener “See/Saw” is a rough-edged, midtempo jaunt that almost seems to summon New Order in its distorted, emotive strumming. “An Ugly Death” is even less contrite about its catchiness, barreling away irresistibly with a silly organ line and a platitude-dropping chorus. Elliott Smith also emerged from a harder-rocking background to become a softly-purring acoustic hero: Channeling Smith on the gentle “You Were Sleeping,” a ballad that would not seem out of place on a primetime teen drama, Reatard sings, “I would never have guessed that I would have become this.” Yeah, me either, Jay, but who’s complaining?
Like anyone working at a breakneck pace, Reatard could use some editing. But even if there are more than a few songs here that sound tossed off, they hardly require tossing out. The thrashing pair of “Hiding in My Hole” and “Dead on Arrival,” two songs so brief they’re barely there and arriving sequentially, only grabs your attention in the latter’s last moments, at which point Reatard bolts to the acoustic pop of “No Time” and the aforementioned “You Were Sleeping.” A cover of Deerhunter’s “Fluorescent Grey,” recorded for a 7” split with the Atlanta noise-rockers, may be a noble stunt, but it does not a hold candle to the emblazoned original nor to any of the original Reatard compositions found on Singles ‘08.
With Jack White on the lamb from garage heroics, whether courting Alicia Keys on that god-awful 007 theme or revisiting the 1970s on his excellent-if-unexciting Raconteurs albums, Reatard seems the best bet to take his place as a rapidly-producing, vintage-sounding follower. Which is another way of admitting that what Reatard is attempting on Singles ‘08 is hardly original if it is completely welcome at the same time.