Sooo...why is it that Europe is always on the American-roots tip more so than us Yanks? Case in point: the ’90s. While a more lysergic brand of artists was struggling to morph punk/DIY sensibilities and Americana into some forward motion in the wake of the few breakthroughs (Knitters, Blasters, Gun Club, etc.), German labels like New Rose, Return to Sender, and Glitterhouse hoovered up and celebrated the likes of the Walkabouts, Steve Wynn, Giant Sand, Chris Cacavas, Walter Salas-Humara, and Dave Schramm. It was a period celebrating an outward-staring American ambition to do something different with its musical heritage, and infusing punk was a big wrench thrown into the establishment. Just as X certainly pulled from the Ramones, so did Tav Falco’s rough ramble sip sweetly from the import bins of whatever U.K. post-punk he was able to wrangle in record stores.
Enter Lorette Velvette (née Lori Godwin), coming up through Memphis at this juncture, onetime paramour to Falco and soaking in the punk vibes in her locale as much as digging blues icon Fred McDowell. Her background came not so much from academia as it did fandom of many musical forms. Early interludes with primitive senior goddess of the scene Jessie Mae Hemphill (introduced to each other by Tav), and the eventual comfortable surroundings of Memphis’ Antenna Club, emboldened her to get up and work her own vision. She did it first in the amazing all-woman Hellcats and then, later, Alluring Strange. Her unusual presence and strident but quavery vocals marked a unique and different side of the scene; scribes were likely to throw comparisons like “truck-stop waitress with grit and guitar,” but it was severely obvious that she was an artist who transcended easy tags and parameters. Tours with Panther Burns blazed trails and familiarity overseas, and eventually she set sail with Germany’s Veracity imprint for an amazing triad of records in the mid-’90s (White Birds, Dream Hotel, and Lost Part of Me), with her own tours eventually finding her rapturously received, particularly by Germans.
The spirit of so much lies in these grooves
Here in the US of A, my own discovery of modern Memphis came via working at Kim’s Video and Music in NYC. An especially astute roots buyer was importing all the missed cracks, my knowledge of the Grifters and the influx of cool bands like Pavement and Sonic Youth streaming into Doug Easley’s homey studio being only parts of the big picture. Jon Spencer landed us a connect with High Water Records, which gifted us with boxes of 45s by preserved elders like the Fieldstones, Hammie Nixon, and Hezekiah and the House Rockers. The discovery of writer Robert Gordon’s incredible It Came From Memphis CD compilation illuminated me to a unique breed of some newer artists bathed in the bath of Chilton, Eggleston, and Dickinson. Included here was Lorette with “Oh How It Rained,” a lilting, atmospheric, but very live-sounding piece of coolness, minimal and effective, swaying along to sublime slide guitar and transportive sweet vocals. Later, while I was at WFMU, a group called the Kropotkins came through for a session. Led by composer/musicologist Dave Soldier, the band included Lorette on vocals plus Moe Tucker, ex–Swans stickman Jonathan Kane, and others, and righteously defined the bridge between downtown NYC art-rock and the North Mississippi blues. They played a snare-snapping, revelatory set, ably showing how a Rhys Chatham-esque one-chord hypno-drone translated succinctly to McDowell’s “Shake ’Em On Down,” the dark North Mississippi hills being in perfect alignment for trance-out hoodoo. It was at this point that I dug deeply into Lorette’s catalog, and the Don’t Crowd Your Mind vinyl release on Mono-Tone thankfully not only tied all her best tracks and singles up with a proud bow, but showed the utter depth and diversity she worked within. A jukebox-ready scattering of tunes that presented itself like the richest meal you could ask for.
The spirit of so much lies in these grooves. The atmospheric stuff really gets me most of all, as it reflects Lorette at her most deeply personal. “Rude Angel” moves through stark shadowy piano much like Sister Lovers’ “Nighttime”; the off-kilter ramble of “Godforsaken Town” reminds one of why you should play music in the first place (“Sitting around in this godforsaken town/Trying not to drag ourselves down”); while “Dream Hotel” offers Lorette’s full nod to Astor Piazzolla-style tango. “Eager Boy” (with Alex Chilton himself on bass) stumbles home late at night with fragile electric-slide zigzag that walks the same path as the Fall’s first single, “Bingo Master’s Breakout.” Plus, an ace band of fellas she would also assemble for her live shows kick out heavy jams on “Don’t Crowd Your Mind” and renditions of Bowie’s “Boys Keep Swinging” and Bolan’s “20th Century Boy” that both blur sexual identity norms and kick more ass than the originals (for me, anyway!). These days Lorette has raised kids and tends to a lovely Air BnB, but she still pulls out a sporadic appearance. This comp is an amazing snapshot indeed, full of bounty, and, well, it’s never too late to come back for a feast.