Manhattan‘s Knoxville Girls make a big noise, three guitars thrusting, played for kicks. Churning through ectoplasmic instrumentals haunted by the ghost of rockabilly primitive Charlie Feathers, throwing down Farfisa-tinged, harmonica-stabbed garage din, grinding out a George Jones classic or pounding on one of their decidedly idiosyncratic originals, Knoxville Girls deliver a slithering psychic surge of curious uptown downhome thrills.
An odd assortment these Girls are, banded together by Alabama-born, New York–warped singer-guitarist Jerry Teel (who’s stirred the stink with Gotham combos Honeymoon Killers, Chrome Cranks and Boss Hog) and partner-in-hillbilly-grime Jack Martin, both of whom had previously been laying down weepers and honking the tonk as Little Porkchop. The sound got under their skin and out of hand — Teel was compelled to recruit Sonic YouthPussy Galore drummer Bob Bert and emo-pop organ-bass man Barry London, and (what the hell?) even shanghaied renegade L.A. guitar genius Kid Congo Powers.
Despite such a severe pedigree of kool, these ultra-now New Yorkers leapt into Knoxville Girls‘ sonic wallow, a sweet-scented cesspool of vernacular sounds. Drawn primarily from hillbilly and garage-ragged R&B — a refreshing update on the miscegenational cocktail that’s been the recipe for soul-stirring musical troublemakers since the blackface minstrel days — the entirety of their debut Knoxville Girls CD on In the Red Records hits the ear with an immediacy and tension unlike anything to come out of any American city in quite a spell. At its heart is an unusual random quality that achieves a spontaneous rock & roll greatness sorta kinda accidentally on purpose: the loose Manhattan ultrahip casual cool ethic, at once withdrawn and aggressive, developing into an orgiastic modus operandi, with each hot and sweaty participant jamming in his own urgent desires, frantically seeking out and ecstatically savoring the revelatory, climactic moment.
For the past year or so the Girls have been flipping wigs all over the Northeast, and they‘re finally bringing it to Hollywood — something none of them initially thought would ever happen.
”It just fell together, by fate or accident,“ says Teel. ”Jack and I were doing something together, then we got Bob to play on it, and Kid’s my roommate, so I got him to play on it, and Barry, who I‘d seen around a lot, played keyboards. And then we made a record out of it, and then we got asked to play a gig, and we ’officially‘ became a band. It’s about as real as any band I‘ve ever been involved with. I mean, who knows? Sometimes things fall apart.“
It’s surprising that such a collection of semilegendary art-rock cult forces would acquire a country fetish. ”I love country music,“ Teel says, ”but I don‘t think we’re a country band by any means — see us live and you‘ll know exactly what I mean. But I’m from the South, and when I sing I sound country, and I can‘t do anything about it.“
For Kid Congo, renowned in Los Angeles for his work with blues-punk-goth bizarros the Gun Club and the Cramps (whose greatest-ever album, Psychedelic Jungle, heavily relied on his deliciously eerie guitar) before defecting to the mannered bleakness of Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds and the after-hours art cabaret of Congo Norvell (who still, Kid says, ”exist in a cryogenic state“), Knoxville Girls represent a long-overdue return to form. a
”It‘s like a dream vacation — it’s easy, it feels good and you can dance to it,“ Kid says with his characteristic sugary sarcasm. ”Bob Bert and myself come from a weirdly arty background and have more an arty viewpoint on music than the other guys, but all of that together is what makes this work. It‘s the most uncalculated thing I’ve done in so long. I think that‘s why the response has been so great, live and on record — because it’s so unjaded. When we got coerced into playing live, it caught us all by surprise; it was great having songs that can be tight but still have room for anything to happen in them.“
Knoxville Girls deliver exactly that: a glorious tangle of potentiality and dynamics that, considering the sorry state of rock & roll, surprises the band‘s members as much as it does first-time listeners. ”I haven’t had this kind of natural feeling since the Gun Club,“ Congo says, ”where we just started playing and we didn‘t know what we were doing and all this cool stuff came out.“
”It’s just the right group of people — trace their backgrounds,“ says Teel. ”We‘ve all sort of been skirting around the same kind of music since the beginning, so it makes sense that it all fits together.“
Knoxville Girls appear at Spaceland on Friday, March 10.