Memphis Radio Kings – S/T

Memphis Radio Kings has got to be one of the slickest names for a band I’ve heard in a while. It instantly bestows authenticity to these Seattle rockers who would be more accustomed to peering into rainy gloom from inside a smoke-filled coffeehouse than scurrying outside in paper-curling humidity hoping for a touch of AC. The name at once lays roots in the blues and country of the South while revealing an affinity for pop music. And the “Kings” part, well, that’s a bit of rock star cockiness swaggering at the end.
In the first song of their debut, “Givin’ Up,” Memphis Radio Kings wears its name like a comfortable pair of shiny black shoes. “Givin’ Up” begins almost exactly as that Who song, “I Can See for Miles.” It’s uncanny how close it comes to my memory of the Who original. Then the song jumps into high-energy, two-stepping rock-a-billy. The trio’s twin-guitar attack and relentless drumming gets the toe tapping and raises the expectations. Vocalist Charlie Beck’s raspy, impatient tenor suits the frantic pace of the song perfectly. In this song, Memphis Radio Kings lives up to its lofty name.
After the first song, the rest of album only hints at its regal moniker. The final seven songs find Memphis Radio Kings exploring rock, pop, country, and blues but never with the same energy as in “Givin’ Up.” The album becomes a collection of softer, more traditionally pop-styled songs recalling a bit of Soul Asylum and Fastball. Drummer Tony Leamer still taps infectious beats with playful dexterity. Tim Jones’ guitar work remains equally impressive. He demonstrates his guitar is fluent in rock, pop, country, blues, and soul as he breezily picks through 70s wah-wah soul and gritty honky-tonk blues.
No, these songs are all fairly good. But after the work heard in the first track, I felt a little cheated by the rest. There’s something about those songs that just don’t feel right. Their range in styles is remarkable. But in a way, it hurts them because they never stick with something long enough to call it their own. In a few instances, Charlie Beck’s vocals and words clash with music accompanying it. Specifically in the expertly played “Throw My Ashes,” Beck takes a fun folksy, country-western sing-along and just sits on it – leaving the listener with a batch of silly, trite lyrics describing what he wants done to his body after he dies. Then there’s “Judy,” a loungy pop song that sounds fine, just out of place. “Lesser of the Evils” and “My Instant Karma” are both bluesy country-rock tunes that recapture a bit of rhythm. Unfortunately, they’re broken up by the pop-rock “You Belong,” which doesn’t belong.
Memphis Radio Kings tries to cover too much territory in one go. The level of play remains consistently good the whole way – that’s never a problem. They should stick with the style they’re named after. Those are the strongest songs and would make a nice EP when patched together without any of their pop pieces. Or perhaps if they continued to pursue pop rock songs, it would be wise of them to add a bass to fill out their sound a little. If they don’t make any changes, that still leaves them with a cool name and a great single. But it doesn’t give them any real direction, despite the clear mandate in their band’s name.