[20 July 2011]
On his second full-length release, The Man That Time Forgot, John Paul Keith preserves his basic template of rough-hewn garage rock while occasionally ranging into new territory. A founding member of Knoxville’s Viceroys and a former Nashville next-big-thing-in-training, Keith has found a sweet spot with his Memphis-based band, the One Four Fives. This is a group that has carved out its tight-knit sound by barnstorming around the southern states in the finest fashion — one recent gig had them in the halftime show at a Grizzlies game. And this is a record that never loses sight of its terrain: at different stops throughout The Man That Time Forgot, you catch glimpses of the converging forces that have made Memphis a recurring hotbed in American music. The unholy alchemy of blues, originary rock ‘n’ roll, country, and gospel that drifts in with the river and settles into the air permeates The Man That Time Forgot from top to bottom. Yet this is a record that never shies away from the Bluff City’s Beatle connections. A track like “I Think I Fell in Love Today”, for instance, sounds like a scratched-up B-side from some alternate world in which Help! was cut in 1970s Midtown. Like Big Star, I guess, but less patently anglophilic.
Other reference points are more diffuse: “I Work at Night” is a clear tribute to Mose Allison, aiming for the sound of Mose stretching out and getting rowdy in some mythic after-hours bar. Although Allison’s pithiness isn’t easily matched, the song is rescued from any possible slightness by a reeling guitar part and a whirling church organ. “The Last Last Call”, however, is a quietly perfect closer, a somber recitation in the Porter Wagoner/Luke the Drifter tradition that stirs the eschatology of the bleakest gospel in with a barroom weeper. And the tex-mex stomp of the opener is plainly evocative of Doug Sahm, with a wheezy, Continental-sounding keyboard. There are a couple spots — “Bad Luck Baby”, for instance — that might be a bit too predictable to fully realize the album’s scruffy potential, but according to the logic of garage rock, where the past so consistently sounds like the future, it’s a genuine relief that Keith’s observations never slide into facile past-baiting. In other words, it’s always now somewhere on The Man That Time Forgot.
When considering Keith’s songwriting, it’s worth bearing in mind that, above all else, he’s a skilled melodist: It’s to their great strength that many of these tunes end up sounding so familiar. With its sturdy songs and elegantly loose production, then, The Man That Time Forgot should find a receptive audience among listeners interested in feeling their way into the greasy edge of contemporary American rock ‘n’ roll. In “I’m Afraid to Look”, the singer offers up a compendium of all the realities he would rather not face — an dwindling bank account, an empty gas tank, and, perhaps most bitterly, a dearth of record sales. This might be a structural problem wrought by the digital era, but it’s an unfortunate one: Keith is a major talent and his album deserves a spot on your shelf.