Back in 1977, a quartet from Memphis called the Scruffs had all the conceptual elements for power pop down pat. Mining similar lovelorn, lust-torn lyrical territory as hometown antecedents Big Star, the Scruffs had a comparable gift for wrapping post-adolescent angst in winsome harmonies and guitars set on high-treble jangle. Granted, the lead vocals of chief songwriter Stephen Burns did have an occasional tendency to wander dangerously close to Eric Carmen at his most earnestly horny. No matter. To those savvy enough to pick up on their debut LP, Wanna Meet the Scruffs?, it was plain that such standout tracks as “Break the Ice”, “Revenge”, and “I’m a Failure” were the brilliant if heart-rending craft of someone whose lady love was never going to suggest going all the way. That the tunes were so damned catchy was the cherry gravy on top.
What followed for Burns and cohorts was a serious string of buzzard luck: recording a second LP, Teenage Gurls, that was inexorably shelved; an unsuccessful move to NYC to crack that city’s Punk/Wave circuit. In their aftermath, one could be forgiven in thinking Burns and company were fated to join their fellow Memphian Chilton’s mob in bargain bin purgatory.
Thus, it was a joyous jolt a few years ago to witness the CD release of both Wanna Meet… and its unlucky sequel, via the British Rev-Ola label; even more so to discover that Stephen Burns was still making music. Indeed, since expatriating to Glasgow, Scotland in the late ‘90s, Burns has kept the Scruffs name going with a select crew of musicians, including such relative novices as members of Belle and Sebastian and Teenage Fanclub. Conquest is, in fact, this transcontinental Scruffs’ third offering (preceded by 1998’s Love, the Scruffs and 2006’s Pop Manifesto).
As one may expect, Burns’ voice has thickened and deepened with the years, though still recognizable as the yelping, frustrated player of Scruffs past. His talent for solidly constructed, rocking pop has hung in undiminished as well, as evidenced in the snap and swagger of this disc‘s “Treasure Girls” and “All the Pharoahs”, both perfectly anchored by none other than Big Star skinsman Jody Stephens. One of several pleasing recent developments on display is Burns’ skill for the slower, more atmospheric ballad. Barely glimpsed previously on tunes like Wanna Meet…’s swooning conclusion “Bedtime Stories”, the likes of “One More You” and especially “The Radio Song” (which details a broken romance or perhaps something darker) are dreamily affecting.
Burns has also expanded his instrumental palette since the days of Wanna Meet…. On Conquest, the basic two-guitars-bass-drums foundation is handily supplemented by horns, strings, and synths. A song like “One More You” benefits from the shadings of a string section that wouldn’t disgrace a Southern cotillion. Similarly, the almost Tom Scott-ish tenor sax winding through “Savage Teen” is appropriate for its comically schizoid arrangement, equal bits Jeff Lynne and Venus And Mars-era McCartney.
Not everything on Conquest hits the mark—its bookend tracks are, respectively, undistinguished FM pop and a ponderous prog-rock beastie that’s too much a reminder of all that one wants to forget about ‘70s rock.
Even so, in its best moments, hearing the Scruffs’ Conquest is like getting a postcard from a long lost compadre. Thankfully it’s not a postcard from the edge, but certainly one far edgier in its exuberance than the merchants of emo-glum and vacant vessels of glam currently fobbed off as 21st Century pop. Get with it; get conquered.
// Notes from the Road
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