Retro in the Metro: Atlanta Musicians Update Some Old-School Sounds

This ran awhile back in The Atlantan

The sound is not so much retro as retrofitted.

With a mixture of irony and affection, these young music-makers tinker with old-timey material and mannerisms, but their songs and packaging groove with indelible originality. Decked out in fedoras, cat’s-eye glasses, and baubles from the vintage rack at Stefan’s , they pack the house at the Star Bar, the Highland Ballroom, the EARL; Sister Louisa’s “Church”; and other intown nightspots where militant idiosyncrasy reigns. Bernadette Seacrest and her Provocateurs; Sodajerk; and Blair Crimmins and the Hookers all bring polychrome verve to their sepia sensibility, crooning in a past-perfect tense of their own making.

If these acts constitute a trend toward nostalgia, it is purely accidental — they all insist they are just following their own flask-tipping, Gatsbyesque muse.

“Is there a retro renaissance? I have no idea,” Seacrest says. “I like to live under my  beautiful rock. I have no idea what’s going on in the industry. The less I know, the happier I am. I just make my little records, play my little shows.”

She and her Provocateurs — bassist Kris Dale and guitar player/songwriter Charles Williams — just returned from a tour of France, where those “little shows” have established her as a slinky, old-school chanteuse. Think Peggy Lee filigreed with flippant tattoos, one of which involves the fricative F-bomb inside her lower lip. “Like the old biker gals,” she says. “What other folks think scary, I think hysterical.”

Last year, the band released its debut CD, “The Filthy South Sessions” with themes of diners and God’s purported drinking habits and other minor-key numbers she describes loosely as swing noire.

“I personally like the very eerie, dark, sad, heavy bottom in our music,” she says, batting fringey eyelashes. Seacrest, a California native, cultivates the sultry-siren mystique to the hilt. “I feel a kinship with old junk, and I believe in stilettos all the time!”

She and her gallant accompanists are scheduled for regular shows at the Highland Ballroom while gearing up for another spring tour of Europe.

For rowdier, roadhouse swagger, check out Sodajerk, which bills its sound as “y’allternative,” or “The Replacements meets Johnny Cash.” Founded by Kevin Charney and Alex  Brenner who perform respectively under the stage names “Poppa John Tucker” and “Bucky Goldstein,” the players — like these other “old wine in a new bottle” acts — are in their 30s, the time when nostalgia pangs kick in.

“We both grew up in Pittsburgh playing heavy metal,” Charney recalls. “But we realized our dads might be on to something with their old country music, which was darker than anything Black Sabbath was putting out. We decided to mash it all together, using Hank Williams’ concept of ‘three chords and the truth,’ and produce the antithesis of the pop sounds that were coming out of Nashville.”

Since migrating South in 2005, the duo has added bassist Blake Parris and “Saint” Freddy McNeal, taking pedal-steel cues from Atlanta’s “Redneck Underground,” and they are anything but slick and sugary with songs that toy with tear-stained jukebox tropes about “drinking and killing yourself” such as “Carbomb (To the Heart)” and their crowd-pleasing standard, “F— n’ Fight.” “We, um, excised that last one from the recordings we sent our mothers,” Charney says sheepishly.

Sodajerk just released its eighth album, “Songs for the Empty-Handed,” which features less twang and more boisterous rock. “We take that old-school Sun Records approach that if we make a mistake or leave a bruise on a record and its feel is good, we leave it there.”

It’s not a real Saturday night of honky-tonkin’ without a shiner or two, they figure. Sodajerk will play Smith’s Olde Bar with the Bottle Rockets on January 7.

The Fancy Dan of the bunch, Blair Crimmins has the kind of chiseled jaw, framed in floppy curls, usually seen in daguerreotypes. “I’ve been wearing bowties and suspenders since I was a little kid,” he says, “and now I have a hat for every occasion and wingtips in every color.”

He sings and plays guitar, banjo, and ukulele, backed by the brass of the Hookers, named for the band’s “commitment-shy, revolving door policy.” Their prop-heavy concerts usually incorporate P.T. Barnum-worthy themes — the Gypsy circus, cabaret with “dancing girls,” or vaudeville.

Crimmins, an Atlanta native and self-described “old soul,” penned a signature song, “Old Man Cabbage,” about an elderly gent “trapped in a young man’s body.”

“These retro bands may appear to be a trend, but I think the music is something that hasn’t really gone away,” he says. “Every generation reaches a point where it goes in search of the raw, the true, the authentic, the pure, and that’s what we’re all doing.”

Blair Crimmins and the Hookers are planning a release party on February 4 at the EARL for two new singles available only in vinyl and digital downloads.


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