Best Local Rock Songs Ever, Part 12 [The Feminine Complex, Phil Lee, Lifeboy, The What Four, Jason and the Scorchers]



Editor's note: Our fearless leader, Nashville Scene editor-in-chief Jim Ridley, has not only been with our little rag for the better part of two decades — he's also a native Middle Tennessean and longtime local-music aficionado. For the dozenth installment in our ongoing Best Local Rock Songs Ever series, we let Ridley take the wheel, so that he might school us in regard to some of yesteryear's finest local rock 'n' roll. Take it away, Jim.

The Feminine Complex, "I've Been Working on You"

Listen: YouTube (demo version) | Spotify (LP version)

The greatest garage-pop record you may never have heard was cut by a group of Maplewood High School girls' basketball teammates in 1969. As The Feminine Complex, they put out a single LP, Livin' Love, before calling it quits and moving on with their lives — only to be rediscovered a quarter-century later and reissued in 1996 by TeenBeat Records impresario Mark Robinson. The LP version was recut with session players and features Famous Flames-style horns; but the demo version features the teen bandmates, revved up and eager to prove their prowess to "not bad for a bunch of girls" disbelievers. Like many of the unheralded rock records cut in Nashville during the 1960s — you'll find plenty to seek out in this invaluable Jonathan Marx history from 1995 — it seems like a local act's attempt to slip in inconspicuously among the nationals, yet it's even better for all the ways it can't quite eliminate its downhome roots.

Phil Lee, "Babylon"

I stand by my description of this masterpiece as "Kiss' 'Beth' with a working bullshit filter" — it's the best song I've ever heard about a feckless musician surrendering to the lure of a life that's surely worse for him than cigarettes. The set-up: A would-be rock star treading water in the titular Sin City's fickle music scene calls home to report how things are going ("We're living in this ghost town now, where the hollow creatures lurk"), taking the scenic route to his real message ("All right, I am not coming home"). As a character monologue, this nails the singer's self-pity, self-justification and self-everything in perfectly calibrated mood swings; what I can't get over is the ease of the lyric shifts from intimate to epic, conversational to poetic, resigned to desperate. The studio version, found on Lee's superlative 2001 release You Should Have Known Me Then, has the sweep and grandeur I associate with classic Springsteen, capped by a sunrise of a coda in which Lee's harmonica plays the role of Clarence Clemons' sax on "Jungleland."

Lifeboy, "Complicated"

Listen: Soundcloud

Among family trees of Nashville rock, Lifeboy is a sequoia. So why haven't you heard them? Thank Sire Records, whose president, Seymour Stein, traveled to University School of Nashville in 1998 to sign the teenage trio in study hall — then gave the group a crash course in adult disillusionment by not releasing their record. Back then, the bandmates' biggest fear was being compared to Hanson, but as the Scene's Bill Friskics-Warren wrote at the time, "People who hear the irrepressible guitar pop of the trio’s forthcoming Sire Records debut — something of a cross between The Who, Big Star and Elvis Costello — will know the difference soon enough." What happened instead was that music history missed out on the promise of a band consisting of 18-year-old William Tyler, 17-year-old Sam Smith and 18-year-old Keith Lowen, playing barbed Stiff Records pop for now Nashvillians. If you really want to lament what might have been, check out this marvel issued on an NEA Extravaganza sampler back when the group was called Soul Surgeon: four minutes of bubblegum studded with razor blades, all whipcrack dynamics and brash cleverness, the sound of three kids thinking they were about to own the world. Word is that Tyler has understandably ambivalent feelings about this material — but if anything merited a vinyl issue on his Sebastian Speaks label, it's this.

The What Four, "Ears to the Ground"

Listen: [Link to come]

Perhaps not surprisingly for a town full of studio geniuses, Nashville garage bands were unusually adept at Beach Boys knock-offs, and this spectral ballad in the "Don't Worry Baby" mode evokes one seriously haunted beach. If it sounds familiar, maybe you've heard Josh Rouse's cover on the Under Cold Blue Stars LP — but the woozy, ethereal beauty of the original works like a mood-altering drug. The What Four had one of Nashville's great secret songwriting weapons of the ’90s in Jason M. Phelan, who never met a ’60s influence he couldn't assimilate, be it The Kinks ("Shelly Peters") or The Stooges ("Can't Love No One," a thuggish wonder I almost went with instead). A fine two-CD compilation, The What Four Anthology, is available at iTunes for $19.99 — but if only this one tempts you, your 99 cents will yield an enormous return on investment.

Jason and the Scorchers, "Broken Whiskey Glass"

Everybody rise for the Nashville anthem.

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