You don’t see Earl Greyhound comin’. Their name, and the ostensibly pretentious cover of the Brooklyn trio’s eponymous debut EP, conjures a tea-sippin’ neo-wave band. The album art for their LP bow Soft Targets (Some Records) showing a rearview of be-‘froed bassist/singer Kamara Thomas in repose further complicates attempts to divine the group’s essence without, you know, actually listening to the music. And you gotta hear these guys.
“Because we’re from Brooklyn,” singer-guitarist Matt Whyte says, admitting misconceptions about his band, “most people either assume it’s gonna be a snarky Williamsburg band.” Whatever that means, Earl Greyhound isn’t that—isn’t a lot of things—and a guess gets you nowhere.
Even when an Earl Greyhound song, says “S.O.S.,” starts with bright, chunky chords and a rumbling bass line, barreling into a moaning chorus, perhaps telegraphing a doom-y Zeppelin-esque Viking quest (and it kind of is), you don’t foresee Thomas’ cooing backup vocal or Whyte’s fingerpicked staccato bridge riff evoking such left-field references as .38 Special and ELO. And it gets crazier. “All Better Now” pumps up the soul tires on the MC5’s Detroit-sonic wheels; “It’s Over” appears to meld Otis Redding to Cheap Trick; “Like a Doggy” takes The Pixies’ loud-quiet-loud aesthetic to Motown; “Back and Forth” feels like Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes backed by Black Sabbath on white pills.
Fact is, there are surprises all over Soft Targets, an album that makes a rock fan weep convulsively and beg for more like a homely girl in the throes of a G-spot orgasm orchestrated by some Hollywood dreamboat. Only Earl Greyhound’s rock & roll ass-kicking, according to Whyte, is anything but intelligent design; it just—pow—kind of happens. “Kamara and I have been making music together for a few years now,” he says. “That’s one of the great things about any collaboration. … Things can develop organically.”
Those organic origins, with a bit more detail: What happened was, beginning in 2002, Whyte and Thomas played together as a piano-and-guitar duo, working mostly with Whyte’s songs. As their sound evolved, growing taller and louder, the need for a drummer materialized. They found Christopher Bear and, by January 2003, they were playing out. In 2004, Ricc Sheridan joined, and Whyte says that’s when Greyhound started to move at a “much, much faster” clip. The Earl Greyhound EP came later that year, and Soft Targets was released last summer to copious applause which, incidentally, meets Earl Greyhound at every tour stop.
But even with word-of-mouth and good press, nobody seems to get the license plate of that proverbial bus. And the closest we get to a mission statement is the band’s motto: “Rock Your Faces, Mix the Races,” which Thomas has elucidated in the past. She swears that once you catch their live show, pre-existing boundaries instantly begin to fade. They are, she says, part of a new cultural phase re-defining lines of gender and race.
That’s the thing, though. We’re conditioned to crave boundaries, parameters—some little cubby in which to keep everything neat and defined and digestible. Sure things and soft targets allow us to not waste time, money or thought in our efforts to be entertained. We don’t need to be blown away; we’ll settle for being occupied. Then comes Earl Greyhound.
Soft Targets is one of the best rock & roll records this year, this decade, century, millennium and any other exaggerated time span including Zep’s long, lonely times. It pilfers an array of genres and subgenres (garage-rock, soul, power-pop, metal, stoner rock, classic rock, blues) to create cool, propulsive sing-alongs that are easy like a Sunday morning, but turgid as a Saturday night.
It’s so simple, but so complicated; there must be an Architect—but Whyte maintains it’s just a happy accident. Thomas, he says, is relatively new to the bass and therefore more navely creative on the instrument than schooled bass players, relying on her vocalist’s knack for harmony to guide her. It’s just one example of Earl Greyhound’s Big Bang, but it’s telling. Some things just sneak up on you, and it pays to be ready when they do.
For instance, Earl Greyhound is sneaking into town as the support act for Soundgarden vocalist-turned-Michael Jackson-tribute-artist Chris Cornell. Unless you’re a Soundgarden fan looking for reliable greatest hits by one-fourth of the original artists, and your expectations are comfortably low enough to endure his solo crapola, you might miss one of the best bands that’ll ever come through Salt Lake City. You’ll get your $39.50 worth from Earl Greyhound alone—they do, in a convenient phrase, kick ass.
“How much ass do you kick?” Whyte paraphrases the question for Thomas, riding beside him in the Greyhound van.
EARL GREYHOUND with Chris Cornell @ The Depot, 400 W. South Temple, Saturday Oct. 6, 7 p.m. DepotSLC.com