Album review: TAS CRU – Memphis Song

Tas Cru - Memphis Song

Subcat Records [Release date 01.06.18]

Tas Cru is a blues artist and an observatory story teller for whom the combination of songcraft, feel and an underlying groove are sacrosanct. He also leaves plenty of room for quirky lyrics, ironic humour and inspired improvisation.

‘Memphis Song’ is not a concept album, but it is conceptually rooted in Memphis the “blues Mecca”. He cleverly knits together the sundry musically related styles through 10 self-penned tracks and 2 co-writes. There’s country blues, soul, funk and occasionally more up tempo rockier pieces in a beguiling melange.

It’s an old school album in which each track contributes to a related greater whole. It flows mellifluously from the uplifting opener ‘Heal My Soul’ -  a psycho spiritual exploration full of Cru’s intricate acoustic guitar, Dick Earl Erickson’s bluesy harp wail and very catchy bv’s on the hook by Donna Marie Floyd-Tritico and Patti Parks -  through to the guitar and organ-led shuffle of ‘Can’t Get Over Blues’. The latter is full of cool tones and a close-to-the-mic husky vocal, with closely woven bv’s topped by a signature guitar solo.

Real name Dr. Richard Bates, his professional stage name Tas Cru apparently means ‘rough potato’. This is in sharp contrast to his smooth layered style forged by piercing guitar lines and a lead vocal that is often intertwined with supporting bv’s.

Tas Cru is soulful, funky, melodic – he pays particular attention to catchy hooks and intuitive backing vocals – and he borders on Americana.  He’s also a guitarist with a delicate touch and tone that frequently emphasises feel in a song.

Taking his cue from artists such as Sleepy John Estes, Tas Cru’s songs are autobiographical, or at least about people and situations he recognises and delivered with an occasional twist. And it’s that seam of honesty, emotion and fun that gives his style of southern blues its integrity.

He’s a decent song writer too, as evidenced by the clever use of contrast in the first line of each verse on the sumptuous ‘Heal My Soul’. He’s: “going down to the river” and then “up the mountain”, as well as “out on the ocean”, which serves to give the narrative driven song an extra dynamic quality.

Then there’s the social commentary of his duet with sometime co-writer Mary Ann Casale on ‘Give A Little Up’, on which he broadens his perspective in a call for tolerance and middle ground. The use of cool dynamics with Steely Dan style funky keys and essential bv’s are in contrast to the subject matter of a tale of our troubled times.

He’s in celebratory mood on ‘Have A Drink’ and he cleverly builds ‘That Look’ on the back of an evocative phrase. He also adds irony and humour on ‘Don’t Lie To That Woman’, a subtle shuffle with some Rick Estrin style vocal phrasing and a J.J. Cale template.

The title track embraces gospel as it explores the notion of looking back at Memphis as a special place. The track quickly locks into a groove with a lovely mid-number Victor Wainright piano break. There’s also a subtle tempo change on the hook, with deft slide accompaniment from Pat Harrington over Bob Purdy’s significantly thumbed bass.

Much like J.J. Cale, Tas Cru knows the limits of his vocal range as his warm expressive phrasing wraps around a succession of mellow tracks given their impact by a lovely layered production on which each instrument adds an extra colour.

The clean toned guitar solo, harmonics and organ break on ‘Fool For the Blues’ for example, extend the melodic feel beautifully, before an insistent call and response and harmony vocal on the outro. The perfunctory ending fits the album’s momentum, but you could imagine the live band stretching this out.

‘One Eyed Jack’ is a light, but enjoyable funky workout, while ‘Queen Of Hearts’ extends the playing card metaphor as he returns to the core laid back style of the album.

‘Memphis Song’ is an evocation of the city as a musical catalyst. Many of the city’s salient musical elements form an integral part on an album shaped by experience, played with passion and delivered with a true love of the blues. ****

Review by Pete Feenstra

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