Like your favorite season, The Judybats 1991 debut Native Son conjures moments of exploding possibility or reassuring melancholy– perhaps a Spring that sends you sipping front porch cocktails, head over for who knows; or maybe a finally-fall that finds you reaching for a cardigan, reckoning with nostalgia.
Native Son is yet another document of the American South’s pop domination during the burgeoning Buzz Bin era. R.E.M. headlines the discussion, but other southern artists like Let’s Active, Tommy Keene, Vulgar Boatmen, The Spongetones, The Windbreakers, and The dB’s released sides full of Byrdsian jangle and earworm hooks. Arriving in 1987 and signing to Sire Records in 1991, Knoxville’s Judybats sounded at home in the zeitgeist. Their debut is a kaleidoscope of chiming arpeggios, whimsical flourishes, and headphone-friendly layers, each song possessing the heft of a mini-epic.
Jeff Heiskell’s vocals– dramatic, sometimes near-operatic– charm in their star turn, but never overshadow the band. Ed Winter’s electric guitar, Peggy Hambright’s imaginative keys, and Johnny Sughrue’s reassuring acoustic strum are essential to the spectacle.
“Native Son” and the equally indelible “Daylight” are some of the most endearing opening six minutes of any album, and the newly initiated could almost be forgiven for never making it past those songs, fingers forever returning to the rewind button– but The Judybats reserve two of their best cuts (“Waiting for the Rain” and “Perfumed Lies”) for a b-side dressed in perfect pop whoa’s & ooh’s. Of course, NS is rich with showpieces including the giddy-up bounce of “Convalescing in Spain”, the moody “Incognito”, “Woman in the Garden”, and a gleaming take on the 13th Floor Elevator’s “She Lives (In a Time of Her Own)”.
By 1991, another regional indie explosion, this time from Seattle, redefined what alternative music meant to the mainstream, leaving little space for bands like The Judybats on Alternative Nation’s rotation. Despite the sea change, the band released four more albums, all worth a revisit or that first unsuspecting listen. But embrace the head rush of a wide-eyed debut and start here.