Album of the Week, November 17: Down In the Shacks Where the Satellite Dishes Grow by the JudyBats

JudyBatsShacksThe JudyBats formed in Knoxville, TN where its members were college students. Their slightly folk-tinged alt-pop centered around the charming lyrics and almost-twangy vocals of Jeff Heiskell. The rest of the band — Ed Winters (guitar), Tim Stutz (bass), Johnny Sughrue (guitarist), Terry Casper (drums), and Peg Hambright (keyboards, violin) — had known or worked with each other in various configurations and quickly formed a tight musical unit. Their local reputation as part of the late 80s southern alt-rock scene built quickly, leading to a deal with Sire. They first appeared on the Roky Erickson tribute Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye in 1990. That track also appeared on their debut, the fine but inconsistent Native Son in 1991. Casper departed soon after, replaced by Kevin Jarvis. The rejuvenated unit went back into the studio and recorded one of the most sadly overlooked pop gems of the 90s.

Title Down In the Shacks
Where the Satellite Dishes Grow
Act The JudyBats
Label Sire Release Date Feb. 18, 1992
Producer Richard Gottehrer
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
  1. Our Story
  2. She’s Sad She Said
  3. How It Is
  4. Down In the Shacks
    Where the Satellite Dishes Grow
  5. Margot Known As Missy
  6. Witches’ Night
  7. Is Anything
  8. Poor Bruised World
  9. Animal Farm
  10. Saturday
  11. Lullaby — Weren’t We Wild
  12. When Things Get Slow Around Here

The album works as a bit of updated Southern Gothic in many ways, with its tales of disjointed relationships, keen observations, and offbeat families viewed through a distinct college town lens. Heiskell’s lyrics are pointed and witty, and he sings them with a disarming openness that provides a good counterpoint to the often ironic tone.

Things start off strong with the band’s finest song, Our Story, a wonderful look at a relationship that’s run its course. Heiskell — who is gay — writes vague first and third person narratives that help make the stories universal around their witty specifics. Our Story is a soaring piece of music with a dark core, the perfect introduction to this disc. She’s Sad She Said — a nicely askew Beatles reference — is the sad observations of an overly objectified woman, proving Heiskell’s talent for assuming characters as well. How It Is ends another relationship, this time in an unrequited triangle. This trilogy prove just how great the JudyBats could be.

The title track uses one of the best images for the disconnect between modern and traditionally rural life ever to tell another story of people who have outgrown each other. Despite the thematic similarities, each story is so different in its particulars that the album reads like a series of interconnected short stories. Margot Known As Missy tells the story of a man infatuated with a lesbian, managing to balance the pathos with wit. Witches’ Night is a quiet, tender reflection from a man certain his life is going nowhere. Framed with Halloween imagery, it fits the narrative quite well.

The band rock harder on Is Anything? an existential crisis made musical. Poor Bruised World is an ecological tale merged with a breakup song. It nicely mixes the two concepts working on multiple levels while maintaining its emotional core. It’s followed cleverly by the album’s one cover, the Kinks’ Animal Farm. The natural images help anchor the stories of the album in their fundamentally rural setting, and the band treat the song with the right mix of respect and originality.

Saturday is the tale of an armchair quarterback, a man going to seed as his past glories — however insignificant — recede. It’s another more energetic song, helping move the album along. It also sets the stage for the quiet closers. Lullaby — Weren’t We Wild is a more reflective version of Saturday, a fitting farewell-to-our-sheltered youth. The delivery is precise, with Heiskell’s singing feeling like the turning of pages in a photo album. The disc wraps up beautifully with When Things Get Slow Around Here. The band managed to bookend the album with its two best songs. This time its a narrative between two distant friends. Although they haven’t seen each other for some time, the bond remains. That message creates the perfect end to this set of oddball stories and broken relationships, providing a note of hope, however fragile.

FURTHER LISTENING: During their brief career the JudyBats had numerous personnel changes. After Shacks, Stutz, Hambright, and Jarvis departed. Their replacements lacked the charming spirit that elevated the first two discs. Pain Makes You Beautiful was more successful commercially and capitalized on the burgeoning rock scene. It’s worth a listen and has a handful of great songs, but it’s inconsistent. Full Empty is clearly the sound of a band with no heart left and is best avoided.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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