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Jay Reatard: Matador Singles ’08

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Jay Reatard

Matador Singles ’08

Rating: 4.0

Label: Matador Records

Jay Reatard goes right where Bob Pollard went wrong.

Both understand the essential elements of real rock ‘n’ roll, and both often show themselves to be masters at delivering tight, simple nuggets of memorable pop. But at some point along the way, Pollard started to buy the hype about his penchant for churning out top-notch tunes in voluminous doses, churning out three to five records a year for a while. Some of these albums were great. Others had a few gems and a lot of filler. After a while that ratio turned in the wrong direction. Eventually, it reached a point at which he was putting out roughly one album’s worth of good material and spreading it among three or four. The keepers were indeed solid gold, but the fan had to become something of a miner-49er and work overtime to find them.

Reatard hasn’t made any albums as life-changing as the best work of Guided By Voices, Pollard’s old band, but for the past few years he’s been focusing on the singles format, making his work very easy to appreciate. That’s partly because the listener only has two songs to sift through, but also largely because by only serving up an A-side and a B-side, Reatard makes every song matter, and gives himself incentive to make each and every track memorable.

This strategy is what makes his new compilation, Matador Singles ’08, such a treat. Every song does matter, and it’s clear that he wrote and recorded each single as if it might be the last track he ever put out. The result is a set of 13 songs brimming with urgency. An album created not by laying down various tracks and seeing what worked and what didn’t, but by constructing it piece by piece, nugget by nugget, until the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. It’s like the Voltron of rock albums.

The collection is filled with chunks of power-pop, old-school punk, a little bit of twang here and there — all averaging two minutes in length, each a perfect or near-perfect example of what a single can do. Highlights such as “See/Saw” and “Always Wanting More” could easily be outtakes from last year’s stellar Rhino punk-singles collection, No Thanks. There’s a cover of Deerhunter’s “Fluorescent Grey” with Bradford Cox. There’s more laid-back stuff like “You Were Sleeping.” One thing there isn’t, though, is a forgettable song in the bunch. It’s addictive, and gets better and more memorable with each listen.

The collection builds on the ferocious sound of Reatard’s 2006 full-length, Blood Visions, which was full of adrenaline but also of songs that ran together after a while, and his 2006-07 singles, compiled by In the Read Records earlier this year, which had a little more variety but not quite as consistent quality. The Matador singles are remarkably consistent and compelling, and keep me coming back. “Always Wanting More” is a classic sneering punk anthem, with Reatard singing in something resembling a British accent by way of Memphis about someone who’s “such a useless bore / but you’re always wanting more” over a sturdy hook that steadily builds to an explosive chorus that recalls vintage bands such as Generation X, The Undertones, The Dils or The Rezillos, bands that inform a number of other cuts as well. “I’m Watching You” expresses similarly snide sentiments, but to a slower beat with echoing vocals, coming off more like a Syd Barrett outtake. And the aforementioned “You Were Sleeping” has a bit of a country flavor to it, or at least, garage-country, like what The Black Lips are known to serve up from time to time.

Having followed the singles releases throughout the year (to the best of my ability — the last few releases were really scarce), this has been a really fun project to experience, witnessing the gradual assembly of an album that’s being worked out in public. Hearing the finished product, though — a collection of singles that truly deserve to be singles, each in their own right — is really something special.

by Jake Stuiver

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