Snakehips Makes Politically Tinged Power Pop for Tennessee and Beyond
by Edd Hurt, Nashville Scene
Mark Harrison skews the place-name song so effectively with "Tennessee," the track that leads off his new full-length as leader of Snakehips, that the rest of Must Be Present To Win sounds merely superlative by comparison. With its British Invasion-meets-blues guitar riff and glam-rock dash, "Tennessee" seems imbued with the spirit of its locale: "Guns in bars, Auto-Tune," Harrison half-sneers, and he name-checks "suburban sprawl, hellish heat, Southern drawl." Musically, Harrison is a graduate of the Memphis-run School of Alex Chilton and Chris Bell, which boasts such alumni as Chris Stamey, Teenage Fanclub, Jon Tiven and Elliott Smith. And while some of these students foreswore classes early, or had run-ins with the teacher, Harrison makes classically structured Memphis-style Nashville power pop that suggests he's learned some lessons.
Born in 1963 in Alaska, Harrison grew up in Murfreesboro and took guitar lessons with his brother, Price, when they were teenagers. "We discovered at a pretty early age The Velvet Underground and Dylan and all of those kind of things," says Harrison from his Nashville home. "I came to Nashville my senior year, and Price and I had started a little high school band, and we played some parties, you know."
Harrison says his high school band received an invitation to open for Nashville rockers The White Animals around that time, but couldn't make it. He'd never been to Memphis before, and in 1981 began attending Southwestern at Memphis, a liberal-arts school that is now Rhodes College. He entered the city's woozy post-Stax, post-Big Star music scene, which featured Chilton himself — home from the rock 'n' roll wars and hanging out in Midtown Memphis — playing guitar with the avant-garde rockabilly group Tav Falco's Panther Burns.
"I had a good friend, Lewis Duckworth, whose brother, Jim Duckworth, played with the Panther Burns and The Gun Club," says Harrison. "He gave me all these Chilton records, and within a year or two, I was meeting all these people. Tav used to throw these weird parties, down on the bluff in the big cotton rooms on Front Street. I met [Panther Burns drummer] Ross Johnson, and he ended up playing with me in one version of Snakehips that never recorded."
Recorded in Nashville and Memphis, Must Be Present To Win continues Harrison's work with the various versions of Snakehips. "Only One" has the emotionalism of a Grin track, while the country-tinged "Live Free or Die" lifts a melody along the lines of "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" and marries it to a nuanced folk-rock arrangement.
Harrison has a subject — his Marc Bolan-esque vocals help focus the satirical, observational lyrics he's penned for "Swinger," which is about casual sex and self-delusion. Similarly, "Tennessee" is hardly a candidate for a sanctioned state song. Working in the apolitical genre of power pop, Harrison makes his points with the same gnomic precision he wields while fashioning his spare, allusive arrangements.
Harrison has kept Snakehips going since their 1993 debut full-length, Lit, and has collaborated with his brother on various projects. When he played with Tav Falco's Panther Burns in the '80s, he got to hang out with Chilton — after class, as it were. As Harrison says of the Memphis seekers who have inspired him, "Some of the things they were doing back then were so far out of the mainstream, and I can't imagine them now. There was this attitude of fearlessness: 'What does it matter, just play.' People just do not do that anymore."
Month of Sundays
by Mark Shikuma, North Coast Journal
Singer / songwriter / bandleader Mark Harrison has swung back and forth between Memphis and Nashville without breaking ties with the musical influences that come from both sides of Tennessee. Starting in 1993, Harrison led his Memphis-based band, Snakehips, with their debut full length, Lit, a solid recording that wore its T.Rex / Replacements / Big Star / Stones influences proudly, accompanied with that Memphis soul-based swing. However, Harrison’s ballads, such as “Girl in Black” (from Lit) and “Blue Star” (from 1997’s excellent Memphis Juke) were closer to sweet folk ballads of the 1940's and 50's, the kind of thing heard in his native eastern Tennessee. It proved to be a good combination.
Harrison has quietly released an impressive catalogue of power pop, rock and hauntingly spare ballads, colored by an increasing assortment of musical flourishes, from the country-tinged pedal steel, to the use of a Wurlitzer organ, a horn section, strings, or a Theremin. In the interim, Harrison also teamed up with his brother Price Harrison, founding member of the unheralded garage/glam band, The Botswanas, with a side project, Golden Mean, releasing Black Operation in 2005. Though a collaborative project between the Harrison brothers, it was Mark’s “Don’t You Want It,” a Mink DeVille / Velvet Underground influenced gem that stood out.
For the fifth Snakehips record, Month of Sundays, he brings a cohesive set of songs, filled with pop hooks, eccentric nods to artists such as Todd Rundgren (the homage to “I Saw the Light” in the upbeat “Wonderland”), and out-and-out rockers (the sly, cool strut of Ric Steff’s B3 organ on “Come On” and the pounding chords of “Killing Floor”) and mid-tempo ballads. On the new Snakehips offering, Harrison’s flare for the pop-tinged, tight, and no-frills rock number, such as “Time to Cry,” or “Walk Away” is executed with such ease; it surpasses its initial influences. Yet, it’s the mature confidence in his softer, folk-based songs that demands attention. The aching “Love Poison” hosts an ingenious, scant electric guitar line that drops in a bed of churchlike keyboards, with Harrison’s near-country, deadpan vocal delivery of lines like, “Though I may wonder more, I know the color of my dreams,” is near perfect. The following “When I’m Blue,” accompanied with Jonathan Kirkscey’s cello and Doug Easley’s subtle pedal steel, provides a brilliant ambiance of melancholy and beauty. “When I Was Your Guy,” the record’s closer, employs a chugging acoustic guitar and synthesized strings, pointing to a new musical direction that Harrison has toyed with in the past.
Month of Sundays is the kind of record that one might hope that Alex Chilton still has in him, or that Paul Westerberg could be bothered to put together. And this is what I mean by “surpassing” influences, Mark Harrison, with his new Snakehips release, has quietly progressed with this record of varied pop nuggets.
Month of Sundays
Michael Toland, The Big Takeover
Mark Harrison's Snakehips appear out of nowhere every few years for another collection of rock / pop gems, and Month of Sundays is this year's model. As usual, the Memphis bred, Nashville based Harrison has one foot in the jangly pop of hometown idols Big Star and one in the rootsy rock & roll of the Rolling Stones. Check the pretty "Brand New," the snarling "Killing Floor" or the catchy "Walk Away." Even better are "Wonderland" and "Sheena" (co-written by Mark's brother Price from The Botswanas), which dance all over the middle ground between power pop and rock & roll, all but obliterating distinction / few songwriters hit that sweet spot between them better. Snakehips find time to get sensitive as well; arguably ballads like "When I'm Blue" and "Love Poison" take best advantage of Harrison's scratchy, vulnerable singing. One might argue that placing all the softer, gentler tunes at the end of the disk unbalances the flow a bit, but one might also assume it was done to come down after all the energy buzz of the first half. Regardless, Month of Sundays is a fine set of songs, maybe Harrison's best.
Selected Press Quotes
As spaciously arresting and emotionally vulnerable as the best rock and roll. In a year lacking in musical greatness, Snakehips take a most impressive leap back.
Bill Ellis, Memphis Commercial Appeal
Harrison's material is in the Memphis groove. The songs on Memphis Juke sport a loose, spontaneous sound that is typical of the city's musical approach and reflect the city's main musical strains, from the slinky soul popularized by Stax Records to [Alex] Chilton's skewed rock style.
Chris Morris, Billboard
Snakehips plays relatively loose, unhinged rock'n'roll, with front guy Mark Harrison singing like a cross between Matthew Sweet and a less irritating Billy Corgan. If you’re thinking 60's and 70's rock (as I'm sure Harrison often does), he sings like a cross between Bowie, Alex Chilton, and Lou Reed.
Imagine young LX, hanging in the E. Village post-Box Tops, waylaid by a time traveling Tav Falco and Feargal Sharkey (Undertones, grandson) diverted into a karaoke bar and stuffed full of bad acid. Then picture a buncha songs that touch on a myriad of rock and pop bases: chiming, arpeggio-laden janglery; South-fried boogiedelicism; folk-rock with funny pop-psyche choruses; et cetera. . . the visionary sythesis that Big Star achieved.
Others have tackled this familiar terrain (Matthew Sweet, J.C. Hopkins, Alex Chilton), but only a Memphian such as Mark Harrison could create Houndog Blues, a flat slice of Wurlitzer and slide guitar destined to be a lost American classic.
Bill Ellis, The Commercial Appeal
Mark Harrison's blend of power pop and roots rock is just as potent and memorable as the best stuff by his hero, [Alex Chilton] and frankly a lot more consistent.
Pop Culture Press
On the scene for 10 years, they've got their sound down: Juke's guitar-heavy tunes feel as though they were organically grown from the Delta silt and laced with smoke and grease. There is a brightness to them that recalls Memphis forebearers Big Star; like that band, Snakehips flesh out melodic pop ideas with loose, rambunctious instrumentation. It's hearty rock'n'roll, shaking hips with authority.
Rooted in the kind of stripped down, Stones-based rock-and-roll that's usually shunned by post modern hipsters; [Lit] is the kind of album that exists outside of trends and fashions; an album of very good, simple rock-and-roll that doesn't care about changing the sound of modern music or polishing its edges to a spit-shine veneer. Sharp and evocative.
Lit may just be the best rock'n'roll album released in 1994. I'm talking rock'n'roll here, the stuff Chuck Berry dreamed up, the stuff the Stones pumped out before they started recycling, the simple guitar / bass / drum sound the whole overrated Velvet Underground legacy is built on. Snakehips make music that's almost extinct.
Try to imagine Bobby Zimmerman on acid, Keef playing guitar with a bad hangover, a solid rhythm section holding it down. Think of Lou Reed and Marc Bolan also. Dark and mysterious with a well-defined snap and crackle in the air.
Pop Culture Press
Taking their sound from early 70's Stones and Faces, Mark Harrison and Snakehips come up with a credible rock album. Filled with loud, raunchy guitar and Jagger-like sneering vocals, this sounds like the real thing, and the fact that it was recorded in Memphis only adds to the authenticity.
You Could Do Worse
A fearless alternative-rock band: a band to watch.