Across five albums of piano-driven rock and soul, Low Cut Connie has proven masterfully fluent in the foundational languages of Western pop, living at the crossroads where the church house meets the roadhouse, or where the Dew Drop Inn meets CBGB. They're revivalists, but definitely not re-enactors: You can hear the traces of and nods to the wildfire boogie of Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis or the big piano balladeering of Billy Joel and Elton John (the latter of whom gave the group a hearty endorsement in 2017). The blood that pumps through the Philadelphia band's work comes from a place that's fresh, original, and truly pledged to rock and roll.
In an interview earlier this year, frontman and piano-banger Adam Weiner explained the dividing line between last year's Dirty Pictures (Part 1) and the new Dirty Pictures (Part 2) (out May 18 on Contender Records). The group's explosive live shows and blues-punk bluster had engendered a certain rep.
"To be completely honest, we have a reputation and perception of our band that I think strategically I had to undo a little bit," Weiner tells NPR Music. He was getting tired of write-ups that leaned on words like "sleazy" and "scuzzy" and "greasy," however well-intended.
"I think it's just because we do this kind of full-bodied, red-blooded rock and roll thing, as opposed to what's more in fashion, which is just this ironic indie rock thing," he said. And the overall Dirty Pictures batch of songs was starting to show him that it had two sides; the songs that would populate Part 2 were emerging as more complex. They were songs that still rocked – songs that you could still climb a piano to, as Weiner often does with his semi-famous battered upright named Shondra — but with character, nuance and emotional complexity.
"I feel like the songs on Dirty Pictures (Part 2) are these kind of interiors, and they're quiet places," Weiner says.
Like Part 1, the new album was waxed at Ardent, the legendary Memphis studio that launched Big Star and is still run by that band's drummer, Jody Stephens. The choice to record there wasn't touristic. Weiner spent the 2001 school year going to college in Memphis, at a time when the always deeply weird and creatively fertile Southern city was particularly so. At the turn of the millennium, the garage splatter of rockers like the Oblivians and the Lost Sounds was coexisting with the still-vital spirit of Stax, Sun and Hi Records. Eccentric star producer Jim Dickinson was still around and busy; Fat Possum Records was excavating the nearby North Mississippi Hill Country for haunted, scruffy, unheard blues. Mose Vinson, a boogie-woogie piano player who'd worked sessions for Sam Phillips at Sun Studios, was still playing around town regularly.
"My fascination with New Orleans piano came later, but my first entry point was Mose Vinson and this kind of very sloppy, deep boogie, Memphis whorehouse piano style," Weiner explains. "And so it was kind of like full circle because I hadn't recorded in Memphis since many, many years went by, and that was like the beginning of my musical journey. I hate the word journey, but here I'm using it."
Memphis is all over Dirty Pictures (Part 2). The closer is an exclamatory tour de force cover of Alex Chilton's "Hey! Little Child"; the opening track, "All These Kids Are Way Too High," a deliciously lo-fi rock and roll rave-up, feels like something from the Tav Falco and Panther Burns songbook. It's not hard to imagine the sweeping ballad "Every Time You Turn Around" showcasing the soulful backing vocals of Reba Russell and Vicki Loveland, in the voice of championship-belt era Elvis, and "One More Time" is primal backcountry gospel that practically feels like a field recording with its whispery background murmurs, fingersnaps and tapping boot heels. The songcraft that was always there underneath the sweat and splatter emerges more fully, as well, on Part 2: Weiner can autopsy the complications of heartbreak with surgical precision, as on the Dixie-fried kiss-off "Oh Suzanne" and the yearning "Beverly," or, on "Master Tapes," spit out a perfectly percussive string of swear-word syllables to open a rolling rumba that slowly spirals into a pounding showcase for guitarists James Everhart and Will Donnelly.
Here's another way in which Low Cut Connie echoes America's rock and roll architects: they've worked their tails off, playing a reported hundred dates a year in that unglamorous if-it's-Tuesday-it-must-be-Omaha kind of way. As a barroom pianist and solo artist, Weiner punched the rock and roll clock as a journeyman entertainer for years before that; the recent momentum (that Elton John co-sign and a spot on President Obama's playlist in 2015) is pretty new in comparison. It's hard not to think of that trajectory listening to the gentle "Hollywood," a delicate ballad that presents Weiner's voice, wistful and a little weary, against understated acoustic guitar, singing about the promise of stardust and how far away it feels sometimes.
"Oh, Hollywood," Weiner sings, "Don't bring me down / Don't stab my back when I turn around." The protagonist of the song is just another one of the album's rogues' gallery of barroom angels – but it sure makes you root harder for its singer.