Photo by Felicia Graham
To my knowledge there have been two songs released this year so far with the title “Heat Lightning” and they couldn’t be more different. The first was released by Pittsburgh-based 1,2,3 and typifies a contemporary indie sound. It’s laid-back but carefully crafted with every whistle, bell, and synth line in its right place. A full band never emerges in full, unrestrained form. The singer is restrained but exaggerates a lot of his vocal mannerisms, and when he implores “Gimme heat lightning” it sounds like a whine or a plea – but it hardly communicates the urgency seemingly inherent in the phrase. (I much prefer their song “Riding Coach.”)Moonlight Towers - Heat Lightning
The other “Heat Lightning” comes from Austin’s own Moonlight Towers, and is decidedly un-indie. It’s an uptempo cut replete with double-tracked lead and backing vocals, and slightly distorted guitars. This “Heat Lightning” is overflowing with the kind of energy befitting a line like, “Is this the real thing striking / or is it just heat lightning?” Moonlight Towers, on this track and throughout the album, draw from power pop icons like Big Star and Cheap Trick – filling their tracks with “ooh-wah” backing vocals, melodic lead guitars, and glorious horn lines that make big choruses sound even bigger. The lyrics are sometimes a bit basic and the song structures are familiar, but this is a band that rocks.
The connection to a band like Big Star, which was based out of the Memphis power pop scene of the early 1970s, is perhaps understandable since frontman James Stevens grew up in West Point, Mississippi – a mere two-and-a-half hours from that legendary city. In interviews he has recalled going to Memphis as a teenager to cut demos, so the influence was definitely there. Additionally, Stevens’ older brother, Rogers, moved to LA and eventually found musical success with the 90s alt-rock band Blind Melon (which you may remember from the universally beloved “No Rain”, though the entirety of their 1992 self-titled release is quite enjoyable). Clearly, this path was inevitable for Stevens to follow.
Recent accolades from Little Steven (of E Street Band fame) have helped propel Moonlight Towers to greater prominence, which they’re capitalizing on with their new release, Day Is the New Night, available now. Theirs is not a sound that’s on the cutting edge of indie music (unlike 1,2,3…arguably); instead, it reminds us how good old rock n’ roll can be. Catch Moonlight Towers live this Saturday night at Skinny’s Ballroom.