Back in 2009, on the eve of the release of Dirty Streets’ debut LP, singer-guitarist Justin Toland spoke determinedly about the young band’s future. “We’ve always had very definite goals. The main goal is to be as good as we can as musicians and keep writing songs.”
Four years later, Toland and company — bassist Thomas Storz and drummer Andrew Denham — have followed through on expectations, with a triumphant third LP, Blades of Grass, that came out this week. The group will mark the occasion with a concert performance Friday night at the new Hi-Tone Café location in Crosstown.
Dirty Streets launched in late 2006 when DeSoto County natives Toland and Storz met through mutual friends. The pair quickly bonded over a shared love of Hill Country blues, proto-punk and ’70s boogie-rock. The band jelled fully a year later with the addition of Denham, a naturally powerful drummer fresh out of high school. For a couple of years, the band woodshedded heavily, playing regular gigs at Midtown watering holes like Murphy’s and toughening its sound.
Unlike most of their post-teen peers, the Streets lost themselves in a bubble of late-’60/early-’70s blues-rock made in, or informed by, the Bluff City. “The three of us really related to that kind of music; it was surprising to us that more of our friends didn’t listen to roots-based rock from around here,” Toland says. “We were also into these British bands and Detroit bands, too. The longer I’ve lived here in Memphis, the more I realize how much those groups respected the music from this area and were influenced by it, or actually came here to record.”
After releasing two records independently — their self-titled debut and 2011’s Movements — the band signed last year with Burbank-based label Alive Naturalsound Records. Armed with a better budget, the Streets decided to track their third LP at Midtown’s famed Ardent Studios, working with engineer Adam Hill.
“I had a strong feeling that I wanted to do this one a certain way,” says Toland. “I told Adam I wanted to make an analog record, not too polished. We talked specifically about the dynamics, and how the drums would sound.”
“We both had an idea that we wanted it sound like a Glyn Johns record, some Humble Pie, or like an Eddie Kramer record, to get that ’60s vibe on it. And even going back to Ardent itself, I really like the bands that came out of the studio like (’70s outfit) Moloch. So we thought, ‘Yeah, let’s get a Moloch sound on this record.’”
Although they reached back sonically, Blades of Grass sees the Dirty Streets moving forward musically, evolving with an album that places an emphasis on the songs and arrangements, without sacrificing the loose, bluesy bluster of the band’s earlier work.
“With the first album, we were thinking much more as a live band,” Toland says. “When I listen back to the record, the songs are super drawn out, with really long solos. On record, it didn’t translate as well. We took a few more chances on this one, by focusing on the tunes and not worrying about how it would sound live and loud.” That shift is abetted by several guests, including Lucero pianist/organist Rick Steff, harmonica player Adam Maxwell and engineer Hill, who chips in with percussion and harmonies.
The biggest element in the band’s growth, however, is Toland’s developing skills as a guitarist, and the added nuance in his playing. “More than anything, I’ve learned to slow down and be more expressive,” he says. “In the beginning, I tended to get excited and go full force all the time. It’s one of those things where the more music I discover and guitarists I learn to appreciate, it’s less about speed and force and more about expression. I’ve tried to translate more feeling into my playing. That’s what’s changed the most stylistically.”
Since hitting the road for their full first national tour last year, the group has been winning over new fans and raising its profile. The group will be launching another cross-country trek in September, and wearing their musical and geographic influences on their sleeve.
“It’s funny ’cause when we record or play, we’re just trying to get the groove right; we’re not really thinking about where we fit in musically. But every time we go out of town, people say, ‘You sound like you’re from Memphis!’ We’ve never really focused on a Memphis sound, or having soul and blues influence, but it’s there, and it’s apparent to other people. And that’s fine with us.”
Dirty Streets, Heavy Eyes and Kill Baby Kill
10 p.m. Friday at the Hi-Tone Café, 412-414 N. Cleveland. Cover is $8 at the door. For more information, go to hitonememphis.com or call 901-278-8663.