"Magic Wand," the first song on Attack!, the debut album from the young Memphis band the Bulletproof Vests, leaps out of the speakers on a nimble classic-rock guitar riff and cools down with a splash of soulful organ, all serving as foundation for an identifiably Southern vocal. It sounds more than a little like the Band's "The Shape I'm In."
This wouldn't be unusual, except that four-fifths of the musicians who recorded the album got their start on the local scene a few years ago in Augustine, a buzzed-about experimental indie band that sounded a lot more like British art-rockers Radiohead.
"It's like a journey, where you start with certain influences, and I guess our tastes changed," says singer/guitarist Jake Vest, 24, who, along with older brother Toby, 30, fronts the band.
The younger Vest was an 18-year-old college freshman when Augustine started, driven by his elder brother's then tastes in contemporary rock. Augustine released one record under that moniker, then a second — Among the Wolves — under a new name, the Third Man, but then began to sputter.
"Right after the last Third Man record, we were meeting to plan our promotional attack, and after taking two years to make that record, it was extremely difficult," Toby says. "Not only did we drive ourselves crazy, we drove [producer Kevin] Cubbins crazy. The enthusiasm, for the moment, was not there. So we decided to put the band on pause for a while. We didn't have plans to start another group."
The band did still have a show scheduled to open for fellow locals Antique Curtains but couldn't get everyone together, so the Vest brothers, bassist Dirk Kitterlin, and Curtains drummer Greg Faison did a set of covers.
The seed for a new band was planted.
In the Third Man, Toby was the primary songwriter, with Jake taking a secondary role. Those roles are reversed in the Bulletproof Vests.
"Jake had a bunch of songs that didn't really fit in the Third Man," Toby says. "I wanted this band to showcase [his stuff]."
The younger Vest's tastes were also changing.
"I became more interested in Memphis, especially after I read [local author Robert Gordon's alternative history] It Came From Memphis . I wanted to know about everyone who'd played here. And Dirk was working at Stax and introducing me to stuff — Big Star, Otis Redding. I even started to like Elvis, which was very hard for me," says Jake, who also speaks excitedly about classic-rock touchstones such as the Velvet Underground's third and fourth albums and the Band's concert film The Last Waltz .
"It hit me like a brick, man," he says. "This was the kind of music I wanted to play."
The younger Vest had a partial outlet for this interest alongside singer Jake Rabinbach in the swamp-rock and R&B band Jump Back Jake, which also features Faison and current Vests bassist Brandon Robertson. The band originally included Kitterlin, who has moved to organ in the Bulletproof Vests, taking a crash course in Booker T. Jones and the Band's Garth Hudson to master his new instrument.
But with the Bulletproof Vests, which add a more diverse array of '60s and '70s rock influences (witness the Big Star-meets-T. Rex mash-up of "To the Moon"), Vest & Co. get to fully explore their newfound classic-rock jones.