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MP3 Vending Machine - 5 Piece Kit

"A triumph in lo-fi psych-funk". The ice has long melted off the rooftops and summertime slows down the anger for some dreamy strolls and vigilante pool hopping at 2 AM. Think Mink Lungs, Bright Eyes, Elliot Smith, Evan Dando, Lemonheads style rock.

11 MP3 Songs
ROCK: Psychedelic, POP: Quirky

Vending Machine is the name of the band. But the one-man wizard behind the curtain is Robby Grant. Mixing and fusing lo-fi, folk and funk, Vending Machine''s third release, "5 Piece Kit" is set for a May 20th release. It may be a day that record store managers will rue. Trying to decipher what bin Vending Machine''s eclectic mix of Memphis music belongs. Not only does Grant write all of Vending Machine''s material, he also plays guitar on the record. And bass. And drums. And keyboards. All recorded in the friendly confines of his attic.

Before becoming the creative force behind Vending Machine, Grant was the principal songwriter and guitarist of the legendary Memphis outfit Big Ass Truck. Critics and fans are still scratching their heads as to why the band wasn''t playing Madison Square Garden. B.A.T was featured on NPR and MTV and played an early blend of rock and hip-hop that is still influencing bands today.

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Again and again, Robby Grant is a man who defies categorization. Probably better known as a member of the (now on hiatus) eclectic groove-rockers Big Ass Truck, he is a singularly impressive talent in his own right, issuing a series of endlessly enjoyable entries into the lo-fi quirk-pop canon that find him tackling everything from poignant piano ballads dedicated to children that have been turned into trees to funk rock odes to guitars made of chocolate. As such, one never has any idea what to expect from him, as to this point his releases have been brilliantly inconsistent, with every miss arguably as entertaining as every hit, and every album succeeding largely on that paradoxical formula. And while he doesn''t quite reach the savant excesses of someone like Daniel Johnston, it''s obvious from a perusal of the history of rock that most talents like him don''t last all that long, either burning their creativity out in short order or abandoning it for safer, more commercially viable forms of expression. To that extent, 5 Piece Kit is a crucial point in Grant''s progression.

The first thing that one notices with 5 Piece Kit is that Grant has decided to not go it entirely alone this time around, augmenting his one-man band with a number of friends at various points. Sometimes, splitting duties draws Grant into more conventional musical territory, as with the jazz hall strumming of "Angel Ng," which despite some sludgy, mutated slide guitar and love/hate relationship with a female Frankenstein-like creation that he fashioned out of "sticks, mud, and wire," is about as straightforward as Grant has ever been, its loose carnival feel and moaning slide guitar riffs mixing with his impressively measured vocals. Even better is the astoundingly sincere, "I''ll Know, We''ll Last," with subtle acoustic guitar overlaid with cello and twinkling electric guitar leads to create the year''s most unlikely, achingly beautiful love ballad. Turntables turn up on the playfully creeping "Reno," with Grant posited on both ends of a hilariously sexed-up call-and-response electro-funk arrangement (sample lyric: "Why you gonna sing? Because I can. You know won''t make it. But I''ll make money. What if we tried? We did. And never really made it?") that eventually gives way to growling guitar lines and a pristine classical piano sample. His Big Ass Truck bandmates even stop by for what might be the band''s collaborative swan song in the trippy psych-funk groove of the confoundingly layered "Shoulder Tap." Still, sharing the spotlight is not the dominant ethic of 5 Piece Kit, as Grant retains a good bit of his joyfully odd synergy.

The demonically unhinged guitar solos that open the disc on "Time to Write Back" ride ominously shuddering organ tones and muffled sing-speak vocals, with Grant''s drumming growing increasingly spastic as a rising tide of screeching walls of dissonance threatening to hijack the arrangement. It''s a rather hard narrative to follow, but something about being knocked off of a bike by a snowball to the back of the skull seems to figure prominently, and as with his best work, it all seems much more spontaneous than it possibly could be. Similarly unusual is the title track, with a contemplatively inspirational chord progression lazily masking that the song is ostensibly a metaphor where his drum kit represents himself. "The kick drum reminds us all, reminds us of better days," he sings convincingly, "before we were set in our ways." As such, Grant''s brilliance largely lies in the subtlety of his quirks, from complexly psychedelic Led Zeppelin stops and starts of the cluttered "I''m Just Blushing," a track where Grant can bear a startling similarity to Robert Plant at his most serene while sprinkling some Jimmy Page faerie dust on the guitar. Such also is the case with the finale "Spinning Chair," a shambolic mélange of sprightly piano and weaving acoustic guitar lines springing off of clattering pots-and-pans percussion, with everything soon to drop out with only drums, skittering piano, and chirping frogs to carry the rhythm. In moments like these, perpetually on the cusp of creation, Grant is at his best.

So, Grant more than passes the test of credibility with 5 Piece Kit. Largely retaining his distinctively skewed impression of the world, he has simultaneously sharpened his craft, making his quirks seem less esoteric and self-indulgent and his traditional songwriting skills all the more impressive. Demonstrably, he hasn''t really changed what made his music so noteworthy in the first place. He still presides over the knife''s edge of spontaneity, lounging on the dangerous margin between genuine brilliance and obnoxious silliness, never allowing either to put an unredeemable claim on him. He has, however, emerged as one of the most idiosyncratic and singularly eccentric artists working in the indie rock underground today. With Grant, the only thing you can expect is to be richly entertained.
Matt Fink, 8/4/03



Big Ass Truck alumnus Robby Grant has spent the past few years indulging his doppelgaenger as Vending Machine. Thank goodness.

His last effort, "The Chamber from Here to There," was among the most ambitious things to come from Memphis low-fi: Captain Beefheart wrangling with Brian Wilson over an absurdist "Pet Sounds."

He''s only gotten better. With pop instincts still outrageously intact, Grant - who plays most every instrument here - now offers the brilliant "5 Piece Kit." More like Thom Yorke covering Syd Barrett''s "The Madcap Laughs" with Daniel Johnston producing, every song here comes off like one off-kilter classic after another, from the acoustic pop strut of Angel Ng and sweet guitar-and-cello strains of I Know, We''ll Last to the eerie synthetic pulse of Reno (the best neurotic groove since Wall of Voodoo''s Mexican Radio) and the moody anthem Under Tracks. Plus, croaking frogs never sounded so pastorally in the pocket with an acoustic guitar and piano as they do on the closer Spinning Chair.

"5 Piece Kit" is a soundtrack waiting for one insanely cool movie.

Fans of Big Ass Truck will want this album as well for the funky experimental pop number Shoulder Tap, the last recorded song to feature the full band. The truth is, however, both Grant and BAT guitarist Steve Selvidge (see below) are taking their talents into much more interesting territory now that the group is on something of a permanent vacation.
-Bill Ellis


MEMPHIS FLYER - 6.12.2003

5 Piece Kit (self-released; Grade: A-) is former Big Ass Truck lead singer Robby Grant''s second solo album under the moniker Vending Machine. Grant''s pretty, flowery vocals sometimes remind me of near-namesake Robert Plant minus the blues pretensions or arena-rock volume, but the lovably lo-fi pop Grant traffics in is more alt-rock than classic rock, and 5 Piece Kit is a slanted-and-enchanted batch of quirky gems.

Grant is mostly a one-man band here, though he does get help here and there from a few notable collaborators. "I Know, We''ll Last," with a crucial assist from cellist Jonathan Kirkscey (Stroke it, Noel!), is a swooning, summery, Big Starish ode that might just be the loveliest thing I''ve heard all year. "Shoulder Tap" is notable because, until further notice, it''s the last track anyone will hear from the full Big Ass Truck lineup, the kind of unlikely mix of soulfulness and art-rock that that band made sound easy and natural, DJ Colin Butler lacing the track with sharp samples, just as he does on the following "Reno." Mouserocket bandmate Alicja Trout plays keyboards on the aggressive instrumental (minus sampled voices) "Sorry I Bit U." But the aesthetic that drives it all is, of course, Grant''s, whose experimental yet organic sound is one of the most distinctive styles on the local scene.

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