In mid August, Rod Bryan, the bass player for legendary Little Rock band Ho-Hum, uploaded to his Facebook timeline the following post: “I just discovered an unreleased [Ho-Hum] LP in my stash. THERE IS ONLY ONE COPY IN THE KNOWN UNIVERSE. Message me if interested.” Then he went completely off the grid for a few weeks. Once he returned, I don’t know how many offers he received, but he did release that lost LP, “Memphysema” or “Red & Dead (The Easley Record),” on Ho-Hum’s Bandcamp page, finally giving the general public a chance to hear this significant but previously unknown part of Ho-Hum’s discography.
In 1995, Ho-Hum recorded what was supposed to be the band’s first proper album at Easley Recording Studio in Memphis. Rod wanted to call it “Memphysema.” Lenny Bryan, Rod’s brother and Ho-Hum’s frontman, wanted to call it “Red & Dead.” In either case, the album was shelved later that year when Ho-Hum signed a record deal with Universal Records and made what was its first released album, “Local,” in Muscle Shoals, Ala., and London, England. Seven of the 14 songs on “Memphysema” were re-recorded for “Local.” Band members have long expressed some dissatisfaction with “Local,” saying they didn’t have much input on which songs to record or how they were produced and mixed. (On a good day, after a couple of drinks, Rod admits, the record sounds better than he remembers.) It’s not for nothing, though, that after that release in 1996 and a year of touring to support it, Ho-Hum opted not to renew its contract with Universal and set out to independently make a string of records over the next decade that cemented the band’s reputation as highly original, crowd-pleasing rock and rollers.
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The question many readers familiar with Ho-Hum may have is, how do the “Memphysema” version of these overlapping songs stack up against the familiar versions on “Local?” I’ll leave it to the listener to decide which they think is better, but I will say that the takes on “Memphysema” are left a little rougher and sharper around the edges. Guitars are mixed a lot louder with more crunch and less jangle. Lenny’s vocals are more prominent, too. On the whole, listening to this version of these songs sounds more like listening to the Ho-Hum we recognize from the stage of the old Juanita’s, or on follow-up albums like “Sanduleak,” “Massacre,” and “Landau Zeal.”
The “new” songs presented here are especially exciting. “Steal” and “Listen!,” which make up the album’s centerpiece, are terrific additions to the Ho-Hum canon. “Pro-Radio Con,” which was released in 2001 on the tribute compilation to the late Shannon Max Yarbrough, is presented here in its original context. Of special interest, though, is the track “I Want It All,” an early take on the song that would re-emerge a couple of years later on “Sanduleak” reworked as “Don’t Move To The City,” one of Ho-Hum’s greatest fan favorites, both live and on record. Rod admits that, had “Memphysema” been released in 1995, it’s unlikely that the new and improved version would come to be in 1997. So, if there’s one benefit to putting this record on the shelf for two and half decades, it’s that, I guess.
Had “Memphysema” been Ho-Hum’s recorded debut to the world, its follow-up “Sanduleak” still would have sounded like a creative growth spurt. But, fans wouldn’t have been left with the feeling that it was a missed opportunity, that the suits had failed to get the essence of Ho-Hum on record. “Memphysema” really does capture buzz of energy and excitement the band possessed in those days. As a re-introduction to Ho-Hum 25 years on, few bands or fans could ask for anything better.