“The drinking bone’s connected to the party bone,” sings Zachary Greshman, ringleader for the Athens, Ga., band Summer Hymns. The song is by Tracy Byrd. It’s one of several unlikely covers that dot the Hymns’ Chicago set. But self-deprecating, vaguely melancholy goofball sentiment suits Gresham precisely. “The party bone’s connected to the staying out all night long.” Between songs, he recounts the aftermath of the previous night’s show in Madison, Wisc. He did a few shots, stretched out on the bar, and nearly fell asleep. The way he tells it, it doesn’t sound as though he’s bottoming out, and it doesn’t sound as though he’s just getting started. His mixture of humor and sadness, of guilt and innocence, fosters a mystique that is all his own. And it defines his music.
The band is touring behind Backward Masks (Misra), their fourth LP. Over lush, deceptively easygoing arrangements, Gresham waxes droll. The two-fer title hints at the overall theme of self-deception and also alludes to “backmasking,” the process by which decadent messages are supposedly hidden in rock tracks. Certain critics have disliked its deadpan lyrical conceits, which include a baseball fan on strike, a pair of Hulk-colored contact lenses, etc. Soundwise, it is a more disciplined concern than previous Hymns albs (all the quasi-psychedelic hallmarks of Gresham’s late-’90s Athenian pedigree are long gone; the new aesthetic is, if anything, countryish), and a first cursory listen may not plumb its psychological depths. The band’s live show, though, reveals the full scope of its cryptic charm.
On stage, Gresham often seems apologetic. He seems apologetic for his blitzed antics in Madison. He seems apologetic for his very existence. He does not apologize explicitly. He does not seem to lack confidence. Rather, he seems possessed of a certain ancient Southern diffidence that never communicates just one thing at a time. He seems conflicted about making a spectacle of himself. But his pathos is convivial. Insecurity is his art. He’s also, if “Way You Walk” is anything to go by, a man who can’t watch particular people being happy without getting angry, and, at least in his mind, has difficulty getting angry without exploding. Still, he’s got a warm presence, whatever brutal notions he’s toting around. Somebody buy this man a shot of something.
Greshman formed the Hymns in the late ’90s with his longtime collaborator Philip Brown, a holdover from his workmanlike indie-rock band Joe Christmas. Gresham needed a forum for ideas that would stray from three-chords-and-the-dogma, so he crafted songs out of whatever elements he wanted, brought in a rotating cast of friends to realize them, and let Summer Hymns become what it is. True to the incestuous nature of the Athens panorama, early lineups shared members with Of Montreal, Elf Power, Masters of the Hemisphere, and others. But as Summer Hymns’ membership solidified, so did their music. The band is now an established entity with six regular players, a body of work, and a nationwide fanbase. A decade is a long time in underground music. Gresham has earned bragging rights he’s loath to use.
Those excited about seeing an Athens band will want to show up early. Folklore, the opening act, revolves around local joker Jimmy Hughes and has, in the course of its brief existence, contained about half the standing population of that humble Georgia music mecca.