College Sweethearts: The Knoxville, Tennessee, band got their start as college radio darlings in the early ’90s as the pleasing jangle-pop and harmonies of “Native Son,” (download) the title track from their debut, garnered heavy airplay and even got the band on MTV:
But it was “Don’t Drop The Baby” (download) that snared the most buzz, as that video went into regular rotation on MTV’s 120 Minutes and expanded the Judybats’ fan base beyond college dorms into mainstream Modern Rock Radio. While not a huge seller, it put the band on discriminating music fans’ radar.
Southern Charm, Power Pop and Horsing Around: From the album cover featuring a beat up pick-up truck to its title, Down in the Shacks Where the Satellite Dishes Grow, the band’s second LP showcased the band’s southern roots, with Jeff Heiskell’s nasally twang accompanying Margaret Mitchell melodramas like “Our Story” (download) and the somber closing track, “When Things Get Slow Around Here.”
Things got slicker for the group’s third and perhaps best album, Pain Makes You Beautiful. The twang and other Southern tics are downplayed and the production is super-glossy, resulting in the power pop of “All Day Afternoon,” (download) and “Ugly on the Outside,” a track that got a fair amount of airplay on the burgeoning alternative rock radio format, despite the onslaught of grunge. The slick production threatened to overtake the band on its fourth album, Full-Empty…let’s put it this way — it features a nearly irony-free remake of the Bee Gees’ “Jive Talkin'” that is truly cringeworthy. Despite drowning in studio gloss, there are some shining moments like “Stoned” (download) that recall the ‘Bats of old.
Around this time lead singer Jeff Heiskell officially came out in an interview with The Advocate that I remember quite distinctly, not because an alternative rock star was proudly out (a rarity still in 1995), but because he implied strongly throughout the interview that he had certain … physical relations … with horses on the farm during his upbringing (when he was finished, did he ask the horse, “Why the long face?”). I recall being thoroughly skeeved out and tried to put it out of mind so I could still enjoy the music. The fact that I bring it up now shows that I obviously failed. Hey, watch that “Native Son” video above now!
Their Crowning Moment: A top ten Modern Rock hit, Pain‘s lead single, “Being Simple” wraps up everything Judybats in just over four perfect minutes, starting with the couplet, “Hearts cannot be broken / They’re small, squishy things,” and just becoming more transcendent from there. “Being Simple” is the huge hit the ‘Bats never had — it should have been as big as “Lightning Crashes,” “Glycerine,” or any of the other massive alt-rock ballads of its day.
Unfortunately, it was not meant to be, and the Judybats dissolved after Full-Empty, only to half-heartedly reunite for a final album under the Judybats name in 2000 (this version only featured Heiskell and guitarist Johnny Sughrue). Heiskell now records with a new band that bears his surname.
For Fans Of: R.E.M., The Ocean Blue, The Connells
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