If you only know Jimmy Griffin as the consummate tribute-show guitarist, you only know half of the story. Griffin's high-profile turns playing the riffs of Keith Richards, Jimmy Page and David Gilmour in increasingly popular tributes to classic rock icons have been a central part of sold-out spectacles at the Pageant and elsewhere -- the man simply looks like he was put on this earth to wrangle a Stratocaster behind thousand-watt bulbs, a cigarette Velcroed to his lower lip. His work leading the Incurables is more humble and refined; he's internalized 50 years of rock & roll know-how but largely sets those tropes aside for earnest, melodic songs that suit his smoky but sweet tenor voice.
Griffin has again assembled a pretty unbeatable list of this city's most versatile players: All four members of the Feed appear on The Fine Art of Distilling, alongside the horn work care of Funky Butt Brass Band and the Urge. Troubadour Dali's Kevin Bachmann continues to earn his keep as one of St. Louis' most sought-after bassists, and long-time guitarist Bryan Hoskins rounds out this cohort as a melodic foil for Griffin's rangy, tasteful playing. No single sound dominates the disc; they hark back to the 1967 Beatles with the Mellotron-fueled "Wish" and pull off an effective bar-band boogie on the set-closing "Break the Heart of the World."
For a guitar-slinger's album, Distilling is short on solos or look-at-me wankery; Griffin and his bandmates swing their axes in the direction of smart, streamlined rock songs with an emphasis on sticky hooks and power-pop dynamics. Only the seven-minute "Ain't No Heaven for Billionaires" indulges in some back-and-forth licks, befitting the dark, bitter blues of the tune. Elsewhere, Griffin, Hoskins and fellow six-stringer Jordan Heimburger are more focused on dialing in distinct tones to fit the mood. The simple riff on "Say It Loud" wheels about like an overdriven fiddle, while the introductory chimes on "Famous Last Words" ring out with Byrdsy precision. That track in particular benefits from thoughtful production that frames Griffin's ruminative lyrics with plangent guitars, bottom-heavy electric piano and Paige Brubeck's harmonies. His prominent vocals, on that track and throughout the album, serve to center the record around Jimmy Griffin the singer-songwriter, as if to remind us that a rock & roll guitarist is only as good as the songs he serves.
The Incurables Record Release 9 p.m. Friday, December 7. Off Broadway, 3509 Lemp Avenue. $10 to $13. 314-773-3363.
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