Reviews by Stephen Rapid

Legendary Shack Shakers 'The Southern Surreal' - Alternative Tentacles

They’re back and they mean business. Following two albums with the Dirt Daubers and the last Shack Shakers album Agri-dustrial (which was released in 2010) the J.D. Wilkes led band return to the fray on a new label. They are now working with Jello Biafra’s Alternative Tentacles label (also home to Slim Cessna’s Auto Club). On the last album guitar duties were handled by Jesus Lizard guitarist Duane Denison. He guests here, but the main guitarist is now Rod Hamdallah who played and toured previously with the Dirt Daubers. Powerhouse drummer Brett Whitacre returns, as does longtime member, co-founder and the album’s co-producer, upright bassist Mark Robertson. Other guests include Fats Kaplin on violin and Ralph Carney on sax and horns.

The Southern Surreal continues the band’s exploration of the cultural mores and eccentricities of the region that is their home country. It is somewhat more considered than the music played in their early days. There are also some tangents to the sound like The Dog was Dead, a distinctly very un-Old Shep tale of the demise of an injured dog delivered with the distinctive vocal tone of its writer, Billy Bob Thornton. Aside from that it’s the Colonel on the microphone. The album opens with a thirty second snippet of ambient guitar and drum noise before starting properly with Mud, which takes a similar stance but immediately lets you know you’re in familiar territory with an original song. From then on you are taken on a rollercoaster ride with songs likeMisAmericaDead Bury The Dead and The One that Got Away that show how well this band has gelled and how their music has grown  and been honed and sharpened like a primal pitchfork. The latter song one of the most overtly catchy songs they have so far produced. The Wilkes/Robertson production team has delivered a powerful sound that is full of subtlety and solid ability.

The other diversions on the musical menu include The Grinning Man, a short found vocal, while Fool’s Tooth is another concise, at under a minute, harmonica-fronted instrumental. From then on the band explores various roots elements that have been incorporated into their sound from the start, especially their individual take on the blues. To underline this, the album closes with Born under a Bad Sign, a song that explores the lyrical theme of hard times and bad luck over a fragmented sound collage underpinned by abstract percussion and rumbling bass. It is a fitting close to a welcome return that finds the band celebrating its twentieth year with renewed energy and a readiness to look to the next twenty years where their legendaryness can be assured.

Barrence Whitfield & the Savages 'Under The Savage Sky' - Bloodshot

This is the second album on Chicago’s Bloodshot label for rockin’ soul man Barrence Whitfield and his band, and it is every bit as explosive and high energy as his previous one. There’s little here that could be classed as country, but it fits loosely under the wide Americana umbrella. Whitfield has a demented but soulful voice and he is a dynamo backed by a rhythmically tight and forceful rock band. They sound as if the inmates have taken over the asylum and decided to throw a punk party and it follows on from where 2012 Dig My Savage Soul left off. Guitarist and writer Peter Greenberg again produces and he knows exactly the perfect sound for these 12 songs; this time out he has tightened the bolts and hardened the exterior to keep the core intensity intact.

There are moments where the bands sounds like Little Richard fronting The Stooges of  the Fun House era. The band is Greenberg, long time bassist Phil Lenker, drummer Andy Jody, Tom Quartulli on raging saxophone and keyboard player Ricky Nye and they do a sterling job of delivering some controlled mayhem. Upfront it is Whitfield leading the charge on a bunch of fast paced original songs and covers like the ‘70s soul song I’m a Full Grown Man which declares manhood as a method of madness, a subject returned to again in I’m A Good Man. This is a very specific sound that is a continuation of what Barrence Whitfield has done in the past and as such will doubtless please the faithful, while others may need oven gloves to handle the heat.

The songs like The Claw and Rock and Roll Baby declares a new dance of derangement and delight. But on occasion they take things a little slower at his declaration that he is a simple man but also a cursed one on Adjunct Street. Full Moon tn The Daylight Sky rounds off the album at less frantic pace and asks the unanswerable question “why must I lie?” about a man who is unsure of his intentions maybe, but one who takes action none-the-less. It has the unsettling quality of a Hitchcock film, something that is reflected in Katherine Coffey’s The Birds and Vertigo inspired cover.  

Peter Berwick 'The Legend of Tyler Doohan' - Little Class 

Peter Berwick is rough-voiced singer/songwriter who is more mid-period Steve Earle than Bruce Springsteen. He is happy to be called a ‘cowpunk’ pioneer. That may be where he is best placed on this thirteen track album of unsophisticated rough and ready roots rock. His lived-in voice tears up these self-written songs with an abandonment and menace, but he also takes a more relaxed approach on songs like Cried my Last Tear and the acoustic Check-Out Time and Wait. Ain’t Goin’ Back to Memphis and See You in Hell are pure cowpunk in attitude. Between those two points you get a bunch of stories that deal with life in the raw.

The title track is a song based on the true story of a nine year old youngster who lost his life rescuing his family in a trailer park fire. The Legend of Tyler Doohan is not pretty or polite as befits the nature of such a harrowing tale. Small Town Blues is a self-explanatory slice of reality that is delivered with sadness in Berwick’s sandpaper voice of the ages. Everything’s Waiting takes a more hopeful view while listing the nature of empty dreams, but implore that everything is waiting for those who can hang on to those dreams. The album is subtitled Other Tales of Victory and Defeat and seems full of the latter, with a little of the former to keep thinks hopeful.

Producer Drew Burasco has given the album a live feel that allows the band free rein to give the songs some energy that is a far cry from the polished sounds emanating from Nashville. In a live situation Berwick is the kind of performer who is likely to give his all and he does so here. The result is not going to be for everyone, but for many who yearn for the early days of insurgent country, then this is an album that should be on your horizon. 

Mike Barth 'Dance This!' - Self Release

Barth is a member of the bands The Polkats and The Stone Hill Allstars. Barth’s solo album is, as it title suggests, something that aims to get the feet moving. A mix of roots, pop, folk, reggae and more, it is a pretty uplifting affair. Members of the Allstars join him on this outing of original songs, bar his version of Buddy Holly’s Words of Love and one other song, A Thousand Times written by Polecats member John Shock.

One of the songs is an ode to cooked chicken called, not unsurprisingly, Big Piece Of Chicken which features guest vocals from Linda Nelson. This song kind of gives you an idea of the over all brightness of the album. Barth delivers a nice version of Words of Love that sits somewhere between the Holly version and that of the Beatles who could be said to be an influence here in their period up to Revolver. Energy called Love has the feel of commercial reggae. But there are moments when the subject gets a little darker, when our man has women troubles and is wrapped up tight in a Blanket of Misery. But if you didn’t listen too closely the overall tone is still quite chirpy.

Drink it All Day is a fast paced train-rhythm song that has a rootsy feel. The OWS and Me is about a man working at the railroad yard and has a fact effective guitar break. Grease Step, takes a different approach, but still has a smile on its face. The album closes with the aforementioned A Thousand Times which is about reaching the end of your tether with someone you care for but still find yourself reaching break point with. It is effective in its simple guitar and voice delivery, which contrasts nicely with the more arranged and produced songs that precede it. This is Barth’s baby - with his songs, his production and his direction and its versatility reminds of an album that a band like 10cc might have done, not so much in actual sound but more in overall feel. Dance This! Is clever, but not overly so, and an album that somewhere along its course will set your toes tapping and maybe put a smile on your face.