Friday, July 22, 2005


A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
July 22, 2005

Remember back in the early ‘90s when acts like Bruce Springsteen and Guns ‘N’ Roses created a stir by releasing two albums simultaneously? Bruce had Human Touch and Lucky Town, while Guns had Use Your Illusion (Volumes 1 and 2).

Michelle Shocked has topped them both. Last month, on her own Mighty Sound label, she released three albums: Don't Ask Don't Tell, (a scenes-from-a-crumbling-marriage collection); Mexican Standoff, (half Mexican-flavored tunes, half electric blues); and Got No Strings, (a set of songs from Disney movies done in a western-swing/hillbilly style)

The albums are available separately, or as a set, which is titled Threesome.

If nothing else, you have to admire Shocked (born Michelle Johnston) for her audacity and spunk -- not to mention her ability to believably pull off such a big variety of styles.

But it should be noted that Springsteen’s 1992 double dip resulted in two of his weakest albums and that the Use Your Illusion CDs could have — indeed should have — been boiled down into one strong album.

And the same could be argued for Shock’s recent releases.

Individually none of these three albums come close to Shocked’s previous album, the soul and gospel-soaked Deep Natural. (Hey, come to think of it, she released a “bonus album” with that one too, Dub Natural, which consisted of remixes.)

Still, all three new CDs work as individual albums. All three have their separate strengths and charms as well as drawbacks.

The promotional material compares Don't Ask Don't Tell with such divorce classics as Richard & Linda Thompson’s Shoot Out the Lights, Marvin Gaye’s Here My Dear, and Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks.

She wishes!

Don’t believe this hype. It doesn’t come anywhere near those milestone records.

But it does have its delights.

This is the most musically varied album of Threesome. There’s some New Orleans funk crossed with early Ricki Lee Jones beatnik cool (“Don’t Tell”) a little swamp rock (“Don’t Ask”), some hot and nasty blues (“Used Car Lot”), some cocktail sleaze (“Goodbye”) and even a raw blast of punk rock (“Hi Skool.”)

It starts off with “Early Morning Saturday,” a lilting melody that’s sweet and mellow -- except for some ominous banging percussion that provides a clue that all is not really sweet and mellow in Shockedville.

Lyrically the album gets down to business with the jazzy muted-trumpet tune “Hardly Gonna Miss Him” (“He’s gone, he’s gone/And here’s the reason why/ He don’t like to laugh/I don’t like to cry …)

“Evacuation Route,” a sad melody with a Mexican accordion is the heart-stopper in the whole Threesome collection. It’s about a woman and her children leaving her unhappy home in the middle of the night.

“Wake up, wake up/Your mother said/Go tell your brother/Get up, get out of bed/Get into the car/Just do as I say/She packed a few things/ And then you drove away/This was no vacation/This was an evacuation.”

Mexican Standoff is the least satisfying album of Threesome. Shocked says it’s an exploration of her Hispanic roots. There are Texas Tornado-like Mexican-style tunes with cantina accordion and mariachi horns -- and there’s some basic blues stompers.

In mixing these styles, my first thought was that Shocked was auditioning for Los Lobos. Then I learned that Lobo sax dude Steve Berlin produced the “Mexican” part of this standoff. (You can hear echoes of them Lobos’ Hispano-psychedelico Kiko in the slow, sultry “Match Burns Twice.”)

But the standout on Standoff is “Picoesque,” a high-charged gospel celebration of storefront churches in East L.A.

“Now, riding down Pico Boulevard and for the first time/You notice how many churches,“ Shocked says, “Foursquare Baptist, Catholic Cathedrals/Buddhist Temples, Synagogues, Mosques/Keith Dominion, COGIC, Pentacost/Iglesias de Cristos Iglesias de Dios and the Sweet (swear to God) Aroma of Jesus …”

Finally, Got No Strings is something of a guilty pleasure, but it’s a pleasure nonetheless.

I’m a sucker for those old Disney songs -- not the ones from the most recent movies like Lion King or Pocahontas, but the real oldies like “When You Wish Upon a Star.” I loved that various-artist album Stay Awake from the late ‘80s, and I loved Sun Ra’s Disney tribute Second Star to the Right.

Shocked is no stranger to Disney tunes. Back on her 1991 Arkansas Traveler album she did “Zip a Dee Doo Dah” (from the long censored movie Song of the South) as part of a medley with “Jump Jim Crow.”

But there, singing the tune in a weird falsetto, she seemed to be making an ironic statement. In contrast, on Got No Strings, her love for these songs shines through.

With fiddle, lap steel guitar (Greg Leisz, who also plays slide) and on some cuts a banjo (Tony Furtado), the arrangements are irresistible on songs like “Bare Necessities” (written by the late Terry Gilkyson, a former Santa Fe resident) and “Baby Mine.”

And yes, Shocked’s sweet, sexy version of “When You Wish Upon a Star” gives Jiminy Cricket a run for his money.

Word is that Shocked has plans to release even more themed albums featuring New Orleans brass-band music, techno, and a tribute to blues queen Memphis Minnie.

I can’t say I’m holding my breath for any of these, but I bet they all will contain some great tracks.

Also noted:

*Fantastic Greatest Hits by Charlie Tweddle

I always wondered whether anyone taped any of those helplessly-stoned 3 a.m. living-room guitar jams I, uhhh, heard about back in the '70s. If so, I bet they'd sound something like Charlie Tweddle.

Naw ... Charlie was even weirder. This album, recorded in '71, released in '74 (only 500 LPs pressed) originally under the name Eilrahc Elddewt, has been re-released by Companion Records, the same good folks who brought us The New Creation, that Canadian Partridge-Family-gone-Jesus-freak group whose odd style of gospel rock never has been duplicated.

Fantastic Greatest Hits is lo-fi hippybilly weirdness with primitive “futuristic” sound effects, cricket noise (one track is 25 minutes of this) and found-sound Mexican radio. Not an easy listen the first time out, but strangely addictive thereafter.

Tweddle was born in Kentucky but ended up in northern California where he took lots of acid and had powerful musical ambitions. (Does this story remind you of anyone else named Charlie from that era? Luckily, Charlie T. used his strange powers for good instead of evil.)

Tweddle's still alive but not making music. He's making expensive cowboy hats out of roadkill.

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