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Th' Legendary Shack*Shakers - Believe

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Artist: Th' Legendary Shack*Shakers

Album: Believe

Label: Yep Roc

Review date: Jan. 18, 2005

Th' Legendary Shack*Shakers are a live act possessed. Frontman J.D. Wilkes is slight and chicken-necked, nerdy at first glance. By the end of a set, he's a spooked-out, writhing spider. He strangles each song and wheezes harmonica breaks in between the verses. The rest of the band is just as surly. Their music is loose and twangy, but so frenzied that “roots rock” is too tame a label. These guys are downright scary.

Their debut was a strong collection of blues and rockabilly moves, and effectively avoided 12-bar clichés. Their sophomore album Believe kicks off with a polka-klezmer beat, instantly extending their musical reach. The bands' songwriting comes to the fore even more – it doesn't compensate for the missing stage antics, but it helps. Wilkes' voice has a conversational tone, and it isn't as distinct or aggressive in the confines of a studio. The Shack*Shakers are such a haunting live act, they’re bound to lose something on tape.

Vocal distortion is used throughout to create sharp shifts. They pull out great couplets like "the phalanges of St. Vitus / were stricken with arthritis..." and other subtleties that would be lost on stage. A paranoid take on evangelical imagery runs through everything, and both the paranoia and the preaching are convincing. Context means a lot for this band; raised in Kentucky and based out of Tennessee, the band acquired their southern Gothic first-hand. Coming from Yankees, the mock-proselytizing might seem snide; living in the Bible belt, it feels like they're scrutinizing the fire-and-brimstone they've been subjected to since Day 1. Evangelicals are a cheap target, though, and the Shack*Shakers don’t sound patronizing speaking of the devil. These guys are still running away from Sunday morning.

Translating this band's strengths to record will probably always be a challenge. What might sound plain or too repetitive on disc can be a trampoline for live work. Still, they make the most of the challenge. On the song “Help Me,” the Shack*Shakers manage to pull off a variation "Green Onions" riff, a truly hackneyed chestnut. Live, the familiar shuffle might draw in skeptical listeners, but under the scrutiny of headphones, it could resemble a beer commercial. Wilkes' deranged howling saves the song, slithering through the guitar in a way that's not going sell anyone anything. As long as they continue to find ways to bottle that darkness, their records will keep apace with their demons.

By Ben Donnelly

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