Michelle Shocked
Threesome
Mighty Sound
2005
B



a blues singer, Walt Disney, a US Customs offical. An old folkie, Donald Duck, an unshaven bandito. A rocker, a Siamese cat, a border patroller.



If I were watching any of these threesomes on a hotel TV, I'd turn it off before I had to pay.

Fortunately, Michelle Shocked's new trio of albums (collected together as Threesome and symbolized exactly by my above characters) holds my attention for the duration, despite a few flaws. She's stretched her self out a bit much, but I love the ambition. I've spent a year proclaiming my love for the short album (under 40, please—you don't have that much to say), but now I'm turned out by an artist who releases three full-lengths at once? Okay, I like the spectacle as much as the music, but the sound holds up enough for my tastes.

The first album, Don't Ask Don't Tell easily stands above his cartoonish and imprecise companions. This lead dog hunts, in part because it knows its job. Shocked has made a career out of trying on different personas—unwilling campfire singer, history-teaching minstel, gospelist—but this one, that of a bluesy, rockish sort, seems to fit her like a hat (the fitted kind, of course, not the snap kind that were last cool about the same time Shocked last was).

Right from the start, she sounds like she's compiled all her voices, then discarded the excess in order to produce music from a noontime country bar that's dark inside and full of drunks. She's got a sneer and an attitude and if you try step on her stage, she will beat you to the floor, without giving up the folker inside for the smoke and rockabilly that comes out.

Then she does an album of Western swing versions of Disney songs.

I'd be lying if I said Got No Strings was the best, or even second best of the three. The attitude, summoned up by the woman who could make Don't Ask Don't Tell, is perfect for rock, punk, outsider, whatever: "I'm gonna do whatever I want and you can't stop me, jerk. I'm gonna sing cartoon show songs."

I was ready to love this third of the collection, but I can't. Shocked provides some surprise successes: a sultry "To Be a Cat" and a Billy Holiday stuck inside of Tuscon with the Santa Fe blues take on "Spoonful of Sugar." The competent Western swing music doesn't give enough of either of its halves to rejuvenate songs too familiar and too hackneyed for that matter to be affecting. "Wish Upon a Star" is every bit as nauseating as any cynic would hope, if they do such things, which they don't, unless it's upon stars, which is nauseating in turn.

Next disc, please.

Mexican Standoff has a false title and a poorly executed premise. Shocked doesn't face Mexican music off against American blues. Sure she gets both styles in there (as much either type is a style), but she doesn't set up the songs in opposition to each other, nor does she use the performances on half of this disc to comment on or develop ideas on the other half.

(Longwinded note: yes, the third disc of the trio is split into two generic sections, defined essentially by nation of origin, meaning that our talented Michelle hits on four genres, covers a fifth, and pretty much does all she can with her—or anyone's—voice, all on a single collection of discs each worthy of your attention.)

The premise fails, but the album (triptych third? single umvirate) works very well. Forget the joy of watching someone play out her full ambition and doing exactly what she wants, and just enjoy the music. I love (I've used this word twice in this review now, without even referring to the duck-on-bandito) the kind of statement this output makes, but even more important, I want to listen to the music repeatedly.

Take "Weasel Be Poppin'." I don't know who the musicians are, but it sounds as if Shocked invited Southside Johnny and maybe some of the old, good J. Geils Band. An organ controls the song, and it says, "We ain't partying yet, but we're about to. Turn down the lights in this jukejoint and empty that glass."

One track later "Blackjack Heart" ends the party with some mean guitar blues. You can use this one either to get yourself home or to get in a quick fight so you don't have to worry about it. It's the 31st song on the collection, and it's still going strong.

Now back to that durn duck. Shocked came so close to a magnificent triple-album (or trio of individual works, by this point I don't care what you call it), but that set of Disney covers brought it down. I'm glad she made it, though. Partly because I like failed originality better than the same-old-same-old, but also because otherwise I'd have thought she was infallible. Knowing that not all of varied performance identities are perfect allows me to take my time snatching up back catalogue.


Reviewed by: Justin Cober-Lake
Reviewed on: 2005-06-28
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