Two Irishmen walk into my bar – wait, this is not a joke! Or maybe it is in some surrealist way. So, two Irishmen walk into my bar and I end up in barn at 3 am, drinking grape soda and triple sec from a coffee cup. Yes, yes, my life is actually more like a circus than the average American dream. I know. But, the upshot is the fantastic music I get to hear, and let’s just ignore the painful downside of a grape soda and triple sec hangover.
Sipping fuzzy grape liquor in that barn, I heard some songs that made my knees weak. Songs that soared far above the barn, the crap drink, and the late night, to shower back down in a sound that was ramshackle good. Songs so new they will not be heard for a while yet. But do not drown in your envy just yet! All hope is not lost!! Because there was an album before which has been melting my heart and cleansing my soul and soothing my hideous grape soda induced headache (surely it was the soda and not the liquor). Gavin Glass and the Holy Shakers.
Here at HCT I am mostly just a giddy and gleeful spaz about music I like. I have considered filling my posts with endless anecdotes of how music matches and shapes the endless saga of my doomed relationships. Or I could tie everything back to the glory and wonder that is East Nashville, the pumping, bleeding, broken heart of Music City. But I generally try to restrain myself from filling your head with these unnecessary poetics, but sometimes it seems impossible. Gavin Glass is making it impossible today. Don’t blame this on the hideous grape soda concoction, oh, no this is all inspired by Gavin Glass’s words and music.
East Nashville is a magnificent and mysterious place. A place where anything that can happen. Sure Glass is from Dublin, and was only in town for 7 days to lay down some tracks, but it is the strange magic of East Nashville that led me to be sitting there in that barn with him. It is through that peculiar alchemy of East Nashville, and the places it takes me and the things it brings, that I am now listening to the Holy Shakers on repeat.
There’s got to be a special name for this sound. What do you call Americana, roots rock that is Irish? Since traditional Irish music is the bones of old time music, which is arguably the nervous system of modern country (sorry, that metaphor does suck), if you take those bones, those nerves and return them to the land of their birth and remake the influences of the influences, do you then have something Frankensteinian and yet cleanly reborn? Yes indeed. And even if it isn’t exactly new, it’s fresh, crisp, smart and very fulfilling. Or at least it’s all those things if it’s Gavin Glass and the Holy Shakers.
It could be, and probably has been, said that there is something vaguely Ryan Adamsesque about this album. Though I think it is more Whiskeytown, Wilco, and Elvis (both Presley and Costello). It is an album that is lyrically pretty spectacular and I think because of that you can’t resist the Ryan Adams comparison (even from me who would smite Mr. Adams if she could).
The album opens with “Underneath the Stars” which is a very smooth Alt.country song, ready for radio with its slidey opening guitar and the crescendo of horns at the end and yet there’s a Springsteen undercurrent here that saves it from sounding to clean. “Some days pull on your heart strings/drag you into the fire of burned out desire/messy situations, undone obligations, you are crying like a child who did no wrong” sings Glass, and immediately he has me. This is a song about losing your way when you didn’t know where you were going to begin with. It’s about having forgotten who you are and finding yourself again when you realize love is gone. Or maybe it isn’t about that at all. But every second of this song feels to me like that day you wake up and realize you’ve been with the wrong person, in the wrong time and place, and now you are fucked, but somehow much, much freer for having finally realized it. And now you set out to start all over again.
There’s a definite old time jazziness to “Sweet Ophelia”, both in the instrumentation and the incredible backing vocals. “Ragdoll” is faintly twangy, sweet and strangely sentimental kiss-off song. It has a gorgeous duet with Cathy Davey. It’s a beautifully done tale of the guy walking away, and yet the girl gets her sweet and sassy word in, too. I’m not even exactly sure what “Red Dress” is about but I know it makes me swoon in a girly way, secretly wishing that I had a red dress and some boy would sing this song about me. It contains some nifty guitar riffs that might knock that red dress right off, too. “Jukebox Rag” is filled with bright, hilly, twangily cheerful banjos, mandolins and thumpy, toe-tappin’ on the porch rhythms. “Older Than My Years” is swelled and filled with delicious keyboard sounds and the rest of the band echoing the guitar line that so neatly reiterates the sense of loss and pain in this song. “This constellation spells your name” runs through “Intention” and I feel ripped open like I’m reminded of why I got every tattoo on my body and how I felt at exactly the moment I realized that some new love wasn’t love at all. The beginning of “Silently Mine” has a slow, steady, mellow rock start which slides into some grandly Hawaiian steel guitar just as Glass sings about “the queen of broken-hearted fools” (do I even need to explain why I like that line?).
The harmonica that opens “Southern Comfort” sets the song in the sweaty, deep South, until Glass’s vocals delightfully rock you back to Dublin. This song could be cheesy, with it’s drinking metaphors and yet something holds it back, perhaps the instrumentation here, or the fact that by track 6 I am so completely smitten with Glass’s lyrics and singing that I may no longer be thinking clearly. Much like when I drink too much whiskey. Not surprisingly the combination of the two words ‘smitten’ and ‘whiskey’ is how I ended up with most of my worst boyfriends. Luckily for me Gavin Glass is here to write songs to remind me of the good and the bad of those relationships, and make me feel like I’ve risen from the ashes. “Southern Comfort” ends with a round of “this little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine” which sneaks the Soul sound into the song and somehow completely validates my love for Glass.
The hellfire sermon at the end of “Wrecking Ball” is itself damn spectacular, though the song could stand on its own without it. This is a swinging rock song and the drums drive your heart up as they rise, the backing vocals here have driven in from the 60s to remind us of rock ‘n roll when the gloss wasn’t yet worn off yet, and you could fall forever into the sound of a song. The horns make me want to hit the Stax CD collections as soon as I am done listening to these fine, fine Holy Shakers. The horns slow down, the choir comes up and we spin into that hellfire sermon, sounding like it’s coming across radio waves from 70 years in the past.
Wow, that was one of the more self indulgent reviews I’ve ever written, and you know that’s saying something, since self indulgent is all I do when it comes to music. I feel like I need a smoke after that. And some whiskey. And maybe another listen to Gavin Glass and the Holy Shakers. I’m sure I wasn’t convincing here, but that’s okay, you check out Glass on his Myspace page and give some of the songs a listen yourself, then head to iTunes and buy ’em. And forthcoming is Gavin Glass and the Sacred Thorns (the tracks I heard in the barn studio), when it arrives I will surely let you know with as much spastic excitement as I can muster. And y’all know I can muster quite a lot.