Review: The Great Shakes – “Americana Bebop”

A lot’s happened to The Great Shakes since the group released its three-song In the Ballroom EP back in 2003. Two drummers. A new guitarist. An LA tour. A video that staged some surprisingly PG-rated bed-jumping action.
But the thing that may just have knocked the biggest dent into the new material on the back-to-basics punk player Americana Bebop is the reelection of George W. Bush. Though the New York City quintet is nestled in the bluest corner of one of our bluest states, our American President and his agenda figure large into the new Rich & Sexy, Inc. disc, lending the group a sharpened sense of attack and further tipping the balance in its lyrical tightrope walk between loaded sexual and political imagery.

Vocalist/frontman Darren (still no last names, kids) wastes no time in plunging right into the heart of the matter with the EP-opening title track, an angry indictment (or so it seems) of American culture that’s laced with pseudo-political jingoisms and asides — a “Stealing with religion like it’s fact” or “‘Cause the land of the free made me homesick for relief” here, a “Home is where the heart is / This one’s gonna burn” there. The chorus, which springs out of addictive, choppy verses copped right from the glory days of The Clash, is peppered with a phrase that’s among the album’s most overt mix of the sexual and the political: “Talking revolutions in the backseats.” (Well, take that, family values.)

On the borderline-poppy “Oh No, Not Me!” Darren begins by talking, one could argue, about the subtle intricacies of human relationships and then launches into the bizarrely bitter chorus: “God, I’m grateful / That you’re hateful / Never have to / Kill (feel?) your faithful / Makes it easier on me and you.” Even a reverb-heavy, sun-splashed Bob Marley and The Wailers interlude three-quarters of the way through doesn’t help dull that edge.

The record closes with new takes on all three songs from In the Ballroom, their themes somehow even more pointed and poignant than when they first crept onto CD a year and a half ago. (As we wade further into conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, it doesn’t take much to catch the drift of “Riot,” where the whole band joins in on repeated refrains of “Let’s start a riot / Let’s start a war.”)

Musically, the disc is closer in tone and approach to the group’s pseudo self-titled/United Shakes of America EP than the more angular refrains of In the Ballroom and you may get the sense that has to do with the departure of former drummer Don and former lead guitarist/backing vocalist Stoley. Both lent a unique approach to the group, a kind of quirky underbelly that seemed to draw the group as close to noisy avant-punk acts like Brainiac as the return-to-roots guitar punk they’ve adopted again on Americana Bebop.

The new versions of “Riot,” “Residence,” and “In the Ballroom” are all quite good, well-recorded, and, if anything, display how integral an element rhythm guitarist J Kenneth is to the band. But you can’t help but wonder what uncharted direction the band would have taken if it retained its previous lineup.

But now, the only question that really remains as The Great Shakes wind down a seemingly unintentional trilogy with this 18-minute offering is, “How long until the group gets cracking on that full-length?” Too many bands struggling to rise from local/regional status to more national prominence are forced to draft and revise, draft and revise their delivery on demos and 7” singles and comps and EPs, often losing steam or direction before they can put together the definitive 10- or 12-song record their fans crave.

The Great Shakes have given us three great EPs in roughly as many years. It’s time for someone to slip a big, fat contract under their door so they can get down to business. – – Delusions of Adequacy, June 6, 2005

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