Review: The Great Shakes – “In The Ballroom”

Last year, while many drooled over the latest offering from The Strokes, The Great Shakes were busy touring their hearts out and proving they were the real New York City act to keep on the radar. The band’s debut EP, picked up by college and independent radio, was an incredibly energized and distinct blend of 70s punk and trash rock, a snarled declaration that a new voice in guitar rock was taking form within the Metropolis.

Well, 2004 is here and, not looking to be outdone by a pack of audiophiles struggling to claim the new year as their own, The Great Shakes drop an all-too-brief, three-song EP that previews its forthcoming full-length, Remake the Remakes.

Without sounding like I’m on the Rich & Sexy payroll, if this EP is any indication of what’s to come from The Great Shakes, it might be a good idea to set up a sleeping bag outside your local record shop and pre-order a few dozen copies of the band’s pending Remakes.

The EP gets off to a rousing start with the title song, a track that bounces along through the sharp and carefully mapped interplay of two guitars, fretless bass, snarled vocals, and drums that pop with every snare hit. On the band’s debut, the Great Shakes exuded the bitter energy that fuels some of the best punk and trash but from the first track of In the Ballroom you get the sense there are more colors on the palette and more emotions percolating and rumbling under the surface here.

The chorus of “In the Ballroom” is a great example of this: after the jagged stop-and-start of guitar and bass, the whole band falls into line for a catchy — even poppy — refrain where Darren sounds like his vocals could be borrowed from some classic Bowie track. For a band that could trade tips on juiced-up power chords with countless New York garage acts, that kind of scope is something that shouldn’t be written off just as productive wandering or clever experimentation. It’s the sound of a young band not only finding itself, but building on already impressive accomplishments.

The choppy 1-2-3-4 march of “In the Ballroom” bleeds right into “Riot,” where a slithering but funky bass line sets the tone for a rhythmic swagger that would do Jon Spencer and his blues-rock proud. As Darren’s voice gradually rises from composed delivery into a yell, the sway of the song changes, developing more punch and venom, before the band’s dueling guitarists — Stoley and J. Kenneth — abandon their interweaving leads and patterns and come crashing together.

It’s here that Darren, who made some biting but vague political statements on the Shakes’ debut, tips his hand to the listener, spitting out lines that I can’t imagine applying to much beyond the current presidential administration. “Let’s start a riot, let’s start a war,” he screams. “So we can even the score, so we can get some more.”

(Maybe it’s the cynic in me, but I just can’t help but imagine Colin Powell during his now-infamous weapons of mass destruction session every time Darren repeats, ad infinitum, “Distortions and the truth, we give it to you.”)

Drummer Don steals the spotlight in the early measures of the EP-closing “Residence,” doing his best Mac McNeilly impersonation and abandoning some of the more rock-steady but danceable beats of the record’s first two tracks for a bombastic and crashing intro. The Shakes follow suit, with Stoley and J. Kenneth trading barbed-wire guitar chords and toying with the give-and-take of Amazo’s pulsing bass lines. Again showing a growing dynamic range, The Great Shakes here resemble Brainiac and even early Skeleton Key, bands who didn’t/don’t use the roar of a guitar merely as wallpaper but instead wring the most of six strings by plotting unpredictable courses around complicated and even arty patterns of percussion, bass and vocals.

And when was the last time you heard that about The White Stripes or any other band that’s tossed “The” before their moniker?

“Everything is coming down the pike again. Take it all for granted,” Darren moans during one of the bridges of “Residence,” soaring guitars behind him. If nothing else, In the Ballroom is an invitation to remember the former and not fall under the spell of the latter, a little fix to entice listeners and whet appetites for future Remakes. And, goddamn, ladies and gentlemen, does it work.  – Delusions of Adequacy, April 28, 2003

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