Monday, July 13, 2015

Album Review - Shawn James and the Shapeshifters - "The Gospel According to Shawn James and the Shapeshifters"

In Michael Shaara’s classic Civil War book ‘The Killer Angels’ Union colonel Joshua Chamberlain reflects on the reason that the war is being fought.  Certainly, Chamberlain is happy enough to wave the flag and fire the cannon in the name of abolition and the unity of the United States, but he also ruminates on a separate, more personally ingrained idea.  He believed that the Confederacy had used the plantation system to keep the European ideals of caste and societal structure alive, that the Old World hadn’t left truly released its grip on America when Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown.  In effect, Chamberlain believed that he was not just leading a counter-insurgency to Gettysburg, but continuing the revolution that his forebears had fought generations before, seeking now to exorcise the very ideals of life in the antebellum South.

Shawn James and the Shapeshifters are continuing that very assault with their new record “The Gospel according to Shawn James and the Shapeshifters,” raising deeply personal questions about the very nature of some of statues of stereotypical life below the Mason-Dixon.  The irony in all this is that James and his band have chosen as their weapons tenets that many southern music fans would hold above approach – am embattled but virile mixture of country banjo, bluegrass violin, delta blues and the booming, pulpit-resonating gospel bellow of James himself.

James (and by extension, the Shapeshifters,) lash out with deeply righteous indignation at the forces that no doubt encircled them in their Arkansas upbringing.  The album’s strength comes from the middle, with the emotive and powerful “Lake of Fire” and settling into the harrowing thunder of “Just Because.”  The former song bristles with bubbling catharsis as James hammers away at a church that he describes as spiraling the wrong way, each vocal line cut over a thin, yearning guitar or a bittersweet violin, until the crescendo brings the entire ensemble into play.  “Just Because” thuds along with heavy steps, each moment of the simple beat punctuated by the measured jangling of a Jacob Marley style chain, a symbol of both temporal constraint in the present and cultural constraint echoing through generations.  The build-up eventually gives way to a dam burst of chaotic breakdown, the percussion purposefully steering the ship over the rocks in the breakwater.

Look, there’s a ton of other excellent stuff going on for this record, the power and fury of Shawn James and his accompaniment overflowing from the rollicking tumult of nearly each and every track.  “Lost” and “No Gods” in particular embrace the inversion of the usual intent of highly spiritual music to launch daggers at the conviction and exclusion of organized religion, leading the listener on a journey of self-reliance and discovery.  The ebb and flow of these pieces and the cuts not mentioned here surround the listener with a weighty experience that can be caustic and biting while still thoughtful and occasionally sarcastically funny.

The album is full of flashes of brilliance and the careful articulation of a fantastic blend of elements not always associated, employed with skill and dedication often not found among self-released artists.  At a glimpse, the album answers the question of what Clutch’s “Pure Rock Fury” would have sounded like if that album had been injected with gospel roots.

Regardless, let’s be clear – the brilliance of “The Gospel According…” extends wholly from that two-song battery in the middle of the record that commands attention.  This is the crux of the musical experience that Shawn James offers for this record, the kind of uniquely captivating music that stands out from the clatter of also-rans and the drudgery of used-to-bes.

Find this.  Own it.  Tell your friends about it.  Period.