Monday, January 20, 2014

CD Odyssey Disc 585: Michelle Shocked

Happy Monday!  No this is not a Happy Mondays review, although those are available on A Creative Maelstrom if that’s what tickles your fancy.

This is a Michelle Shocked review – her music, that is.  I’ll leave any political and social commentary for blogs dedicated to those topics.

Disc 585 is….Arkansas Traveler
Artist: Michelle Shocked

Year of Release: 1992

What’s up with the Cover? Michelle Shocked plays the role of hobo, sore feet in a bucket and kerchief with all her worldly possessions in her hand.  As this is the early nineties, the cover features an overly stylized background painting that makes everything look overly colourful and fake.

How I Came To Know It: I heard the single, “Come A Long Way” somewhere – probably MuchMusic, and liked it. At the time I didn’t even know about her more famous album, “Short, Sharp, Shocked” so this was my introduction to her music.

How It Stacks Up:  I have three Michelle Shocked albums.  I reviewed the other two way back in the early days of the Odyssey, but I never forgot about this one, and left room to slot it in exactly where it belongs – at number one.

Also, as this is the last of my Michelle Shocked albums, here’s a quick recap of what I thought of them comparatively:
  1. Arkansas Traveler: 4 stars (reviewed right here)
  2. Short, Sharp, Shocked: 3 stars (reviewed way back at Disc 10)
  3. Captain Swing: 2 stars (reviewed way back at Disc 34)
Rating:  4 stars

“Arkansas Traveler” is a hidden masterpiece – Michelle Shocked’s best record and likely her least appreciated, it is a love song for the roots of southern folk music, artfully delivered with the help of an exceptional list of artists that were either already rightly famous, or soon to become so.  This record is so unlike her first two, that if it weren’t for Shocked’s throaty powerhouse voice, you’d wonder if it were actually her behind this music.

The first couple of songs try to trick you otherwise, mind you.  “33 RPM Soul” is that bluesy, alt-folk swing that you would expect from Shocked’s earlier records. “Come A Long Way” follows it up with a very traditional nineties folk song, as it tells a whimsical tale of stealing your bike back from the repo man and taking a fanciful journey through various Los Angeles communities.  “Come a Long Way” which has a seductive melody that has you swaying back and forth and singing along; a passenger on the Michelle Shocked hippy ride back before it got all crazy and uncomfortable.

I suspect what she was doing here was setting the audience up to show them where some of the sounds in that kind of music come from; in this case very old Arkansas folk constructions.  After these songs, the album winds its way out of LA’s urban environment; away from soul and blues and into the deep countryside, full of the stories of local characters, and the slow but deliberate lives of small town America.

The help she gets on her journey is incredible.  Living legends like Levon Helm, Taj Mahal and even Doc Watson all get in on the act, taking prominent guest roles on different songs.  Relative newcomers that would go on to be equally famous include Jeff Tweedy (then of Uncle Tupelo, now Wilco), and Alison Krauss.

I’ve owned this album for over twenty years and I’ve always been amazed at the great talent of the musicians.  I don’t know why I never took the time to look at the liner notes until now and see just who they were.  Likely in 1992 I did look and just didn’t know any of them yet.

The fiddle playing on “Arkansas Traveler” is brilliant.  There is even a song, “Contest Coming (Cripple Creek)” that is about an upcoming fiddle contest, and you can be sure the fiddle solo convinces you the character in the song is in good shape to win it.

There are lots of whimsical songs on the album, including one about riding a barrel over a waterfall (“Over the Waterfall”), and about a drunk who is finally thrown into the street by his frustrated wife (“Weaving Way.”)

Weaving Way” has that deliberate sway to it that feels exactly like a drunk staggering down the street and when the bridge hits, it is an abrupt realization that he may have gone too far this time.

There are other tracks where the album gets a little too pastoral and uneventful for me, including “Blackberry Blossom” and “Strawberry Jam” which accurately reflect some basic experiences of rural life but just don’t terribly interest me.

Fortunately other songs take a serious bent and give the album some much-needed gravitas.  “Shaking Hands (Soldier’s Joy)” tackles the American Civil War from the perspective of the effects it had on an individual soldier.  The lead vocal is delivered by Jeff Tweedy in a beautiful way that starts our hero triumphant and cocky and finds him ultimately broken with a morphine addiction he gains recovering from a bullet wound.  As the song states, ‘what the bullet could not kill, the needle will.’

Prodigal Daughter (Cotton Eyed Joe)” takes an old story and an old song and mixes them together to make a very modern statement about the double-standards that exist so often in the ‘sowing your wild oats’ experience:

“What’s to be done
With a prodigal son?
Welcome him home with open arms.
Throw a big party
Invite your friends
Out boy’s come back home.

When a girl goes home
With the oats he’s sown
Its draw your shades and your shutters
She’s bringing such shame
To the family name
The return of the prodigal daughter.”

The song ends with about three straight minutes of Alison Krauss and Union Station blowing you away with their musical prowess on a fiddle reel.

The album ends with a long and rambling bit that on repeat listens sounds like that uncle who makes the same jokes at every family gathering that only he thinks are funny. Fortunately the second half of the song turns into a speech from an old man opposing the proposal to change the name of the State of Arkansas.  I don’t know if it is true (I can’t find the Arkansas Legislature Hansard for July 23, 1867 that it is purportedly taken from) but hearing a man claim that he can’t be out of order as long as he ‘can piss clear cross the Mississippi’ is worth a boring uncle joke or two.

I’ve listened to “Arkansas Traveler” hundreds of times since I first bought it back in 1992 and it has never been anything but enjoyable for me.

Best tracks:   Come a Long Way, Secret to a Long Life, Contest Coming (Cripple Creek), Over the Waterfall, Shaking Hands (Soldier’s Joy), Prodigal Daughter (Cotton-Eyed Joe, Weaving Way

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