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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1410

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Michelle Shocked: Don't Ask Don't Tell
by George Graham

(Mighty Sound 1007 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 6/29/2005)

Before Ani DeFranco there was Michelle Shocked, who established a reputation as a strong-willed, independent and iconoclastic singer-songwriter. In the late 1980s, Ms. Shocked, who adopted her stage name as much as a protest as anything else, emerged with Short Sharp Shocked which immediately became a critics' favorite and brought her a fair amount of media attention. But she was not content to be the rock-influenced folkie, and followed that CD with Captain Swing the following year, which as its title suggests ventured into some swing-influenced music, followed by Arkansas Traveler, which was notable for its eclecticism.

But after tangles with her record company slowed her release schedule, Ms. Shocked went the independent route, and has also been re-releasing her earlier albums, sometimes with new content.

According to her website, Ms. Shocked has "a thing about the number three." She considered her first three albums a kind of trilogy representing three facets of her music. Now, after an extended absence from the recording scene with new material, Ms. Shocked is in the process of releasing three closely spaced albums, the first of which, Don't Ask Don't Tell is the subject of our review this week.

Michelle Shocked was the daughter of a military family, so she was constantly moving as a child, though she spent time growing up in East Texas, where it meets Louisiana and Arkansas. It's a locale which has found its way into many of her songs, including on this CD. In that context the other members of the triptych are to include an album of her own versions of songs from Disney movies with a Western Swing treatment, and the third is to be a set in a Latin and Tex-Mex style.

But the CD we are currently considering, Don't Ask Don't Tell is in the mold in which we came to know Ms. Shocked, the literate, lyrically clever singer-songwriter with a definite rock attitude. Many of the songs on this CD were inspired my recent events in her life, such as her divorce. So there are a couple of songs on the breaking up and moving on. Some are acerbic, while others take a decided positive direction. Stylistically, the material ranges from punky rock to jazz-influenced quasi-cabaret. She is joined by a band including her producer and bassist Dusty Wakeman, guitarist Doug Pettibone, keyboard man Skip Edwards, and drummer Dave Raven. A fairly regular member of the group on the CD is trumpet man Rich Armstrong.

Despite going through a difficult time in her life, Ms. Shocked does tend to put a upbeat musical spin on things. The first song, Early Morning Saturday, is a kind of happy-go-lucky love song, nicely performed with a tangible sense of informality by the band. <<>>

How You Play the Game is one of those songs probably inspired by her divorce. The rocky song waxes philosophical as Ms. Shocked reminds us of her ability to deliver a song with a winning combination of appeal and attitude. <<>>

In the elaborate seven-fold CD package Ms. Shocked wrote about her small car and a kind of bumper-sticker battle with oversize SUVs. The process of buying a car is the subject of Used Car Lot about the joys of dealing with a salesman in the so-called "pre-owned" car business. Ms. Shocked turns it into a lowdown rocking boogie. <<>>

On the subject of her life is one of the most appealing songs on the CD Hardly Going to Miss Him, which shows her jazzy side, as well as her lyrical cleverness. <<>>

Though Ms. Shocked has written some protest songs in the past, the CD's title, Don't Ask Don't Tell is not about any military policy, but the combination of the titles of two songs. The first half of the equation, Don't Ask is one of the most lyrically intriguing songs Ms. Shocked has done. It's a kind of allegorical tale of transformation into animals, with the listener allowed to decide what it all means. It nevertheless has a great beat to it. <<>>

The other half of the CD's title, Don't Tell, was apparently inspired by legal battle with someone suing Ms. Shocked for negligence after he fell down drunk at a party she hosted and nearly drowned in Lake Ponchartrain in New Orleans. The band plays an appropriate Crescent City groove. <<>>

With a definite contrast between musical mood and lyrical content is Goodbye, an elegy that nevertheless is given a jazzy New Orleans spin. <<>>

The CD ends with a genuine punk-rock tune in both music and lyrics, Hi Skool, which is fun for its sophisticated vocabulary. <<>>

It has been several years since Michelle Shocked has released a new studio album, but now she is in the process of releasing three almost simultaneously. The first, Don't Ask Don't Tell is one of the best of her career so far, with life's tribulations inspiring her to create a batch of new songs that remind us of why Ms. Shocked attracted so much attention when she first emerged on the national recording scene in the late 1980s. She writes astute songs that often have something to say, while tempering attitude with her sly, clever wordplay. And her wide-ranging musical tastes come into play as well, though this CD clearly tends toward the rock end of the spectrum.

Our grade for sound quality is close to an "A." The recording has commendable clarity and a sense of immediacy that conveys a feeling of the band sitting around the living room playing. The dynamic range, the span between loud and soft moments, is not great, with a fair amount of compression making everything loud most of the time.

In the last couple of years, Michelle Shocked has been re-releasing her earlier recordings, now that she is on an independent label, and that has helped her begin to re-emerge from a period of relative inactivity. Now with the trio of CDs coming out, and especially this enjoyable new recording in particular, this bright-light on the singer-songwriter scene may begin to attract, or re-attract the attention she deserves.

(c) Copyright 2005 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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