Tom Shaner’s Long-Overdue Solo Debut: Worth the Wait
For those who’ve followed Tom Shaner’s career since his days in the early zeros fronting Industrial Tepee – the great southwestern gothic rock band that should have been as famous as Calexico or Giant Sand but never was – his new album Ghost Songs, Waltzes and Rock n Roll is long overdue. Ironically, though billed to Shaner solo, it’s far more lush and richly arranged than anything he did with that band, in fact, the best thing he’s ever done. The music blends layers of jangly, twangy, spiky, occasionally searing electric and acoustic guitars over a nimble rhythm section, ornamented with deviously flickering keyboards, mandolin, banjo and the occasional wry electronic effect. Songwise, there are echoes of Steve Wynn, the Byrds, Leonard Cohen and Nick Cave in its most pensive moments.
Shaner’s nonchalant, laid-back vocals are sort of a cross between Lou Reed and the Wallflowers’ Jakob Dylan. The songs’ lyrics are terse, cynical and clever: they’ll resonate especially with anyone who’s weathered the same storms as Shaner has during these past few years as the New York he came up in slid closer and closer to New Jersey. Although many of the songs have a dusky desert feel, a familiar urban milieu recurs throughout the album. That factors in heavily on the funniest song here, the deadpan, early Elvis Costello-ish Unstoppable Hipster, as well as the considerably more spare, haunting Downtown Has Done Damage, which reminds of the Church around 1986 or so.
Sinner’s Highway sets a surreal, sordidly Lynchian scene to snarling minor-key rock: a late-period Industrial Tepee tune, it reminds a lot of Steve Wynn, with a wry quote in the solo guitar outro. Another one from that era, Sister Satellite manages to be dreamy yet bracing as its layers of guitar mingle and then surge.Then Shaner evokes another well-known late 90s/early zeros band, White Hassle, with Forever Drug, spiced with tongue-in-cheek samples and hip-hop turntablism.
She Will Shine is crushingly caustic: over punchy, syncopated, Jayhawks-flavored rock, Shaner relates how a girl who couldn’t hack it in the big city is ostensibly leaving for better things in the country, but “when the lid is lifted, everything is shifted…her time is complete, the future is a one-way street.” Rosa Lee, a big concert favorite, works a more pensive, regretful vein.
Shaner pairs Foreverland, a creepy reggae song, with the nebulous, only slightly less creepy psych-folk anthem Silent Parade. Where Grief Becomes Grace, an echoey desert rock dirge, is as broodingly evocative as anything Giant Sand ever did. A cover of Tom Waits’ Cold Water picks up the pace with a gospel-fueled menace, black humor in full effect.
Only slightly less dark colors close the album. Everything Is Silver returns to a romping Elvis Costello vibe: it’s the opposite of what it seems. And My House is Green builds a moody acoustic Velvets ambience. But not everything here is as dark: there’s Sun Girl #2, with its lushly gentle Sunday Morning sway, and Streets of Galway, a lively Irish tune. One of the best albums of 2012, no question. Shaner plays the release show – assuming the subways are back up and running – at the Knitting Factory on Nov 7 at 8:30 PM.