Tom Shaner Brings His Darkly Purist, Eclectically Expert Tunesmithing to Bowery Electric Tonight
Tom Shaner personifies the veteran New York cult artist. With his cool, inscrutable vocal delivery, he’s fluent in all sorts of styles, from dusky southwestern gothic, to rockabilly, to psychedelia and brooding Tom Waits-ish saloon blues. His late 90s-early zeros band Industrial Tepee wowed the critics, blew the Dave Matthews band off the stage while opening for them and held down a Manhattan residency at Manitoba’s for awhile. After that, Shaner went solo and had a monthly Saturday night residency at Lakeside Lounge for several years. Since then, his hometown live shows have been more infrequent, although he continues to make great albums and funny videos. He’s got an epic new one, I Hate to See Your Spirit Fade – streaming at Spotify -and a show at 8 PM tonight, March 5 at Bowery Electric. Cover is $10.
The production and arrangements are intricate and purist. Shaner weaves layers of electric and acoustic guitars, piano and organ, accordion, upright and electric bass, and subtle drums into an imaginative, purist mesh, vocals up front, drums in the back, oldschool style. The album opens with the vividly desolate, desperate border-rock anthem Viva Las Nowhere, adrift in tinkly saloon piano, mariachi guitar and accordion:
We can’t stay here, riding the wild rapids of our tears…
It’s the wrong kind of silence here
Like everybody wants to disappear
“If you like your honey on the edge of knife,” Shaner asserts, New York City Is Paradise Number 2, a soberingly edgy minor-key strut that doesn’t shy away from the fact that most of this town is in crushing poverty. By contrast, the warmly catchy ballad Tide of Love reminds of Richard Thompson, with its delicate web of fingerpicked guitars.
Much as a lot of Shaner’s music is pretty dark, he can also be hilarious. Case in point: Vanessa the Vegan Murderess, a cruelly tongue-in-cheek, vaudevillian tale of a real killjoy of a killer. Likewise, When the Machine Tells You No takes a random computer crisis and makes galloping, full-throttle southwestern gothic rock out of it.
The album’s longest and most haunting track is the swaying, trippily nocturnal Lake 48, tracing a pilgrimage to a paradise which might turn out to be something else entirely. The title track brings to mind the Grateful Dead or Asylum Street Spankers in briskly shuffling mode, livened with terse pedal steel. Shaner edges toward aphoristically bluesy Waits territory with the haphazardly swinging, bitingly minor-key When the Devil Comes Calling, then revisits that rakish vibe with the wry Soldier of Sin and then Rock and Roll Is a Natural Thing.
True Love Is Hard Work, featuring Emmy Bean on harmony vocals, is part Orbison, part Byrds and part Buddy Holly. Wandering Heart also looks back to that era, but with more of a sadly glimmering Lynchian C&W edge. New Rebel Girl takes an unexpectedly harrowing detour into dub reggae, a portrait of womens’ struggle to survive under repressive Asian regimes.
There’s also the hazy, Meddle-era Pink Floyd-tinged psych-folk waltz Last Summer, the similarly laid-back Lazy Man and;the jaunty I Can’t Be the One. Seventeen tracks and no filler, one of the best albums to come over the transom here in the past year. And Shaner’s even more acerbic onstage than he is on record.