Hauntingly Poignant Folk Noir and Phantasmagorical Rock From Thee Shambels
Thee Shambels have been one of New York’s best bands long enough to make it hard to believe that their new album, Lonely à la Mode – streaming at Bandcamp – is their first full-length release. Just in time for Halloween too! Frontman/guitarist Neville Elder’s wickedly literate, bleakly cynical existentialist narratives have never been more acerbically poignant, and the band behind him are onfire through a mix of noir cabaret, Nashville gothic, folk noir, retro soul and a Celtic-tinged ballad or two. Pound for pound, the album is somewhat less raucous than the band’s previous output. The production is lusciously lush, Claudia Chopek a one-woman string section floating behind Melissa Elledge’s accordion, Scott Kitchen’s bass, JJ Murphy’s drums and Sarah Mischner’s soaring harmony vocals. Matthew Dennis plays guitar, Alex Mallett plays banjo and CP Roth is on keyboards.
The opening track, Will There Be Women at My Funeral? has its beleaguered narrator costing out his own funeral over a swinging, Waitsish backdrop fueled by Elledge’s elegant accordion:
Will there be women at my funeral?
Will you press your sisters to attend?
How much do you think they’ll want for their time?
How much do you think I should spend…
Smudge your lips on my dead white face, add the cost to the bill…
And it just gets better from there.
Bad Timing is a slow, reverbtoned Lynchian soul epic set in a vividly detailed, seedy circus milieu where an acrobat’s “empty trapeze swings out in the dark,” as he falls to his death, Elder questioning:
Are the things we want
The things we need?
Are the things we need
The things we want?
With its subtle Brooklyn references, it could be a standout Joe Maynard song.
Caroline is more upbeat, a mashup of Blonde on Blonde Dylan and Walk Away Renee-style baroque pop. The album’s title track is a broodingly romping, masterfully orchestrated minor-key blend of noir cabaret and moody folk rock which wouldn’t be out of place on a Kotorino album. “Let’s throw stuff in the quarry,” Elder intones gleefully in the eerily shuffling Sister, “Maybe we can catch a stray cat.”
Elder punctuates the title of When Will We Be Lovers? with ominously tolling reverb guitar as the song gets underway, then the song build to toweringly majestic, angst-fueled heights. “I’m holding on for dear life,” Elder admits, building a vividly downcast East River tableau. in his characteristically flinty delivery. The slightly more optimistic, backbeat-driven nocturne Radio Down Low (Nashville) could have been a radio hit for the Wallflowers twenty years ago, complete with twinkling piano and mandolin solos.
Elder goes back to slow, moody, classic 60s soul for the breakup ballad Letting Go. Mallett’s banjo drives the sweeping, 6/8 ballad The Girl At the Bottom of the World, a love song that makes an apt companion piece to Roy Orbison’s In Dreams. Happy Birthday Baby (Going Down) takes an unexpected turn into wryly amusing lickety-split vintage R&B; the final cut is the surrealistic instrumental La Valse des Solitaires. Count this among the dozen or so best releases of 2016 and watch this space for an album release show.