The Legendary Shack Shakers are at the peak of their long career in creepy, sometimes macabre, cynical Americana party music. Frontman JD Wilkes has never sounded more in command of the dark side of every roots rock style ever invented: ghoulabilly, southwestern gothic, garage rock, punk and blues. They’re one of the few bands alive who can match the offhandedly savage minor-key intensity of Australian legends Radio Birdman. a band they often resemble. They’ve been hitting New York regularly over the last couple of years; their next gig is a headline slot at the Bell House on April 7. Raucous southern roots/jamgrass/honkytonk band the Pine Hill Haints open the night at 9; $15 advance tix, available at the venue box office, are your best bet.
The Shack Shakers’ latest album is The Southern Surreal, out from Jello Biafra’s label, Altenative Tentacles and streaming at Spotify. The first track, Mud, is a scampering, banjo-driven ghoulgrass shuffle. Its funniest number is Misamerica. 60s noir garage as Stiv Bators would have done it circa 1979, or Radio Birdman at three-quarter speed. “Bloody lipstick all over her teeth…the queen of idiocracy…from the party line to the tv screen,” Wilkes intones.
Cold, a loping gothic cowboy ballad, wouldn’t be out of place in the Mark Sinnis catalog; then guitarist Rod Hamdallah fires off a Birdman riff as the chorus kicks in. Gloomy lyrics soar over snarling Stonesy guitars on The One That Got Away, which looks back to a classic Grateful Dead anthem. Let the Dead Bury the Dead blends tongue-in-cheek noir cabaret and punked out Tex-Mex, while Young Heart, Old Soul represents the lighter side of the band, a carefree, stomping ska number, like the Slackers with distorted guitars
Fool’s Tooth, a brief blues vamp with honking harmonica sets things up for Down to the Bone, a southern psych-soul vamp. They really mix things up here: Christ Almighty, a lickety-split update on the Yardbirds or early Pretty Things, gets followed by Demon Rum, a snidely nonchalant honkytonk piano number.
Buzzard & the Bell, by drummer Chris Whitacre, makes a creepy shuffle out of a 1920s style Greek gangster tune, like Greek Judas in English. The album closes with a similarly menacing, slinky take of the Albert King blues classic Born Under a Bad Sign. The tracks are punctuated by fragmentary, sardonic samples including a really grisly roadkill story.
Their 2003 album Cockadoodledont also got a welcome reissue recently and is up at Spotify as well. Its first track, Pinetree Boogie is dirtier than the Yardbirds but tighter than, say, Knoxville Girls. The swamp-rock CB Song offers a darker take on a silly novelty genre. Help Me From My Brain spices frantic World Inferno circus-rock with eerie Romany and Balkan riffs
Shakerag Holler welds a slyly shuffling oldtimey blues to a split-second detour into hardcore punk. Hunkerdown bounces along on a familiar Doors riff, while Clodhopper goes in a sardonic jug band direction. Bullfrog Blues mashes up Radio Birdman and an Otis Rush classic, with more of that honking blues harp.
Blood on the Bluegrass foreshadows punkgrass bands like the Devil Makes Three. Devil’s Night Auction is your basic rockabilly dressed up in a flickering Halloween costume. Wild Wild Lover offers a nod to the haphazard shuffles of the early Gun Club, while the cover of Slim Harpo’s ShakeYour Hips improves on the Stones version, although it’s not as feral as Randi Russo’s. The album winds up with the punkabilly Hoptown Jailbreak It’s good to see this back in print: you will probably get some of both albums and a lot more in Gowanus on the 7th.