Remember when I told you about that amazing new record by my new favourite band? Remember how I said it would be album of the year with its fresh new sound and astonishing musicianship? Remember??
Well, forget all those other times, cos this is it people, album of the year by my new favourite band. “The Gospel According to Shawn James and the Shapeshifters” is the freshest most brilliantly performed set of songs of the year. I don’t care what else gets released in 2015. Really, I mean it this time.
Shawn James is originally from Chicago, but he moved to Arkansas a few years back and he fairly quickly recruited the various Shapeshifters from the apparently vibrant music scene down there. They have only been releasing music since 2013, in the form of four EP’s and even if you’ve heard any of those then this album will still be one hell of a surprise. Although there has been some stylistic twists across the earlier releases they have mainly comprised of sparse, solemn, acoustic based songs, classic gothic Americana really, with a strong natural and mythological bent such as on E.P’s “The Bear”, “The Hawk”. Here many of the songs are horny and gritty true life tales, and on ‘Like Father Like Son’ at least, seemingly autobiographical. On “The Gospel According to Shawn James and the Shapeshifters” James and his band have created a gigantic, fuzzy wall of sound to match the rawness of the lyrics. That album title is dripping in irony as several of these songs deal directly with James‘ relationship with religion, the chorus to the opener hollered with an undeniable sense of release – “No gods before me, that was in my past. No gods before me, I’m free at last”.
Most movingly of all is album centre piece “Lake of Fire”, an R’n’B soaked, soul bearing masterpiece full of pathos and defiance which builds improbably above blues chords and a tight banjo figure to a lively fiddle solo into its chorus – ”I guess I’ll burn in a lake of fire” It’s at once dismissive and anguished.
Their sound, which the band describe as ‘rock and ROAR‘ is an electric country-blues tornado from which occasional purer tones of banjo and fiddle can be heard. This is among the heaviest albums I’ve heard this year, and in James we have a singer who can strip paint from the walls with his enormous, wounded bull roar: Listen to his incredible power on the witchy ‘Lilith’ where he screams – ‘You won’t get the best of me!‘ and you’re left in no doubt.
A rootsier version of Gary Clark Jrs soulful blues ‘Like Father like Son’ is a tour de force in soul baring, country punk, featuring a startling switch in mood and style with the introduction of cold poised female vocals, the type of which I’d expect to hear on a Windhand record.
The nearest general comparison I can make is to The Black Keys – especially James‘s vocals on the early, poised half of ‘Lost’, but there’s is a fuller, more bellicose sound, as excellently displayed on ‘Wild Man’ – part stop-start hoe down, part low slung dirty rocker, the banjos and fiddles riffing as hard as any traditional metal band.
This bizarre hybrid of Americana and metal does occasionally jar and is hardly authentic, but it is played with relish and conviction by a band who have found their sound and are having the time of their lives playing it. You will too listening to it.
Remember Shawn James and The Shapeshifters.