Never one to travel the beaten path, Michelle Shocked does such artists as Bruce Springsteen, Guns N' Roses and Nelly one better by simultaneously releasing three CDs of new music, all on her own, independent label. Available separately or as a limited-edition boxed set titled Threesome, the discs will arrive in stores the same night Shocked performs at Plush.
The Texas Campfire Tapes, Shocked's introduction to the music world, was a stripped-down, lyrical folk revelation in 1986, as significant to many listeners as were such monumental '80s debut albums as The Smiths and R.E.M.'s Murmur. Her ambitions on subsequent records soon grew to include alternative country, jazz and swing, pop, rock and blues.
Don't Ask Don't Tell, produced by the estimable Dusty Wakeman, is primarily a rock album that uses flavors of Americana, boogie blues, funk and folk to explore some all-too-familiar issues resulting from Shocked's recent divorce. An immediate standout cut is "How You Play the Game," a drawling blues-folk ramble that calls to mind the conversational tunes of Lou Reed and Bob Dylan while inventively twisting clichéd lyrics into new emotional shapes. She also plays it cool and literary on such numbers as "Elaborate Sabotage" and "Evacuation Route." Shocked lays it on the line most honestly in "Hardly Gonna Miss," a haunting and vulnerable confessional. On the closing track, she and her crackerjack band display youthful, cathartic energy on the punk-rock tune "Hi Skool."
Mexican Standoff is a quirky but satisfying exploration of Latin and blues music, sometimes mixing the two together, sometimes combining lyrics in English and Spanish Shocked obviously feels comfortable recreating various Latin styles, such as with the tropical rhythms of "Lonely Planet" (think of a female David Byrne), the en-Spanglish conjunto tribute "La Cantina el Gato Negro," and the gospel-meets-Tex Mex evocation of Los Angeles street life in "Picoesque." The blues tunes are less playful, but expertly realized.
Finally, Got No Strings is the recording in this trilogy that sounds most lightweight when described on paper--Disney tunes done Western swing-style--but is as mature in theme and sophisticated in sound as anything on these three CDs. Even as "A Spoonful of Sugar" and "Wish Upon a Star" evoke memories of carefree childhood moviegoing, Shocked gives these tunes the melancholic, sub-textual depth you always sensed was there, lurking beneath the surface.
"To Be a Cat" swings with hipster cool, "Give a Little Whistle" allows much room for bluegrassy, jazz breakdowns by guitarist Nick Forster and lap steel player Greg Leisz, and "Got No Strings" could be interpreted as this post-modern, individualistic performer's manifesto condemning major-label puppetmasters.
Throughout the three CDs, Shocked sounds confident and centered, using her crystal voice to twang, croon and growl as necessary. Her musical multiple personalities unite to form one complete, complicated artist.