Finally, after five long years, JD Wilkes and the best Shack Shakers lineup of all, in my modest opinion, are back with Southern Surreal. This release not only celebrates two decades of Legendary Shack Shaking, it also marks their debut effort on Alternative Tentacles -- the California-based label owned by consummate weirdo and my personal hero, Jello Biafra of Dead Kennedy’s fame. The Kentucky-based rockabilly roots punkers dove deep on this effort, exercising the genius of Wilkes and his quintessentially Southern Renaissance-man-like tendencies. Here's the A-Team line-up of Wilkes on vocals, harp, and banjo (of course); Rob Hamdallah on guitar; and Mark Robertson and Brett Whitacre keeping time on bass and drums, respectively.
Southern Surreal is sound less travelled for the Shakers and is more influenced by Wilkes’ latest meanderings with the Dirt Daubers. There’s the familiar driving hellbilly backbeat we’re all accustomed to in the form of gems “MisAmerica” and the hypnotic hellfire of “Christ Allrighty.” There’s hints of Burnside and Kimbrough-esque Mississippi Hill Country blues, flat top barn burner two-steps, and treacherous bluegrassy/Middle Eastern swills like “Buzzard and Bell” -- one of my personal favorites. There's even a spooky spoken word offering from super fan and overall Hollywood badass Billy Bob Thornton, over reverbed guitar noodlings, which exacerbates the horror within the prose. Dog lovers beware: “The Dog Was Dead.”
Wilkes and company carry a rabid fan base, which includes New England horror author Stephen King and the legendary Led Zeppelin crooner himself Robert Plant. Those fans immersed in the mystery and oddity of Wilkes and his song content will find pleasure in this effort. It's perhaps a bit more mature than Swampblood or 2010’s AgriDustrial. But be fearful of a band that recreates the same record over and over and over again. With years come experiences, and with experiences come growth -- physical, emotional, and musical growth. Southern Surreal has a story to tell and a point to make. You can’t stop JD Wilkes; you can’t even hope to contain him. He’ll out-punk you, out-scare you, and damn sure out-pick you. Not to mention his ability to blow a harp like a small, white Sonny Boy Williamson. Is that Renaissance enough for you?
Releasing on mp3 and CD format Friday September 11 and early October on vinyl, Southern Surreal is mostly unchartered waters for Legendary Shack Shaker diehards, but it's a welcomed exposition nonetheless. Chart this up as the 7th critically acclaimed release for this band in a mere 20 years, ironically captured between the same walls as records by Cash, Waylon, Willie, and Dylan at Nashville’s famed Woodland Studios. That’s the definition of catching the spirit. Long live the Colonel and the Southern Gothic. (+words: scott zuppardo+)
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