Jul 032007

Shaw-Blades, Influence

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Artist: Shaw-Blades
Album: Influence
Label: VH1 Classic
Release Date: Tuesday, 2007.3.6
Score: 8.5/10

So a few weeks ago, my friend Ann and I were in my favorite record store, 4,000 Holes, browsing around. Playing on the stereo was some sort of cover disc. I rolled my eyes a little as rock version of “I Am a Rock” came on, but after a few bars, I found myself actually kind of digging it. The treatments of the tunes were good, the selection of songs was interesting and pretty well in line with my tastes (a lot of great old rock and folk tunes), and the album just generally sounded fun. I asked the owner / sole employee Bob Gallagher what the disc was. Turns out that the album was Influence by Shaw-Blades. I was dumbstruck. For those of you who missed the rock scene of the 70s and 80s, Tommy Shaw is probably best known as the guitarist for the band Styx and Jack Blades was the bassist for Night Ranger. Together they were also half of the supergroup Damn Yankees (the other members being Ted Nugent and Michael Cartellone). I knew at that moment that I wanted to hear the rest of the album. Unfortunately, the only copy in the store was Bob’s own, and he seemed reluctant to part with it (usually a good sign.)

So for the past few weeks, every time I’ve been in the shop, I’ve asked if he had a copy in. It seems like always managed to get there soon after the last one had sold (apparently every time he played the disc in the shop, he sold out of it.) But a few days ago I walked in to pick up the new Ryan Adams album, asked after the Shaw-Blades album, and was rewarded; Bob had just gotten some in.

The album is simply awesome. It’s a selection of great tracks performed by two talented musicians who obviously have a love for the tunes. Their covers of the tracks are personal enough to be new and interesting, while still retaining everything about the songs that makes them classic. Of particular note is their cover of “California Dreamin'”, originally by the Mamas and the Papas. I was always a fan of the original, but I’ve quickly become even more of a fan of the Shaw-Blades version. Shaw’s guitar work is impeccable in the best sense of the word, and Blades’s vocals are clear and expressive. It retains all the power of the original version, recasting it in a gloomy rock light. It worked well as a somber folk song, and it works superbly as the classic rock tune into which Shaw and Blades turn it.

A similar transformation occurs on the Paul Simon tunes “I Am a Rock” and “The Sound of Silence.” “I Am a Rock” really works incredibly well with the Shaw-Blades classic rock feel to it, with a bold electric guitar opening giving way to a version of the song which is trades angst for power and profits quite a bit for that decision. On the “The Sound of Silence,” however, Shaw and Blades play their cards a little closer to their proverbial chests, adding only a tasteful percussion section and keeping the accoustic guitar work and vocals fairly similar to the original recording for most of the tune. That being said, there’s not point during the song at which a listener would mistake it for Paul Simon. As with all the songs on the album, Shaw and Blades have made the tune definitively their own.

The album even managed to redeem a few tracks for me, which is a good indication of a cover well done. I’ve never, for example, been much of a fan of “Summer Breeze” by Seals and Crofts. For some reason it always struck me as needlessly melodramatic and vaguely trite. (I mean, come on, “So I walk on up to the door step / Through the screen and across the floor”. Really? That’s thrilling! Floors are good for so many things, but walking across? I had no idea!) But I have to admit that the Shaw-Blades cover is pretty cool. The sweeping electric guitar and the smooth, well-harmonized vocal treatment of the (admittedly still trite) somehow manage to make the song appeal to me where the original failed.

Covers are tricky things, doubly so cover albums. They tend to be, with very few exceptions, extended studies in musical pretension. Too often they feel not like acts of homage or artistic interest, but rather of personal aggrandizement. Such is certainly not the case for this album. It’s obvious that Shaw and Blades picked songs which, as the title suggests, influenced them and, in covering them, made them their own. This is not about two aging musicians pushing out another album to make up for flagging royalties incomes. Nor is it about “re-envisioning” songs in the interest of musical iconoclasm. Listening to this album makes it evident that what Shaw and Blades are doing is looking back to the important music in their lives and, by covering it, showing their listeners both the music and its influence in a single, cohesive, elegant statement.

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