Two Swings, Two Misses
If the name Coyote Shivers means anything to you, I’d lay down a sizeable wager that your recognition comes solely from his appearance in the alt-rock pandering ‘90s cult film Empire Records. A soulless studio vehicle disguised as a quirky indie movie, Empire Records failed at the box office, and is known today for only two reasons. First, it was one of Renee Zellweger’s first major roles; and second, its soundtrack brought Edwyn Collins’s “A Girl Like You” and the Gin Blossoms’ “Until I Hear It From You” to Billboard chart success. One of the ways Empire Records tried to show “authenticity” was in the stunt casting of Coyote Shivers, a real life punk-pop musician, to play a fictional punk-pop musician. Shivers, given the chance to sing a rousing final number for the film’s climax, provided his song “Sugarhigh”, a whiny slab of bubblegum punk that was, by a huge margin, the least memorable song on the otherwise solid movie soundtrack. Following the movie’s descent into the realm of video rental classics, and the immediate collapse of the alt-rock boom, Shivers disappeared, seemingly resigned to his fate as a Gen-X trivia question.
Now, out of the blue, Foodchain Records releases Gives It to Ya. Twice., a new double-disc set from the man. Gives It to Ya. Twice., as the title suggests, compiles two separate albums, the electric One Sick Pup and the acoustic From My Bedroom, to Yours. It is a fairly cocky move—releasing what amounts to two albums at once—especially from an artist like Shivers who, despite a long-running career, has yet to prove himself. It’s almost as if he is deliberately taunting the compilers of The Onion‘s “Least Essential Albums of 2004” list. By bundling together an electric rock album with what amounts to Coyote Shivers Unplugged, rather than, say, a more modest single release, Shivers unnecessarily forces the question of whether or not he is capable of living up to his ambition.
Shivers does himself no favors by opening up his double-disc opus with the extraordinarily bad first impression that is “Plus One”. Singing on top of a generic punk riff, Shivers brags into the microphone that he has gotten onto the guest list of a decadent party full of “sluts and drugs and fags and rock and roll” and is imploring some young woman to be his “plus one”. This concept backfires, coming across more condescending than clever. Clearly, there is a self-mocking aspect to this song, indeed to the entire album, but that smarmy sense of humor makes the song seem even more insufferable. Shivers’s lack of sincerity and his emphasis on some of the more superficial aspects of life on One Sick Pup present him as the one thing he probably does not want to be seen as: an actor playing the role of a gritty punk rocker.
Nowhere does Shivers come off worst than on “Secretly Jealous”. “Secretly Jealous” begins with a self-conscious rip-off of the “colored girls go” chorus section of Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side”, and continues with a depressed Shivers announcing that he finds life so unbearable that he is “secretly jealous / Of Kurt Cobain”. “Secretly Jealous” is a song of suicidal depression played as a cheap, dark joke, and this isn’t helped by the fact that Shivers sings the song as if he were the unholy offspring of Paul Westerberg and Weird Al Yankovic. Shivers falls into the classic ‘90s trap of believing that if he admits that his song is over-the-top melodrama, and that he is consciously ripping off a classic rock song, it somehow makes it okay. It doesn’t.
“Veronica” almost rivals “Secretly Jealous” in the “bad conceit, worse presentation” awards. “Veronica” is a love song about a stripper, sung in such a way to suggest that we are supposed to be shocked by the mere concept of stripping and think that a guy with a mistaken belief that a stripper is interested in him is an entirely novel subject. Despite his statement on “One Sick Pup”, the first disc’s surprisingly groan-free opener, that his music is his “therapy / Not your entertainment”, Shivers does not provide enough emotional investment in his material to convince the audience that he is not merely trying to project a persona. It’s hard to plead the case for “emotional catharsis” with a smirk permanently on your face.
These calculated and uninspired songs often mask the fact that Shivers is a rather talented musician who can bring a trashy, rollicking energy to the table if the material is right. Shivers, with an assorted group of side musicians that includes Television’s Billy Ficca, borrows his sound from the earlier, more pop-oriented punk bands, straddling the line between simple punk rock riffing and full-on glam rock soloing without fully succumbing to either impulse. “Live to Regret It”, in particular, picks up speed as the song reaches its finger-wagging climax when Shivers implores an ex to stop killing herself with drugs so she lives long enough to realize how she has done him wrong. “Live to Regret It” is a brutal tidal wave of venom and energy that actually lives up to the claim that this album is Shivers’s therapy. From My Bedroom, to Yours revisits “Live to Regret It” in an acoustic setting, much to the song’s detriment. Stripped to its basics, the song falls apart. Shivers cannot draw out the anger that essentially carries the tune on the first disc. The rest of From My Bedroom, to Yours similarly reveals the innate weaknesses of Shivers’s writing. Aside from “Amsterdam”, where a questioning Shivers wonders if he should pack it all in and return to Amsterdam, none of the nine acoustic tracks are more impressive than any decent guitar player with a four-track could whip up if given a few weeks.
These tracks, however, do provide the sincerity missing from the smarmy trash rock of the first album. Perhaps if these songs were performed with a full band, it would produce a disc far superior to both One Sick Pup and From My Bedroom, to Yours. As it stands, Gives It to Ya. Twice. is an unsatisfying mess that highlights all of Shivers’s faults and none of his strengths, apparently released solely to satisfy Empire Records fans hungry for an “unplugged” version of “Sugarhigh”.
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