Guitarist and songwriter Mem Shannon’s job seems to be to bring blues and funk to the Starbucks crowd. The sheen of his glossy sound sometimes overwhelms the heart of his material, bringing an ostensibly dirty and painful genre to a world where every day starts with a grande latte, two shots, and the pretense of reading the New York Times. With I’m from Phunkville, the blues has never gone down so easy.
I don’t mean for that idea to be entirely critical—I’ve no interest in imposing generic limits on an artists, and Shannon’s sound is no less palatable for its smooth pop sound. Shannon did his own production on this album, and he did it well. The broad sound comes from the separation of each track and the crisp finish. Shannon sounds like the outdoor festival player that he is, and the match of production to music finds success.
The pop production works perfectly for one of the album’s more interesting tracks, “Swing Tiger Swing”. The song rides a steady bounce, bolstered by a steady horn section, and the jazz-y hook and fun piano keep the music interesting. Shannon’s lyrics about golfer Tiger Woods—who “[m]ight just be the best there ever was”—sound like a classic mythmaking song from the first half of the last century. Between the lyrics and the catchy, New Orleans sound, Shannon has the modern version of a standard. Although it’s unlikely, of course, that a romp like this one will actually become a standard, Shannon—in attitude if not in feel—shows a closer tie to Cole Porter than to, say, B.B. King (with whom he’s often compared for his guitar tone and slick presentation).
Given the songwriting touch that Shannon shows at times, it comes as a bit of a surprise that he didn’t know when to cut on this album. Phunkville clocks in at just about 70 minutes. Despite his multi-genre expressions, Shannon can’t quite maintain excitement for the length of the disc. Two of the longer numbers kill the flow. The title track runs ten minutes and, except for some of Shannon’s most obviously outstanding soloing, has little to show for it. Part of his strength lies in his restraint; he has the chops, but, even better and more rare, he knows how to make a song sound good. The excessive fretboard traveling here, coupled with the track’s slow build, merely takes up minutes.
The other drawn-out piece, a cover of “Eleanor Rigby”, suffers partly from its relation to its source material. It starts out suggestively, with a bassline that references not the music so much as the mood of the Beatles’ original. Shannon delivers the vocals with the right touches of hurt and confusion, but the song goes nowhere. Seven minutes into the track, we still get that same vamp, with no top-level music drawing out anything new from the song. Considering the ubiquity of the original song, we hardly need a meditation on it that offers nothing new.
Shannon writes good songs (including, oddly enough, “I’ll Kiss a Pit Bull”) and has an ear for putting together finished pieces. Unfortunately, that sensibility doesn’t extend to album-length projects. He could have chopped a few songs (especially “Eleanor Rigby” and “I’m from Phunkville”) to tighten things up and to make some sort of statement. As it stands now, the album stands only as a testament to wandering explorations. It’s frustrating, because Shannon’s clearly talented and comes so close, but on I’m from Phunkville his music stops at pleasing half-attentive ears when it could be seeking guarded hearts.
// Notes from the Road
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