"Oh no! Aw hell oh yes!"
So begins “Oh No!”, the second track on The Shazam’s self-titled debut album. And it speaks volumes about their brand of hard-rocking pop music.
The Shazam’s debut album was originally released in 1997, and it became a massive cult hit within the power-pop community, ultimately leading to a deal with Not Lame Records, who would later release their two follow-ups. But their debut on Midwest Records went out of print as quickly as it went in, becoming somewhat of a rarity. Now Not Lame has reissued this somewhat-legendary record, complete with four superior bonus tracks.
What has always been intriguing about The Shazam is how, despite being pigeonholed in the power-pop genre, they sound very little like their contemporaries. They rock much, much harder, and yet their songwriting is every bit as strong. In fact, the most notable difference is probably that when listening to The Shazam, the most obvious comparisons are ELO, early Cheap Trick, or the harder edges of The Raspberries or Big Star. So unlike most of their peers, they owe almost nothing to any music released in the past 20 years. The Shazam’s rock Gods all hail from a time when the “power” was as important as the “pop”.
And that may be the key to their success. While many of the late ‘90s great power-pop acts, such as Fountains of Wayne or Owsley, were unable to reach an audience beyond pop devotees, the edge and grit that The Shazam possesses (and that the aforementioned acts do not) is probably the exact reason why they’re able to subvert their own genre. The blue-collar, no-frills feel of every single track on The Shazam is precisely what feels so refreshing. This isn’t calculated, textbook, intentionally classicist power-pop. It’s good, gritty rock and roll. It’s Budweiser to their counterparts’ Manhattans. And that’s exactly why it works.
Frontman Hans Rotenberry’s strained vocals—one part Roger Daltrey, one part Alex Chilton—evoke all the best of the bar band mentality. And that’s part of the real charm here, that these Tennessee boys sound like the best local bar band that you’ve ever heard. They take some of the best parts of ‘70s British and American hard rock and mold it into something as good, occasionally better, without ever making it sound forced. They rock like Aerosmith, but their songs are as catchy as Badfinger.
More than a little something needs to be said for Brad Jones’ production work, as well. He’s well-known for his work with Marshall Crenshaw, Bill Lloyd, and Jill Sobule, but this is one of his best pieces of work: He manages to turn everything-in particular Rotenberry’s guitar work-up to 11, while at the same time keeping it clean.
The reissue includes four bonus tracks not on the original release, and many of these match (or are superior to) the best parts of the original album. “I Hate That Song”, in particular, is rescued from obscurity as a B-side and on compilation albums. It’s a magnificently catchy anthem about that inescapable radio hit that you really, really don’t like, but is just so catchy that you can’t resist listening.
It is important to note that despite all this praise, The Shazam, like almost all of their peers weaned on classic rock, often fall into the trap of derivation. For all of their merits—and as I just said, there are many—it should be noted that, for better or worse, almost every note, every lyric, every beat on this album is entirely steeped in the ‘70s. That will only enhance the experience for some, but for many it will limit The Shazam’s appeal. They are just one of many, many bands doing this very thing, and even if they’re one of the best at their game, the very nature of the music means that on occasion it doesn’t stand up and distinguish itself enough to be heard. Many listeners may shrug their shoulders and pull out a Who or Beatles album instead.
But since most critics love the classics that The Shazam musically name-drop, it’s no wonder they grabbed the ears of critics and underground power-pop fans with their 1997 debut. And considering that it’s been unavailable for several years despite the accolades, this is the best chance for new fans to get acquainted with one of the best underground hard rock-with-a-shot-of-pop bands of the past few years.
// Notes from the Road
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