This is very good news indeed. Just when doubts were brewing about whether The Shazam could return to the kind of form displayed on their classic 1999 release Godspeed the Shazam!, Hans Rotenberry and Scott Ballew and Mick Wilson kick it up a notch with a dozen rocking new ones. On Tomorrow the World, there is a healthy collection of good old-fashioned melodic rock that should warm the cockles of the hearts of skeptical listeners who cling to their “classic rock” radio stations and fear to venture outside the house.
The Shazam is audio proof that the best of the old can continue anew. These are songs that will have you singing along, dreaming of arenas and waving your lighted bic for that much-deserved second encore. Once again, Brad Jones has proven to be a great production choice; he brings a slightly rougher, raw edge to the proceedings this time around and it seems well suited to the material. Hans is in fine voice and his guitars are enough to make rock wannabes hang up their strats, while Mick’s basswork and Scott’s drumming really help create a sound that defies the fact that this is a trio (though, to be honest, additional guitarist Greg Reynolds has joined the live tour).
The only bad news might be the band’s lack of wide exposure, but perhaps recent efforts might make a dent in that (The Shazam recently opened for Flickerstick on a recent US tour, and plan to tour the UK, Europe and Japan in 2003). Additionally, Little Stevie Van Zandt (he of the E Street Band and Sopranos fame) has been playing tracks from Hans & the boys on his syndicated Underground Garage radio show, calling this music “some of the best things I’ve heard in 20 fucking years”.
The problem may be one of locating a niche market. While larger and seemingly less-talented bands reap benefits in terms of sales and popularity from the so-called “garage underground” media hype, Tennessee’s own The Shazam plod on, working hard to get their utterly accessible sounds across.
What exactly are those sounds? Okay, it’s Cheap Trick meets The Move meets Big Star meets The Stones meets James Gang meets Badfinger meets Mott The Hoople meets T-Rex meets The Who with the requisite Beatle/Wings touches too, and all of it surprising fresh and original. In simpler terms, it’s only rock ‘n’ roll, but I like it plenty. This is music of the early ‘70s—big retro rock sounds with guitar muscle that could fill a stadium, unapologetic anthem rock to be played loud.
Hans Rotenberry explains: “I wasn’t so much trying to make this record sound like a particular era, but I did want it to create, even if it was only for me, a feeling. When I was a kid, you could turn on the radio and there were lots of cool songs on, just the general vibe, the ‘70s vibe—dopey, grinnin’, laid back. I wanted to make a record for me and for us that was stadium rock, where there was a million bands playing all day, just wasted, layin’ on a blanket in the sun. We were exploring the Wings/Grand Funk side of the band. Everybody told we sounded too ‘60s-like, so we updated to ‘72!”
“50 Foot Rock” opens things here (alternately titled “Rockin’ And Rollin’ (with my) Rock N’ Rollin’ Rock N’ Roller”) with a guitar riff Rotenberry guarantees isn’t ripped off from The Stones. When Brad Jones challenged Rotenberry to write a super-dumb song using the term “rock ‘n’roll” in the lyrics, Hans proves he can do that and then some. Basically, you get some meaningless fun in standard rock phrases, a middle bridge featuring Wesley Willis, and a fine marriage of crunchy guitars and cowbells.
“We Think Yer Dead” is more straight-forward guitar-driven rock about someone whose 15 minutes of fame were up long ago: “We think yer dead / go blow yer sad wind somewhere else instead”(and listen for the Yoko/Bungalow Bill middle chorus reference).
Vying for my favorite track is “Getting’ Higher”, a wonderfully typical Shazam song of strong vocal and guitar harmonies that pokes a barb or two at their own experience with the music business: “No one came cuz they never heard / cuz it takes money to spread the word / that’s a shame cuz it ain’t all I want / Rock n’ Roll is all I got / Sunrise or the sunset—whose side are you on?” No one does music quite like this anymore - all the more reason The Shazam still should!
The other contender for favorite track is “Fallin’ All Around Me”, which Hans actually wrote in the studio. Similar in song structure to the wonderful “Super Tuesday” (start acoustic and build, etc.), it tells the tale of pushing too hard, things going out of control, watching as things fall apart, yet the overall message is optimistic, that he can turn it around: “Guess I’ll keep rolling along / all I need is a little bit of rest and it’ll feel so good when I can finally make some sense”. A great melody with fine backup vocals from Mick.
A similar optimistic philosophical bent is to be found in “Turnaround”, an old song that once vied for inclusion on The Shazam’s first album, revamped and new here. It’s a simple thought, but effective within the context of the rock song around it: “Don’t let it bring you down—turn around!” Nice backing vocals and superb Scott Ballew drums make this one another keeper.
“NQRK (The Not-Quite-Right Kid)” is a song Hans writes to his 14-year-old self, an anthem to outsiders who are told in junior high how they’ll never amount to a hill of beans. The message here: “Better a smartass than a dumbass”, as the NQRK vows to get out and prove them all wrong (as Hans and his magical rocking guitar ultimately has).
“New Thing Baby” is a contemplation of looking for meaning in this life and its endless new things (again, stripped down to fairly simple rock ‘n’ roll lyrical pondering). “Not Lost Anymore” mines the Beatles/Badfinger vein, a lovely ballad about keeping focus regardless of whatever may come your way: “I’m not lost anymore / I’ve seen the way that things can change / No matter what’s in store—I’m not lost anymore”.
“Squeeze the Day” is pleasant summer-style rock, circa 1972 (again, an updated sound for The Shazam), telling you to be happy and let the music cure all your woes. “Goodbye American Man” is based on a true story about a relationship that never happens and musically could fit comfortably on some Wings album. “You Know Who” allows Rotenberry to channel Townshend, as we get a very Who-like song about being misunderstood. Ballew plays the part of Keith Moon admirably well.
“Nine Times” closes this CD with a nice rave-up wherein the loser wins, featuring Yeah and No sung nine times each and a sort of distant musical sense of the theme for Love American Style. Kudos again for the fine percussion by Ballew, and to Hans for writing lyrics that are obscure enough to mean anything, everything and/or nothing.
The motto of the album’s title Tomorrow the World applies to The Shazam, as Rotenberry and company play their hearts out in search of their piece of the music market pie. Rotenberry explains the current CD this way: “We feel the sound is more American. In these uncertain times, rock is back to save the world, to loudly feel good about something. To feel the mighty power of the cool tune, the loud guitar, the trashy drum and the bangs-in-the-face.”
The key is that there is no loss in quality from the first track to the last. This is Not Lame Records’ premier act, and one that should be signing with a major label any minute now. Once audiences start catching on to the wisdom of these tuneful rocking guitar-driven songs, their dynamic power and soar and 1970s-style good time feelings, it shouldn’t be tough. In the meantime, keep your fingers crossed while you play the pleasant retro-arena rock sounds of Tomorrow the World for everyone you know. Oh—and just for the record—be sure to play them loud (rock on!).