The (excuse me “Th’”) Legendary Shack*Shakers are clearly adherents to the ol’ “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” school of musical creation. Their first two albums established them as the crazy uncle (in a good way) of the South Goth family tree, whipping field hollers, blue grass, carnival barkers, klezmer, polka and rockabilly together into an exhilarating stew. The band’s latest, Pandelirium delivers the goods yet again… but there are signs of kudzu growing on their Southern shtick.
Part of the reason the novelty hasn’t worn off the Shakers—frontman Col. J.D. Wilkes, bassist Mark Robertson and guitarist David Lee—is that they operate at such a breakneck pace (especially Wilkes) that it takes longer for entropy to set in on the band. Wilkes is often (and deservedly) recognized as one of Nashville’s most energetic, showmanship-inclined frontmen and he proves why time and again on Pandelirium. He tears through the rollicking heavy metal/bluegrass/Celtic mash-up “Ichabod” like a man possessed, fairly approximates a bullfrog croak on “Bottom Road”, parodies Tom Waits’ carnival barker (one of Wilkes’ favorite tricks) on “Monkey On the Doghouse” and even gets in touch with his loungey side on “Gipsy Valentine” and “Bible, Candle and Skull”. If the Shakers’ albums were any longer Wilkes (or at least listeners) would collapse from exhaustion.
Of course, it’s not just the Col. Wilkes show, as Lee and Robertson more than keep pace with their manic singer. Robertson’s heavy bassline anchors “No Such Thing”; they make like a goth blues band on “Something In the Water” and bust out a surf instrumental with “Thin the Herd”. Plus, rockabilly kingpin Reverend Horton Heat and his guitar show up on three tracks, lending their imprimatur to the album. Normally I’m against the commingling of church and state, but here the Reverend and the Colonel are a great team.
As for that kudzu: If there has been a change in the Shakers over the course of their three albums, it’s been a shift away from creepy Southern goth to a more stylized, almost cartoony, form of Southern goth. The band was never particularly reverent to begin with, but for the most part their fire ‘n’ brimstone act and air of general menace is gone (see, for example, the first album’s “Blood on the Bluegrass”) and any vestigial traces of primordialism (for lack of a better work) in their music has been slicked up and is now delivered with a wink. Look no further than the aforementioned “Monkey On the Doghouse” or—especially—the closing track, “Nellie Bell” which tweaks the conventional death lament song by having the deceased be a 97-year-old nursing home resident instead of a cut-down-in-the-prime-of-her-life (presumably while giving birth) twentysomething. Really, it’s too clever by half and such silliness saps the band of their power. I’m not calling on the band to approach their music with austerity in the vein of, say, Sixteen Horsepower or Blanche, but there’s a thin line between a fun, freewheeling band and a novelty act, and given the high level of both showmanship and musicianship the Shakers possess, it’d be a shame to see them slip into parody.