Can't see the swamp for the gators
For bands devoted to the R&B heart of rock n’ roll, the halos around their pupils glimmering with blue-eyed soul, their debt to their forebears is comparable to that of Enron’s to their stockholders. This fact doesn’t detract from Thee Shams, true torchbearers who, rather than gleaning from their idols like pith-helmeted tomb raiders, organize a sound both respectful and wholly imprinted by these pioneers: black rock musicians, blues masters, and their ‘60s offspring like the short-hair-coifed Stones and a young Creedence, up through latter day disciples like the Lyres. Thee Shams are from Cincinnati, but the landscape your can hear in their music also spans from the Mississippi delta to the stomping grounds of city sinners the whole country over. Please Yourself was recorded by Bruce Watson, who has laid down tracks with many of the state’s country blues artists in Water Valley, Mississippi, so the dirty tides could wash over things a bit. Thee Shams succeed in bringing an earthy genuineness to an otherwise overrun, hollow genre of rock n’ roll, with direct songs about lust and blind desire.
Thee Shams’ band setup sounds like it could be from a live outfit circa ‘67: Farfisa keyboard, big-bodied guitars, and harmonica. Drummer Keith Fox and bassist Chad Harwick hold up a formidable framework for the Gabbard brothers, Zach and Andrew, to rasp on the vocals, riffing through fast-paced anthems like “On My Mind” and “Want You So Bad”. Zach Gabbard, a woolly-bearded bear of a man, has enough vitriol and heart-in-the-throat conviction in his singing that the garage punk-styled numbers fill with emotion. The listener actually cares when he sings about the same things unrehearsed teen bands have lamented for nearly forty years. A modern day comparison could be the soulful vocals of the Mono Man, Jeff Connolly, who fused the Stooges with the Thirteenth Floor Elevators in his band DMZ in the late ‘70s, then continued on that path with the Lyres in the ‘80s. The Elevators’ mastermind, Roky Erikson, figures big in the influence category for Thee Shams, while we’re naming names, and rumor has it the band has collaborated with or shadowed the mysterious Texan on occasion.
However, Please Yourself is not a collection of 12 examples of the same song, by any means. The band makes the ‘65 Dylan song “If You Gotta Go” all their own by raving it up to a raucous fever. When Zach Gabbard sneers “But if you got to go, it’s all riiiiiiight”, he fills the words with a salty raw flavor, then finishes, “But if you got to go, go now, or else you gotta stay all night”. Gabbard slows things down on the plaintive piano ballad “Love Me All the Time”. The songs here rarely stray from the central theme of desire and abandoning all else to get there, to achieve satisfaction—both the sexual kind and the more philosophical type. Look at some of the song titles for confirmation; “Want You So Bad”, “Can’t Fight It”, “You Want It”, and the title cut all create a mantra for self-fulfillment instead of a droning monotone of dull repetition. The boogie-down bluesiness of these cuts make them danceable and hearty enough for the meat-and-potatoes folks to plop down with a beer, with the occasional fuzzy-around-the-edges numbers like “In the City” or “Never Did Nothing” to tweak the cerebellum. The fact that Thee Shams will be held up against any number of schlock “rock is back” hackers is both inevitable and useless. Because sometimes all that matters is whether the real feeling is there, or that the artisans at work believe what bluesman Robert Pete Williams once said, “All the music I play, I just hear it in the air.”
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