Once upon a time, before legal issues forced them to alter their name, Thee Shams were known as The Shams. The name change was serendipitous, since the band that made the new Sign the Line is a completely different animal from the one that released Take Off in 2001. The Shams were a four-piece garage-rock band that threw in a touch of the blues, and were led by Zachary Gabbard, whose powerful voice garnered comparisons to legends like Van Morrison and Mick Jagger. Thee Shams are a five-piece group that features harpsichord and keyboards alongside the usual guitar-bass-drums lineup. Most importantly, in this version of the band, Gabbard shares songwriting, vocal, and guitar duties with his brother Andrew. The Gabbard brothers led the band on last year’s Please Yourself (unheard by me), accompanied by the rhythm section of Chad Hardwick and Keith Fox from the original lineup. On the new outing, Hardwick is gone (drummer Fox has left since it was recorded), and Max Bender (bass/violin/harp) and Joey Sebaali (keyboards/harpsichord/percussion) have been added to flesh out the sound.
The resulting sound is something far from the minimalist, swampy garage-stomp of the old band. With the addition of new musicians and instruments, Thee Shams have expanded their sound to include traces of psychedelia, Southern rock, the British invasion, Led Zeppelin, and ‘70s AM radio. This isn’t apparent from the opener, “Not Gonna Make It”; other than the more confident musicianship, the song still smacks of a sweaty bar circa 1963. Once it ends and the piano intro to “Something Happening” starts, though, the old comparisons (to Muddy Waters, early Rolling Stones, Van Morrison—whatever) fly out the window. With its rollicking roadhouse vibe, “Something Happening” is much more akin to the songs on Exile on Main Street than anything that came out of the ‘60s. There are more than two sides to Thee Shams, though, and the mood shifts frequently on Sign the Line. There are swamp rockers like “Not Gonna Make It” and “No Trust Fund Blues” alongside the Brit-sounding harmonies on the mildly psychedelic “Everflowing Tune”. The carnivalesque “I Want You Back” sits alongside the country-rock ballad “Hallelujah”.
There are definitely upsides to having two Gabbards instead of one; for starters, the brothers can harmonize. Andrew’s cleaner voice is more versatile than his brother’s, allowing the more varied musical approach, and his contribution to the songwriting likely plays a large part in the new directions the band has followed. One downside is that Andrew is nowhere near as charismatic a singer as Zachary, and he now sings a large portion of the material. Another is that the kaleidoscopic approach makes for a somewhat inconsistent listen. Thee Shams are reaching a new level of creativity, but they are sacrificing their sound, not to mention a lot of the rawness and character that initially made them appealing. It seems like they are exploring a few different directions at the moment, and it will be interesting to see which one they choose to follow.
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