[5 September 2007]
Over the course of her 20-year career, Michelle Shocked has never been a stranger to stylistic experimentation, cross-pollinating her instinctive jazz-folk vibe with everything from Latin (Mexican Standoff) to Disney tunes (Got No Strings) to rural Americana (Arkansas Traveler). Recorded live at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in 2003, ToHeavenURide follows the Shocked tradition of branching out with a full-on gospel set, complete with shouts of “Hallelujah!” and much testifying. The spirituals herewith, both classic and original, aren’t ultimately incongruous with the rest of the Shocked catalog. A strong vein of belief has coursed throughout her records, at the very least in the unwavering conviction with which Shocked, for better or worse, always performs, and occasionally in the gospel genre itself. ToHeavenURide isn’t quite as revelatory as it intends, however, constantly engaged in a pitched battle between the strength of the material and Shocked’s scenery-chewing.
The set is provided soup to nuts, from opening half-sung introductions of the band, to thanks and farewells. Starting with the Sister Rosetta Tharpe tune “Strange Things Happening Every Day”, the album cruises on church-organ and church-choir-fueled jams designed for swaying and singing along. Where things get awkward is when Shocked injects bits of speechifying or storytelling into the breakdowns, such as the brief history lesson on Tharpe. Shocked’s voice is in fine form, and she vamps on the melody with alacrity, but the exposition presumably works much better in a live setting than it does on record, where the endless repetition of the chorus further wears out the song’s welcome. Similarly, the Band’s “The Weight” is an interesting and smart choice for gospel treatment, but can’t help but feel watered down by the slick arrangement and superfluous flourishes. What is ostensibly coming from a deep, and deeply personal, connection with the Lord, ends up sounding subverted by glad-handing showmanship. Gospel may be about community as well, but community doesn’t have to be cheesy.
Shocked’s own “Quality of Mercy”, first released on the excellent soundtrack to Dead Man Walking, fares much better. Shocked’s connection to the material is much more convincingly sincere as she leads the band through the song’s vaguely sinister progression and dexterous lyricism: “Did not He die for my sins / But never could I do the same / Oh I’ve been three times a sinner / And only two times a saint”. Likewise, the gospel/reggae finale “Can’t Take My Joy” and guitar-based “Psalm” are intriguing as Shocked’s own compositions, where her own unique take on faith and belief shine through with piercing clarity, rather than just filtered through tried and truisms. The two “raps” that adorn the album, the environmentally concerned “Cancer Alley Rap” and the personal tale of inspiration/church advertisement “Answered Prayer Rap” are well-intentioned, but won’t be listened to more than once.
Whether or not the rest of the album will be will likely depend on how strong your desire is to hear Shocked sing songs like “God Bless the Child” (with a particularly unfunny imitation of Louis Armstrong thrown in to boot) and “Wade on the Water” with impressive chops, but less original vision. Gospel presents a unique challenge for any performer who wishes to innovate and bring something new to the form, as it is first and foremost a tradition that is returned to for constancy and comfort, rather than idiosyncrasy. But Shocked’s own originals prove that it can be done well enough to be truly inspiring, to remain true to the religious and community ideals of the music’s rich history while sounding fresh enough to engage new ears. If Shocked ever chooses to pen an entire album’s worth of her own unique religious material, it will almost by definition be a more vital listen than this mixed bag.