David Shouse spent some eight years as guitarist/vocalist of the Grifters, from ’89 onwards. Unfortunately I have yet to get my hands on any Grifters records; my entry into Shouse’s small but loyal and slowly growing cult came with the release in ’99 of Debt & Departure, the second album of his ensuing “solo project” Those Bastard Souls that saw him accompanied by an ensemble of Flaming Lips, Dambuilders and Jeff Buckley band members. One of the last classic alt-rock works of the 20th century, it showcased a melancholy, whiskey-drenched country blues rock whose anger and violin solos were undercut by the subtle, poetic empathy of Shouse’s gothically ornate lyrics, yet still found time for an armful of hooks and a poppy sensibility. Fans of Nick Cave and Mark Lanegan should seek it out forthwith.
Sadly, the group’s relationship with the major label (V2) that they signed to was such a failure that Shouse abandoned the group and for a period considered quitting music altogether. Thankfully, he ended up working out his frustration with the aid of a six-track in his room, and thus was born a second solo project, the Bloodthirsty Lovers, that took its name from an early Grifters track (and before that from a ’50s pulp novel). As might have been expected, the rich instrumental interplay of the Souls’ sound had been replaced by simple, synthpop-influenced soundscapes with hints of psychedelia and a drum machine, but though this self-titled offering attained nothing close to previous heights, it proved that Shouse had lost nothing of his inimitable lyrical brilliance (“Pissing umbrellas/ So you don’t get wet” being a superb example of his pained, perceptive humour) or his ability to write affecting songs, as borne witness by the broken request of “Call Off the Thugs”.
In the spring of 2003 he was joined by Steve Selvidge, Memphis-born former member of also-rans Big Ass Truck, who collaborates on four of the eight songs here, with drums being covered by either Kevin March, or a machine, or both. Also singing the majority of closer (Don’t grow up jaded, stay…) “Medicated” is Katie Eastburn, whose lovely tones sound exceedingly familiar and whose name rings a momentarily unplaceable bell… the only connection forming in my mind is that she’s related to Shouse, but that’s supplied by the PR sheet. Damn.
Musically, Selvidge’s influence is detectable in a return to a rougher, more garage rock guitar sound that muddies the retained loops and keyboards into a fitting accompaniment for lyrics showcasing the growing disconnection of a mind whose heightened perception only increases confusion, rather than causing it to dissipate. You want to understand people and life, to progress and love, yet the more things inside your head seem to cohere, the less the “logic” of the outside world seems to make sense… sound familiar? “Happiness is a mind-blowing experience/ For those who’ve known it” begins the short “Happiness”, which tells us that “…if the day seems hopeless/the sunshine just needs to be focused”, and ends with the reminder “Careful not to lend the keys/ To the car/ To an unhappy friend”. Graphic, simple, ambiguous, works on many levels; components of very human songwriting, I’m sure you’ll agree.
“The Mods Go Mad” claims “You’re my napalm/ I’m your codeine” before offering “Measure the sky/ It’s yours for the taking/ I am your landscape/ Paint me”, whilst “A Postcard from the Sea” dwells on the impulse to let the immensity of the natural world obliterate and subsume the individual and his or her emotions (“Tears & laughter join together/ Flowing to the sea/waves taking over/ Taking over me”), thus escaping that time “when blood & liquor mix together” to make “the restless dream”. “The Conversation” ponders the feelings of isolation and uncertainty created by the communication breakdown of a failed relationship (“The weather was never as bad as the day/ The day the conversation left me sober”), “Now You Know” insists that “Now more than ever/ We need to get our shit together” while demanding “Gimme drop dead rock ‘n’ roll”, and here’s the call-and-response climax to the aforementioned “Medicated”:
so where have you been?
out on the transit strike
flipping off the wind
what’ll you have?
two shots of sucker’s punch
in a bowl full of rats
what’re you worth?
and a bolt of lightning
Good, isn’t he? Whilst musically The Delicate Seam is too unfocused to be excellent, anything else would be a betrayal of the lyrical content, and there are still some great moments, noticeably “El Shocko”‘s backing vocals, which you keep expecting to break out into “Lollipop”; before the whole track breaks down into fractured dub mechanics and Shouse intones “Our plan to rule the world/ Just fell apart” soothingly. Definite signs of progress by a man living in uncertain diagonals; a once and (possibly, mayhap) future king gradually gaining back his confidence.