The first time I heard J. Chris Smith’s literate songs and high lonesome voice, I immediately thought of another great North Carolina band, the dBs. Smith is not a great singer, necessarily – more nasal than Chris Stamey, nowhere near as powerful as Ralph Stanley – but he is a powerful one, and his lyrics are strong like grain alcohol: “Who taught you how to scratch like that / With those three little words?”.
The second time I listened to this record, I heard Marc E. Smith’s nasty guitar tone and the sloppy tightness of the rhythm section, and it brought to mind mid-period Replacements (Tim-era, mostly). Skillet Gilmore and Jesse Huebner lay down a bed of alt.country nails that serve as nice settings for Chris’s singing, but the shocking parts here come when Marc just can’t wait to play his solo and actually busts through the sonic curtain of the song. It’s more punk than punk, because it comes out of nowhere, throws you off, snaps your eyelids open and breaks ‘em off.
These are two pretty great bands to be compared to, and I was all ready to do that…until the third listen, which revealed the third leg of the triangle to be the Gin Blossoms. Now, I don’t know how you feel about the Gin Blossoms. A lot of people bought their big record and rocked out to their inescapable 1990s pop hits, but they also took a hell of a critical shellacking, and a lot of people remember them today as pretty much just a soulless hook machine. Me, I’m in the former camp; I think there’s a lot of American desert desperation in “Hey Jealousy” and “Found Out About You” and “Follow You Down.” But, y’know, you might be a big snob, or hate them because they kicked the best songwriter out of the band for being a depressed drunk and then he killed himself, or whatever.
There’s a lot of Gin Blossoms in Patty Hurst Shifter. “Happy?” would fit right in on New Miserable Experience with the shrewdness of its key changes and the relentless downbeat vision of it all: “Spitting true love like it was cyanide / And you’re always faking suicide / Like it’s the only way you’re ever gonna be / Happy”. All these songs are about horrible relationships, and there is a bottomless pit of sorrow in Chris Smith’s soul: “There are many shades of sadness / Baby more than I can count / Here’s to ya baby / Hope you never find out / Cause eventually / She breaks everything that she sees”.
Neat riffs! Brilliant and depressing words! That’s yer Patty Hurst Shifter, right there. This is a great record by a group that is not really as good as any of its major parents, yet, but these guys are full of potential and bear watching. In the meantime, the album is a whole lot of sad fun.