Photo: Greg Giannukos / Courtesy of Big Hassle

Shakey Graves’ ‘Can’t Wake Up’ Subverts Presumptions and Defies Any Genre Rules

Can't Wake Up is a clear expression of Shakey Graves' creativity and his musical dynamism. His intentional subversion of expectations is invigorating and expanding the confines of the Americana genre boundaries.

Can't Wake Up
Shakey Graves
4 May 2018

Alejandro Rose-Garcia, also known by the moniker Shakey Graves, disclosed to fans a change was afoot. In April, Rose-Garcia tweeted “Next album. New sound. Sell your suspenders.” He delivered on the promise. His recent release from Dualtone, Can’t Wake Up, is a complete transformation from his previous bluesy-Americana one-man band endeavors. Can’t Wake Up ventures into multifarious lyrical and sonic realms that are chimeric, brash, but ultimately slyly subversive. His instrumentation is audacious as he pulls from varying genres to create an unshakable energy. Despite the new direction, Rose-Garcia still relies on conscientious storytelling that twists and turns to deliver spellbinding narratives. Can’t Wake Up strives in its inability to follow a formula or fall in musical line. Each track is its own unique musical entity and right when you think you’ve found a cliché or reiteration, Rose-Garcia abandons the trope for new sonic territory. In doing so, Can’t Wake Up is an exceptional chapter in Rose-Garcia’s repertoire.

“Dining Alone” is the closest aural reminder to Rose-Garcia’s previous releases. The track features the twangy country aura created by a steely slide guitar and the ferrous resonance of Rose-Garcia’s guitar. Alt-country musician Rayland Baxter provides backup vocals that smoothly build under Rose-Garcia’s own vocal rawness to create a pleasing counterpoint. The music is highlighted by an overly confident sounding whistle that acts as an aural narrative for the lyrics: “I wander through the city, whistle a tune.” Yet, right when listeners relax into the known, Rose-Garcia speeds up the tempo and layers in heavy percussion. The next verse hears another tempo variation with the instrumentation maintaining the theme. “Dining Alone” showcases Rose-Garcia’s ability to span across genres including his own forged trek through Americana.

Rose-Garcia is an engaging storyteller, as each track on Can’t Wake Up depicts its unique narrative. “My Neighbor” observes the differences between people who live in proximity but seemingly know nothing about each other. “Kids These Days” is piqued with youthful nostalgia juxtaposed to the bitterness associated with maturity. “Excuses” takes the position of an internal dialog that serves as a distraction from facing one’s own truths. Consistently, the storytelling throughout Can’t Wake Up relates an unequivocal sense of change and evolution. Fittingly, considering the album’s musical trajectory. But Rose-Garcia’s ability to spin a good yarn is more poignant than just narration.

“Aibohphobia” takes its name from the fear of palindromes, the term being a palindrome itself. At first pass, the song’s lyrics seem like gibberish but in actuality, Rose-Garcia is incorporating palindromes throughout. For example, “Race car, kayak, nurses run” or “A Toyota a Toyota” reads the same in either direction. Finally, Rose-Garcia sings the ultimate palindrome with “Are we not drawn onward, we few / Drawn onward to new era.” In literature, using palindromes is an example of constraint writing, a technique that relies on forced stylization by use of unbendable rules. This technique causes the writer to manufacture a specific set of words and ideas that fit preconceived parameters. Rose-Garcia is aware of this and intentionally uses the fear of palindromes to demonstrates his aversion to regulations. That is exactly the point of the album: Rose-Garcia is not restrained by musical expectations or the legacy of his previous releases. By and large, Can’t Wake Up subverts presumptions and defies any musical rules foisted onto the artist.

Can’t Wake Up features a multitude of instruments and sounds that only serve to deepen and extenuate Rose-Garcia’s project. “Excuses” hears a piano interjecting itself with sharp chords under the guitars and percussion. The piano is only unleashed in the song’s last moments but then replaced by a ringing telephone. Baxter reemerges on “Climb on the Cross” giving the psychedelic sounding track a textured vocal harmony. There are nods to the Beatles on “Dining Alone” and “Mansion Door” with the latter also incorporating influences from indie rock group Built to Spill. There’s an inability to categorize Can’t Wake Up and this is Rose-Garcia at his finest.

Several times the album makes lyrical and aural references to children’s’ popular culture. It’s unclear what Rose-Garcia’s is trying to accomplish. “Kids These Days” references Snow White as the lyrics mention “Mirror mirror on the wall / What’s the meaning of it all?” The “Na na na / La la la la” refrain in “My Neighbor” is an archetype of Danny Elfman’s Nightmare Before Christmas. Finally, “Aibohphobia” features a mellotron that gives the track a nostalgic Looney-Tunes vibe. At times these references seem unnerving, and it’s unclear how they fit into the album’s overall concept. Rose-Garcia did release a live cover of “Kiss the Girl” from The Little Mermaid so perhaps he’s exploring that angle. Regardless, he reminds listeners that “one thing I know, is you don’t know a thing about me” and that certainly transcends to his musical output.

Can’t Wake Up is a clear expression of Rose-Garcia’s creativity and his musical dynamism. His intentional subversion of expectations is invigorating and expanding the confines of the Americana genre boundaries. Scratch that, he knows no musical boundaries. Can’t Wake Up demonstrates that rules and prescription do not limit musical interpretation. Rose-Garcia’s newest release is an extension of the artist’s standpoint and his drive to experiment. Good-bye standard Americana, hello Shakey Graves!

RATING 8 / 10