Michelle Shocked: Don't Ask Don't Tell / Got No Strings / Mexican Standoff
Like The Godfather, Michelle Shocked returns with her own trilogy -- part Tex-Mex, part swing, part Disney and everything in between. And most of the time it works very smoothly.
It's rare for an artist to find the urge to release two albums at the same time. Only a handful in recent memory have done it -- most notably, Springsteen and Guns 'n' Roses. Each of those releases resulted in good reviews but many often complained that each set could have been pared down to great, lengthy single albums. Regardless, though, Michelle Shocked isn't listening to anyone about that. She has one-upped everybody by releasing three different albums at one time. The triple threat comes after a divorce for the singer, who has seen her earlier discography reissued over the last few years. And each album seems to stand on its own despite being quite different from the others. The only person who might be able to pull this off would be Linda Ronstadt, but judging by the soft, jazzy folk of "Early Morning Saturday" and the sultry yet long-winded "Don't Ask", she would have a hard time pulling it off so easily. It's an ambling little tune that would fit perfectly for a Norah Jones cover.
Don't Ask Don't Tell veers, though, into a Dylan-cum-Lou Reed-ish folk rock of "How You Play The Game" but she hits her stride with the rollicking and punchy "Used Car Lot", which sounds a bit like Tom Waits doing his own version of Primus' "Tommy The Cat". Another charmer is the whispery, accordion-tinged "Evacuation Route" but the uplifting, slow-building folk pop of "Fools Like Us" seems suited for Natalie Merchant and other adult contemporary chanteuses. This is perhaps the best of the three albums simply because Shocked excels in her own territory, not venturing off into something that, while adventurous, doesn't fit her niche area.
Shocked's political side is shown on the tender "Elaborate Sabotage", which would probably give Emmylou Harris a run for her money. However, the low points are quite low, with the ragged, swinging attempt on "Don't Tell" sounding more like barroom filler than anything else. She shines, however, on the stellar, jazzy "Goodbye" that only k.d. lang might come close to equaling. It concludes with the punky, keyboard-laced "Hi Skool". But generally, over the course of the three albums, Shocked is best when she is at her most vulnerable. This is especially proven on the lovely country-jazz opener to Got No Strings entitled "To Be a Cat" which is quite lovely even if she sings about catnip. It then breaks out into a Western swing as most of the album entails.
Fans of Squirrel Nut Zippers would lap this album up, particularly on the swaying, finger-snapping feel to "Give A Little Whistle". These classic songs are from Disney classics, but she reworks them into a relaxing, less theatrical manner. Just listen to "Spoonful of Sugar" and you'd think it came from Appalachia or some old saloon, not out of the mouth of Julie Andrews. Just as strong is the toe-tapping fiddle and banjo on "Spectrum" but the momentum hits a wall with the tired "Wish Upon a Star", a song that's been done to death even if Shocked has the best of intentions. She fares better during "On the Front Porch" and the winding, tender "A Dream is a Wish" before it hits its swinging, playful stride.
Rounding out the three albums, but unfortunately slightly weaker in terms of sheer quality, is Mexican Standoff. Here Shocked again branches out into a slow and smooth jazzy-tinted album beginning with "Lonely Planet", singing the laid-back '70s era sounding tune in Spanish. She seems out of her league, though, on several songs, especially the forced "La Cantina El Gato Negro", which has her stretching her vocals just a tad too much although she gets extremely passionate and invigorated as it evolves. The early highlight is the mid-tempo feeling and groove on "Wanted Man" but she really outdoes herself on the radio-friendly pop of "Picoesque" before it heads headlong into a blazing, gospel-y track. "Match Burns Twice" is perhaps the sexiest song of the roughly three dozen here, coming off with the chic sophistication of Sade.
The second half of the album is very bluesy, though not the least bit Spanish or Mexican. The one-two-three punch of "Mouth of the Mississippi", the strolling "Bitter Pill", and the ordinary "180 Proof" are good examples of this. On the whole, this album isn't quite up to snuff, but two out of three ain't bad, especially three this ambitious.