Fayetteville, Arkansas, is the home of many good things, and some nightmares. Of the latter, I'm thinking of current Democratic candidate for President, Hillary Clinton. Cripes, she makes me want to puke. Of the former, I'm thinking the University of Arkansas Razorbacks football team, pretty good, and alumnus like Pat Summerall, among others. For something more interesting, you might want to add Shawn James and his Shapeshifters, truly an eclectic bunch of fellows.
James and his Ozark Mountain hillbillies arrive with, if I count right, their fourth full length album, The Gospel According to Shawn James & The Shapeshifters, the third with original material. This has probably been overused, but being my first experience with the band, I don't really give a shit: "shapeshifters" is a good way to describe how James and his bearded cohorts mess with genre bending.
The core starting points seems to be some twist of simple and early heavy rock, like something out of the mid-Seventies, and classic Southern rock. But there are more layers put upon this: bluegrass, folk, stoner, country and swamp music. Much of the twist in the mix comes from the inclusion of banjo and violin (not classical as you can imagine), not to mention some steel guitar and Dobro. On top of all this is James' gruff and grizzly vocals. All these things are dug deep in the music like an Arkansas tick on the hind end of a hound dog.
Now as much as that description may sound so, after several spins, I'm not so sure how novel the Shawn James sound is. Many of the songs, eventually, start sounding the same. But some things stood out for me. One is the way the violin sounds, not like country or bluegrass, but infused with a Jean-Luc Ponty electric timbre. But within Just Because, you get both electric wildness and country twang. Much of the same could be said for the banjo. It's seems there for accent, one slightly higher in the register, even subtle at times. A good example is found in the center of The Sandbox when it's paired with both violin and sharp guitar riffs. Strange Days was a curious, interesting, tune: the heavy and southern rock twist, fuzzed out, and moving at the pace of power metal (which I'm sure these backwoods moonshiners never heard of). Finally, even with his grizzled, whiskey and roofing nails voice, Shawn James delivers with plenty of passion and soul.
While Shawn James and the Shapeshifters will never be my "go-to" southern rock band (I'll stick with Skynyrd), their sound invites some attention and interest. It's definitely better and more imaginative than half the auto-tuned polished pop being pumped out like so many widgets in Nashville. Listen below. You might like what you hear.
Shawn James and the Shapeshifters brings more of their genre bending blend of early heavy rock with Southern rock, and then inject it with everything from bluegrass, folk, stoner, country and swamp music, for some interesting sounds.
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