There are three things you need to know about Michelle Shocked. Number one, she possesses an outsized ambition; number two, she abhors unfinished business; and number three, she has a thing for the number three.
These factors play into Shocked's latest artistic explosion, a trilogy of albums recorded simultaneously during a sustained burst of overdriven creativity in December and January, each one hewing to a particular stylistic concept…sort of (let's allow the girl some poetic license here). Just as audaciously, she's releasing the three albums simultaneously. Most artists wouldn't even conceive of such an undertaking, let alone see it through – but Michelle Shocked isn't most artists. Dancing to the beat of her own wild heart and soul, she nimbly negotiates the tightrope that stretches between here and heaven, working without a net.
The trilogy is hardly a new concept to this single-minded artist. After all, she started her recording career with three stylistically distinct albums in Short Sharp Shocked (1988), Captain Swing (1989) and Arkansas Traveler (1992). Together, this set defined her wide-open milieu, on that encompassed rock, country, blues, folk, swing and all manner of indigenous American music. If she'd had her way, Shocked would've made and released these three records all at once, but that sort of over-arching ambition is seen as folly in the world of major labeldom. In time, Shocked's pioneering vision and the conventional music business proved themselves akin to oil and water, and these days she can do what she damn well pleases, as this new batch of platters so dramatically demonstrates.
The Santa Maria of Shocked's three musical vessels is Don't Ask Don't Tell, a breakup epic in the grand tradition of Richard and Linda Thompson's Shoot Out the Lights, Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks and Marvin Gaye's Here, My Dear. Like those enduring classics, Don't Ask Don't Tell is the product of real-life experience – songs as psychologically withering as “Elaborate Sabotage,” “Hardly Gonna Miss Him,” “Evacuation Route,” and “Fools Like Us” simply can't be conjured up out of thin air. And yet, despite the corrosive subject matter (or perhaps because of it), the record is consistently playful and seductive; who hasn't been through the experience of a conjugal end game? Throughout, Shocked gets simpatico support from producer/bassist Dusty Wakeman and his ace Mad Dog Studio house band: guitarist Doug Pettibone, keyboardist Skip Edwards and drummer Dave Raven. Additionally, Rich Armstrong steps up for some exquisite muted trumpet accents that are the very quintessence of heartbreak.
Shocked says, “What I love most about it is it's for a post-literary world, and yet it has all the satisfactions a literary audience would want: the themes, the way they overlap, the characters, the points of view. The first four songs are like ‘The Many Moods of Michelle Shocked,' and then the fifth song introduces what I think of as ‘The Divorce Album.' That song starts, “Hardly gonna miss him / Won't notice he's gone.' I get a good laugh out of that.”
Sailing in its wake is a very different album, Got No Strings , a playfully animated work in which Shocked re-imagines songs from Disney films – from standards like “When You Wish Upon a Star” to memory-joggers like “Baby Mine” – as western swing numbers. It's an inspired juxtaposition, thanks in large measure to the contributions of producer/guitarist Nick Forster of Hot Rize/ETown renown, lap steel wizard Greg Leisz, Gabe Witcher on fiddle and David Jackson on bass.
The third volume of the trilogy, Mexican Standoff , finds Shocked abutting five Latin-tinged originals – an exploration of her own Spanish heritage – against an equal number of original Texas blues shuffles that serve as scar tissue on the open wounds of Don't Ask Don't Tell. Like a line drawn in the sand, it's another unlikely juxtaposition, yet the two halves of the record compliment each other like two sides of a coin – the impassioned preacher of “Picoesque” is “heads” and the bedeviled protagonist of “Bitter Pill” is “tails.” Or maybe that distinction should go to the charming subject of “Weasel Be Poppin'.” With basic production by Los Lobos Steve Berlin on the Spanglish tracks and Mark Howard on the blues numbers, Wakeman is once again at the helm, bringing the project safely into port. Among the contributing musicians are drummers Pete Thomas (Elvis Costello) and James Gadsen (who's played with everyone from Bobby Womack to Beck), bassist Freddie Washington, accordionist Joel Guzman and baja sexto player Max Baca (Los Super Seven).
Together, the three albums are not only a remarkable artistic feat but also a testament to Michelle Shocked's vision and grit. She accomplished all of this on her own, and there were more than a few points along the way when the whole thing threatened to unravel like a mohair sweater in a briar patch. But she rolled with the punches and somehow held it all – and herself – together.
Spirit, stubbornness and underdog determination are deeply ingrained in Shocked's character. “I bought this old car before I learned how to drive a standard shift,” she recalls. “My dad tried to teach me, but he was too impatient. I had to head back to East Texas, and he said, ‘Look, it's your car – you're gonna have to drive it.' I said, ‘Just get me on the highway; I'll get it home somehow.' He showed me how to get it into third gear, and I asked him if he'd jump out of the car. He wouldn't, so I had to stop, let him get out and then go through the gears all over again. I took it all the way home in third gear – read lights, stop signs, I didn't care. Just get it home.”
It wasn't easy, and the journey had its share of white-knuckle moments, but she made it, all the way home.