Record: Voices in the Dark (2019)
[Sam Phillips] saw himself as a teacher and a preacher. That was the motivation that drove him to expound his message to the world, long after he stopped making records…. To Sam, every session was meant to be like “the making of Gone with the Wind,” with all its epic grandeur — but at the same time every session had to be fun, too. If it wasn’t fun, it wasn’t worth doing, he said, and if you weren’t doing something different, of course, then you weren’t doing anything at all. As far as failure went, there could be no such thing in his studio, because in the end, Sam insisted, it was all about self-expression, nothing more, nothing less.”from “Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘N’ Roll,” by Peter Guralnick (Little, brown and Company, 2015)
Not only do the Bad Shadows have one of the coolest band names ever, to go along with their cool debut LP, “Voices in the Dark” (Resurrection Records/Hovercraft Records, 2019), they just might be having more fun than the rest of us. What they call work, if this is what it sounds like when they’re working hard on the studio, Sam Phillips would approve of it. And what this band is saying on these 13 songs, as they rip through “Voices in the Dark,” meets the same Sam Phillip’s test: they’re having fun, they have something to say, and they’re sayin’ it with serious skills (what Mike Markesich, author of TeenBeat Mayhem!, describes as a garage band’s “cyclonic whirlwind”).
From a certain point of view, all rock and roll could be said to be garage-band music. It certainly had its genesis in the simplest of settings, any place musicians could stack their amps and draw enough power to push their sound through thin walls (mostly garages and cheap practice spaces, in search of hooks and freedom). It’s pure party rebellion at its core — charged with attitude and full of bite, humor, and boundless rapid-fire energy. The Bad Shadows (Matt Mayhem, Victor Franco, Russ London, and Joe Benassi) come straight out of this raucous garage tradition: what was once nervously labeled as “invasions” and “primitive.” Just what we need right now. More please!
This, the Shadow’s first full-length LP, is an homage to every survivor of a “battle of the bands” contest, to surf rockers, to beat bands, to punks (more post than proto — these guys can really play their instruments), to fuzz-box, R&B, and AM 1950s dance radio (back when people knew what that meant, and when AM radio was a thing). Pure, open-hearted playful self-expression with retro lyrical hooks that are as direct in meaning as is their stylish-beat and the fierce guitar push that carries them out of your speakers. You can almost imagine these guys, after finishing each studio take, falling about laughing!
This isn’t a shy, tentative first studio record by a band trying to figure themselves out. Every song on “Voices in the Dark” emerges intentional, layered, stylish, witty, sometimes rude, and totally in control by a journeyman band with a clear vision of how to use its skills, and its purpose on this earth.
“Voices in the Dark” rips open on a vintage surfer-rock vibe with “Hey Little Girl,” but then swings wide across multiple garage styles. On successive plays, patterns emerge, along with a hint of The Cramps vibe shimmering off to the side, with humor and abandon. Stand-out tracks like “Take Me Home, “Make It Out Alive,” and “My Rifle, My Pony, and Me,” mark this band out as having more room to run on future records.
Perhaps this record could best be summed up as a kind of “warm up” teaser for what the Shadows have in mind for their sophomore effort, always the test: can they keep this proficiency and intensity while growing to the next-level in songwriting? (I think I read someplace that the Shadows are heading back into the studio this spring.) “Perfect imperfection.” This is a raucous “sampler” record of styles and approaches, all engaging and hinting at more.
If I have one criticism, and I mean this is a purely tiny, naggy word-nerd criticism, it’s that I desperately want a lyric sheet just so I can work out every last word of the lyrics on the song “My Rifle, My Pony, and Me.” I mean come on! Talk about a sense of humor. “She’ll be waiting for my rifle, my pony, and me.” (That refrain is too cinematically perfect.) Makes me laugh every time, and I’ve played this record loud, a lot. And I still want to know every damn word. And, I want the next damn record from this band, now.
Times are hard. Bands like the Bad Shadows make the shit bearable. Oh, and I want to see these guys play live in some dive bar. I’d like to have some fun, too. (This band is definitely having more fun than we are.)
I love perfect imperfection, I really do, and that’s not just some cute saying, that’s a fact. Perfect? That’s the devil. Who in this world would want to be perfect? They should strike the damn thing out of the language of the human race.Sam Phillips, from “Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘N’ Roll,” by Peter Guralnick (Little, brown and Company, 2015)
(where not otherwise credited)
“Reflections” / photograph by I Wei Huang on Shutterstock