Listen Up: Wednesday, April 06, 2005
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A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Michelle Shocked

Threesome: Don’t Ask Don’t Tell; Got No Strings; Mexican Standoff (Mighty Sounds/Ryko Records)

By Jimmy Fowler

Ornery folk iconoclast Michelle Shocked is about to make up for a too-long absence by releasing three full-length albums simultaneously on her Mighty Sounds label. On two of the c.d.’s, Shocked’s soft, wise, often mischievous soprano proves an awesomely versatile instrument. On Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, producer Dusty Wakeman and the nimble Mad Dog Studio players are exquisitely attuned to Shocked’s elaborate vision of folk music, which is not pretty poetry and plangent acoustic strums but a delicate interweaving of Americana elements, especially blues, swinging boot-scuff shuffles, honkytonk-ish weepers, protest songs, and confessional front porch ballads. The album is touted as a chronicle of Shocked’s recent divorce, and the heartbreakers on the c.d.’s second half are the best: The gentle weariness of the squeezebox that accents childhood memories in “Evacuation Route” and the hazy hindsight of adult betrayal in “Elaborate Sabotage” show her processing the damage in painful detail. You’d think a line like “My dearly departed heart lies in an unmarked grave” would be saved for one of the wet-hankie numbers, but she shoehorns it into the delicious country thrash of “Goodbye,” a joyous, raucous kiss-off you ought to save for your next break-up. The first half of the c.d., however, leaves less of an impression. “How You Play the Game,” featuring Shocked’s monotonous Dylan impression, and the trumpet-tinged hoodoo creeper “Don’t Ask,” a vivid variation on the Br’er Rabbit fable, are both lyrically and instrumentally seductive, but they feel expendable after a couple of listens.
The Nick Forster-produced Got No Strings is the trilogy’s curio — a bracing reinvention of songs from Disney movies as Western Swing rave-ups and slow dances — and its sheer audacity is likely to have you listening several times before you can decide which versions you really like. With lazy plucks from a lap guitar and the fiddle’s insinuating slides and dives, Shocked makes “A Spoonful of Sugar” sound downright salacious (“In the most dee-li-yee-yi-yee-yiteful way,” she finishes with a yodel) and turns “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes” into the dancehall waltz it always should’ve been.
She may have overextended her creative binge with Mexican Standoff, the third disc. Mark Howard and Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin co-produced the alternately supple and rustic Latin arrangements, but Shocked, despite her own Spanish lineage, too often sounds adrift and, amazingly, sometimes timid. The low-octave rumble of the baja sexto and those stately mariachi trumpet squeals can’t quite offset the awkwardness in her delivery of Spanglish lyrics. — Jimmy Fowler


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