Review: Brett Shady – The Devil to Pay (Self-Released, 2010)
The opening track of singer-songwriter Brett Shady’s solo debut is very good (especially for the terrific lyric “For every somebody somewhere in love / there’s somebody else”), but it’s the defeated loneliness of the second track, “Jerome, AZ” that sets the album’s emotional hook. Shady sings of giving up on his big city dream and heading for open skies. But even though he didn’t give up on his own big city dream, his initial discontent with Los Angeles, born of the dislocation and culture shock felt by a gold country immigrant provides much of the album’s emotional fuel.
Shady seems to have finally made himself at home in Southern California, but at the time he wrote these songs, his lack of connection became the locus of his songwriting. Like many lovelorn pop songwriters, he balances himself on the edge of self-pity and self-strength, wallowing in the darkness but mindful that the sun still shines on the other side of his drawn curtains. Shady follows in a long line of rock musicians whose later years led them away from the outward-bound excess of rock and punk to the introspective songwriting of folk and Americana. Dana Gumbiner’s production nicely balances a minimum of studio decorations with Shady’s simple combo of guitar, bass, drums, and banjo, leaving room for the lyrics to be heard and felt.
Shady first latched onto music as a child, and looking back to acts from the ‘50s and early ‘60s in the craft of “Darling.” He suggests the song is seeded in Ivory Joe Hunter’s “Since I Met You Baby,” which you can certainly hear in the piano figure, but the vocal seems more heavily influenced by doo-wop crooning. Winningly, the production gives the whole song an indie-pop feel, which makes the ‘50s influences play more like ghosts. Shady’s country antecedents can be heard in the shuffle beat of “Red House Plea,” but here again the song takes off in an original direction with strummed guitars, a meandering banjo and an imploring vocal whose high tone suggests Don McLean and the Avett Brothers.
What’s immediately apparent in listening to these performances is the difference between a band album and a songwriter’s album with a band. There’s a singleness of tone here that you don’t often find in collaboratively written material. There’s also a sensibility in the combination of disparate musical influences – waltzing country, folk strumming, pop melodies, 50s balladry, indie-pop – that could only come from a single head full music listening. It all tumbles out so seamlessly as to make it look simple; but making music that’s both familiar and new – catchy to the ear on first spin but without feeling like a rehash of something you’ve heard before – is a nearly impossible trick, and one that Shady has managed on his first solo outing.
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