The End of America - Shakey
Record Label: Forest Park Recordings
Release Date: Dec. 21, 2012 (online); Feb. 20, 2013 (physical)
Those of us who have enough time on our hands to read 736-page musician biographies may or may not have stumbled across an absorbing if not exhaustive biography of Neil Young entitled Shakey that was released in 2003. Whether or not, The End of America named both a song and their new album after one of Canada's favorite sons remains to be seen, but Young is at the forefront of what these Brooklyn folkies do. A concise and crisp follow up to 2010's Steep Baby, Shakey is a fine record from a band very few are paying attention to.
The album opens with banjo picking and a lilting lap steel and sets the tone almost immediately: this is a roots record with a heavy emphasis on arrangements and execution. "Pick Yourself Up" follows and it's a banjo-laden affair that is rustic and winsome. Ostensibly a song about rising above adversity, the song suffers from mediocre vocals and is far from the bang needed to make a solid opening statement. On the contrary, the understated "Grew Up Here" is an understated and simple yarn about hometown pride that hits at what the quintet does best. Never once do they try too hard, never once do they take on more than they can chew. And it is there that the album hits its stride. "Life Before the Change" is a subtle and gently lifting paean to adversity in which vocalist Brendon Thomas quivers and shakes with hesitance. That sense of anxiety and nervosa is what makes Shakey so compelling. Borrowing from "Intro," "Interlude" is more banjo picking but with a running time of only a minute it ends far too soon.
The disc's brief second half opens with "Shakey," a breezy and autumnal affair that is equal parts sun-drenched and sensational. Anchored by harmonica and banjo, the vocals once again fall short but thankfully with a band of this caliber, the music does the heavy lifting. The quintet are first-rate lyricists and "Shakey" is the song on which the band proves their lyrical mettle. One of the album's strongest is the rising "Cemetery," a homespun meditation on mortality that builds on a supple banjo and a cresting crescendo. Dedicated fans of three-part harmonies should find a lot to like on this one as the song allows Thomas, pianist James Downes and guitarist Trevor Leonard to shine from the very onset. Arguably the apex of the disc is "Raining in Philly" an arresting study in realness that has a sense of humanity and compassion not often heard in song. Buttressed by scintillating piano, there's a sense of empathy and sincerity that makes it one of 2013's finest tracks. A veritable home run, "Raining in Philly" is also self-deprecating as the band wails away with the cheeky line, "This is going to be our hit album, baby." Shakey concludes with "IV," a song that once again lets the arrangements do the heavy lifting. And it is there in those final few minutes that The End of America makes the most sense. Intimate, warm and undeniably melodic, The End of America is indie folk at its finest.