Published Sep 11, 2015After a prolonged absence that saw a one-year hiatus become three years, Legendary Shack Shakers are finally back with their new album, The Southern Surreal. The new album is the group's first record in five years, and marks the 20th anniversary of the band's formation by core member and bandleader J.D. Wilkes. The Southern Surreal is a piece that continues the group's tradition of experimenting and distorting roots genres into a conceptual style that has been coined "Southern Gothic."
As an author and prolific contributor to roots music, J.D. Wilkes is a Renaissance man of sorts, with an emphasis on all things Southern. His acute understanding of Southern culture transcends the music and seeps into the stories themselves, projected as a bizarre mix of regionalism, historical superstition and unique interpretation. Everything about the compositions is surreal, from the bayou creepiness of "(Let the) Dead Bury the Dead" and the rockabilly speed and punkiness of "Young Heart, Old Soul" and "Buzzard and the Bell," to the elasticity of Wilkes' voice, which stretches from bass-y crypt keeper on "Cold" to a ghoulish Alice Cooper baritone on "Down to the Bone."
Interspersed among the unusual, uber-alternative country songs are short interludes and skits that connect the high-energy songs while maintaining a supernatural intensity, as heard on the solemn radio recording "The Grinning Man," the loud, "When the Levee Breaks" harmonica exhibition of "Fool's Tooth" and the very poignant story of a man putting a dying dog out of its misery to the slow picking of strings on "The Dog Was Dead."
The off-kilter, fever-dream aesthetic of the album is very much concerned with death and spirits, which is fitting considering drummer Brett Whitacre's recent medical battles (he apparently came back from the dead three times). The identity of these superstitious ramblings is unmistakably Southern in context, often supported by plucky banjo and hooting bass. The large separation, however, between Legendary Shack Shakers and traditional country genres, is the finger-rolling speed of the guitar and the tumble-toms on the drums; it's less twang and more metal, giving the songs a more sinister sound that suits the songwriting perfectly.
The Southern Surreal is a trippy travelling roadshow with J.D. Wilkes as its ringleader. On the spooky, very unorthodox The Southern Surreal, Legendary Shack Shakers have successfully brewed styles to create an album that is undeniably fascinating. Here's hoping that we don't have to wait another five years to hear from them. (Alternative Tentacles)