Why is it that, while America is a perfect breeding ground, glorious bands like the Shazam always seem to find their true cult followings in Europe, where they are loved, worshiped and adored? Cotton Mather opens for Oasis in Paris, but plays to 40 folks in Austin. Meanwhile, the Shazam opens for Paul Weller at Earls Court in London, which is a bit of an enormodome. Ah, if only their high school compatriots knew . . .
Despite its lack of recognition at the local 7-Eleven, or perhaps because of it, this Tennessee-based quartet has released one of the most inspired and joyous noises to be heard since the early '70s pop yearnings of Big Star and the Raspberries, with all of the big guitar clang of early Who and the harmonies of the Move thrown in for good measure.
Sonically, the Shazam's third effort (following on the heels of 1997's self-titled debut and 1999's Godspeed the Shazam) is pure power pop: guitars all ringing and roaring, monstrous tambourine accompanying sweet and strained vocals, melody-infected bass lines and a drummer who actually pushes the songs instead of dragging them along. Main man Hans Rotenberry is often compared to John Lennon, but only in the sense of longing that his voice effortlessly carries. Frankly, he looks like a bricklayer with a Keith Partridge haircut, but if there were a God, or if it were 1972, Rotenberry would be staring down at a million teenagers from their walls.
The opener, "On the Airwaves," is a three-minute manifesto, a Mott-esque biography of the Shazam: "Late at night we're singing tunes/From deep inside our basement rooms/Lurking on our secret frequency/And in the dark red meters glow/A message to the freaks who know."
That may sound trivial, and maybe it is, but dammit, it shouldn't be. Pop music is supposed to mean something, it's supposed to have life-sustaining passion. Ultimately, Rotenberry understands that "pop" is a language of the heart, sung in a secret code; that the radio should be a lifeline for isolated teenagers sitting alone and insecure in the bedroom. It's a disgrace that this language is being allowed to languish unspoken, unsung, forgotten in the cutout bins or warping in Dad's record collection. The Shazam has a sacred mission to change that, and it shows every sign of being up to the task. While Rev 9 is not without its flaws, the band's heart is in the right place on every track.
Miraculously, the Shazam manages to avoid some of the stifling conservatism that so often plagues retro/power pop. The instrumentation feels fresh and inspired, even if the instruments went out of style in 1976. There's no sign of reverential mystification, no fear of modern recording, but the album still holds that fuzzy, analog glow. Instead of playing like George Harrison or Roy Wood, they just instinctively make the same choices -- a huge difference.
A lovely version of "Revolution Number 9" closes the album (as if that song is actually coverable), replete with vibes, obligatory Mellotrons and backward drums, all of which are used to surprisingly refreshing effect. By deconstructing the deconstructionist's handbook, the Shazam makes this chronically over-referenced moment in pop history enjoyable again. Coming out of the cut-up center with Townshendlike simplicity and ferocity, the Shazam strips the song of its pretentiousness and instead revels in its magic; it's a sound that makes you want to jump up and down on the bed.
The Shazam wants to take you for a ride in a 1971 baby blue Skylark to a romantic spot, look deep into your eyes, hold your sweaty palm and teach you how to sing along. Go on, baby. Let 'em. You won't hate yourself in the morning.
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