Rick Shea recently began serving time as one of Dave Alvin's Guilty Men, but he's no prison fish: Sawbones is his third solo album. Shea's own musical style, like Alvin's, is a mix of influences -- a little contemporary folk here, a bit of George Jones over there -- but throughout Sawbones, the common reference point is a Stones-style injection of acoustic rock with a harder electric element.
This isn't innocuous folkie rock, either; Shea isn't afraid to rave up on cuts like the title track, which is the most Stonesy song on the album, or "Emperor of the North," which manages to be a celebration of, and a poking-fun at, the kind of superstar ego that Americana songwriters like Shea have tended to avoid (at least partly because we tend not to make superstars of Americana songwriters). All but one of the 13 cuts here were penned by Shea, and the sole exception -- an acoustic cover of Lefty Frizell's "Saginaw Michigan" -- finds him reaching into the Nashville tradition, which is one of the record's prime progenitors.
Make that Nashville songwriting, though, not production. For while Sawbones is mixed for maximum clarity of all instruments, this isn't a "slick" record by any shot. The swagger-walk through blues, country, folk-rock and roots-rock Shea performs here is a stripped-down, old Fender tube-amp variety. It's the sound you'd get if you invited all your talented friends over with their instruments, so you could hang around and try out a few Creedence covers with the new Silvertone guitar you just bought.
Rick Shea pulls it off better than we would, of course. The mossy, it-came-from-the-home-country approach bears out remarkably well over the course of the entire disc, which itself sustains a number of heavy songs; most of the 13 cuts here run between four and five minutes. But Shea never gets bogged down in roots stylistics just for the sake of it, which is what makes Sawbones such a treat for folk-rock fans, who may not have heard many records this edgy.
Roots-rock and Americana aficionados will enjoy it for the music, which is consistent and strong without a slip. If the lyrical content on Sawbones often seems a bit too predictable (especially, and unfortunately, on the album's leadoff track, "Black Eyed Girl"), that might be a result of this being only Shea's third solo outing in a decade. It might also be that Shea's forerunners are so obvious here, and the playing techniques he learned from them so well-executed, that it's hard to listen to Sawbones without hearing, say, Cosmo's Factory in some little pocket of your head at the same time, which is undoubtedly unfair. Sawbones has a great deal of genuine life in its marrow, when you get right down in it.
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