Album Reviews

Michelle Shocked – Threesome

(Mighty Sound) UK release date: 27 June 2005


Michelle Shocked - Threesome Back in 1986, folk music was still seen as the preserve of beardy men with a predilection for real ale and sticking a finger in their ear. It was pretty damn uncool, to tell the truth. So the arrival of both Michelle Shocked and Suzanne Vega on the scene came as something of a pleasant… shock.

Shocked announced herself with a particularly lo-fi debut. The Texan Campfire Tapes was, as the name suggested, recorded around a campfire in Texas accompanied by the sound of crickets and passing traffic. Her next record, Short Sharp Shocked, was an altogether more commercial affair which displeased the folk music elite but contained one timeless classic in the shape of the wondrous Anchorage.

Yet while Vega went onto produce a string of well received albums, Shocked’s career seems to have stalled somewhat. Ever since her last major label album in 1991, Arkansas Traveller, she’s been mired in messy legal disputes with Mercury Records, with the last thing we heard from her being the rather underwhelming Deep Natural in 2002.

Now she’s back, and in a move that Ryan Adams would be proud of, she’s releasing three albums on the same day. Released separately and as a box set, Threesome consists of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (described by Shocked as “Short Sharp Shocked all grown up”), Got No Strings (a selection of Disney tunes sung in a swing style) and Mexican Standoff (a blues and Latin tinged collection of songs).

The most successful of the three discs is Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. The songs here were inspired by her recent divorce, but don’t expect a series of bitter, angry rants a la Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks. The overall mood is sunny and reflectful, especially at the start of the album, with the blissful Early Morning Saturdays.

How You Play The Game is more gritty and lays down a country sounding backing to analysis the psychology of love, but it’s Hardly Going To Miss Him that heralds the start of the ‘divorce songs’. Again, there’s no rage here or even sorrow, as the songs makes clear: “Hardly gonna miss him, won’t notice he’s gone”.

As Don’t Ask Don’t Tell progresses though, a sadder air permeates the songs, as on Fools Like Us, but the best moments are when Shocked’s considerable social conscience comes into play. Elaborate Sabotage invokes the imagery of workers throwing boots into factory machines to force comfort breaks, while Evacuation Route tells the sad story of a woman leaving her husband with a child in tow – an accordion line works very effectively here in setting up the song’s mood.

The album draws to a close with the jazzy swing of Goodbye, before returning for a quick encore for the blistering punky jam of Hi Skool. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is the album to buy if you just want one of these records, but the other two discs also have their charms.

It’s fair to say though that Got No Strings will be an acquired taste. It’s a brave move to reinterept Disney songs, and on some tracks here it all sounds almost unbearably twee. Give A Little Whistle is so relentlessly cheerful you almost want to smash the stereo in, while if I never hear A Spoonful Of Sugar again I won’t be sorry.

There are some gems here though – To Be A Cat is a charming opener, while the steel guitar on A Dream Is A Wish is an inspired move. The best moments though are the quieter ones, such as the lullaby of the beautiful Baby Mine or the standard Wish Upon A Star, which Shocked makes her own.

Mexican Standoff rounds off the album, and is another mixed bag. Yet, in it’s own way, it’s also the most intriguing. Shocked begins the album by singing in a Spanish-accented voice, with lyrics in what can only be described as ‘Spanglish’. Sometimes this works, as on the excellent opener Lonely Planet, with its mournful muted trumpet. Other times, it works less well, such as Wanted Man, which makes one yearn for Calexico to do it properly.

The gospel flavoured Picoesque is definitely the high point of Mexican Standoff – starting off as a driving country rock song, it changes tack dramatically at the chorus, when a piano comes into play and the gospel elements really make the song take off. It’s an exhilarating listen, but after this song the album takes an odd turn.

Gone are the Spanglish lyrics and the Latin touches of the first half – instead the rest of the album is composed of blues songs. They’re all expertly done of course, and some of the guitar work is phenomenally good (especially on Bitter Pill), but it seems just as the listener is getting into the Spanish vibe, it’s whipped away from us. A missed opportunity in other words.

So, if your budget only stretches to one of these albums, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is the most satisfying. However, if you’re a fan of Shocked, then you won’t be sorry if you shell out for the box set. She’s to be commended for her refusal to be pigeonholed, and even if not all of Threesome is a success, it’s certainly a worthy listen from a woman who’s been away for far too long.


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More on Michelle Shocked
Interview: Michelle Shocked
Michelle Shocked – Threesome