A lot of people are getting burned by Shakey Graves’ Can’t Wake Up. His debut, 2011’s Roll The Bones was a sweet delta blues (despite coming from Texas), acoustic and bare. Back up singers were utilized as were some production effects but they were additions rather than the core of the sound that was being built. 2014’s And The War Came featured Shakey Graves’ first big hit, “Dearly Departed,” a duet with Esme Patterson that experimented with electric guitars to compliment the acoustic guitar and expanded the percussion sections beyond the suitcase kick drum that defined his image. Those developments were used across the album and it was clearly a transition piece into a new style that we could only guess at.
Now, in 2018, Alejandro Rose-Garcia (Shakey Graves) is revealing what that transition was to. It’s not a complete departure. The underlying chord tensions, structure, and melodies are still very much in the vein of his earlier works. As Billboard observed “fans who love the Western amble of “Built to Roam” off Roll the Bones will recognize similar strains in “Dining Alone,” and “Big Bad Wolf” is a lyrical powder keg of the same stripe as “The Perfect Parts” on And the War Came. The tendency to sing with the haunting cadence of a ghost in a ComiColor cartoon from the 1930s is still here (and I mean that in the most endearing way). The guitar is not only still central to most of the songs, but the bluesy picking of melodies remains Rose-Garcia’s trademark, which is good because he’s very good at it.
But unless you’re actively listening for these things they won’t stand out to you like the differences do. The biggest switch is the switch to electric guitars. The album starts with the musical equivalent of a sign saying “BLUES PURITANS NOT WELCOME” with the intro to “Counting Sheep,” which focuses on a guitar playing sweet blues licks but with the tone more like what would be on a dreamy “indie” (I hate that term but I don’t know how else to describe it) pop record. A little bit of whammy when he strums that first chord gives it the effect of a cool breeze on a dark night. But “Counting Sheep” is one of the more dramatic departures on the album. That guitar tone isn’t Rose-Garcia’s only trick, he still goes back to the acoustic guitar he’s been playing all these years on songs like “Dining Alone.” The percussion isn’t always so cymbal heavy. It’s like Rose-Garcia is trying to make the first impression of the album as a dramatic departure (which it is, but not as much as it feels at first).
Reverb is abundant on this album, which could be said of Roll The Bones but it sounds less like the recording was conducted in an echoey chamber naturally and more like a reverb effect has been applied in the studio to recreate the Pet Sounds sound. On “Back Seat Driver” it feels like you’re driving down a highway at night with no one to keep you company but your thoughts. It reminded me of Springsteen’s “Wreck On The Highway” on The River. The reverb on the vocals feels more like what was on the first few albums, a slightly more natural effect. A lot of it has really short decay so it can be easy to think it’s something else.
Production aside, arrangement is dramatically different from the early albums. Use of a full drum set gives a much fuller base for Rose-Garcia to build his songs on. Keyboards are used on some tracks, usually sounding like an electric piano or an organ. There are multiple guitars, possibly overdubbed. On “Dining Alone” an acoustic guitar provides the foundation of the song but an electric plays a melody parallel to what the vocals are doing.
Overall, Can’t Wake Up is a pretty good album that just failed to make an impression on me. I don’t mind hearing Shakey Graves go in a new direction. The folk blues troubadour with the suitcase drum was starting to tire after seven years and I’m glad he found a new identity, I just hope he finds yet another one after this. Can’t Wake Up is an interesting album not without merit, but it doesn’t leave me eager for more.
Greg von Teig is a musician and author living in Brighton, Massachusetts. His expertise is classic rock, folk punk, and the blues.