Previously I have done deep dives into the songs “Racing In The Street” and “4th of July from Asbury Park (Sandy),” both by Bruce Springsteen. This week I wanted to try out a dissection of a non-Bruce Springsteen song.
I haven’t gotten to gush about Black Pistol Fire enough. They haven’t released an album since I started writing Feedback last year, and since I don’t (or at least rarely) review singles, I haven’t discussed their fantastic recent songs like “Pick Your Poison” and “Temper Temper.” However there is one song of theirs I know so intimately I thought I would do a song dissection of it to give you a glimpse into BPF’s genius.
In 2014 Black Pistol Fire released their Hush Or Howl album. I first saw them live opening for Gary Clark Jr on Halloween 2015, which was my first exposure to them, and then saw them touring to support this album that December. Even though Deadbeat Graffiti (2017) is arguably a better album, Hush Or Howl will forever hold a special place in my heart because it was the first I heard. The enduring hit off that album, and probably their most famous song besides “Suffocation Blues,” is “Hipster Shakes.” Let’s dig into what exactly Kevin McKeown and Eric Owen are up to on this blues punk classic.
The beauty of this song comes from it’s simplicity. Like most tracks on this album, it is just guitar and drums. No bass, no keys, no second guitar to play rhythm/lead. Kevin has to put a lot of reverb on his guitar to get the sound to carry, and puts a fair bit of distortion by way of a Electro-Harmonix Big Muff Pi pedal (possibly additional pedals, but this is the one I am certain he is using). The Big Muff has the added bonus of providing some sustain on his notes, letting them truly ring when he needs them to. Eric Owen’s drums have a fair bit of reverb on them too, making them ring loud and hard like a Led Zeppelin song.
The track opens with some chicken picking on a G minor pentatonic riff. Starting on the IV of the scale, and then hopping to the V and the vii. This creates a very tense riff that is almost resolved on the last note which is fretted to be a G (the I note, which would feel complete), but he bends the note into a G# making it a ii which adds tension, before finally resolving it with a G power chord. This isn’t the classic voicing of a G power chord though. That classic voicing you’re so familiar with from Chuck Berry tunes is a G2 and D3 on the 6th and 5th strings. This voicing is G and D on the top 4 strings, providing twice as many strings to add power and higher octaves to make a more dynamic sound. The second time through the riff, he stops halfway through to go to two power chords (on the bass strings, providing yet more dynamic tones). Instead of hitting that G chord he hit before, he goes to either the IV, VI, or vii, giving no release.
Once through both of those with the effects pretty muted and just a little chime on the ride from the drums brings us into the drop, where everything gets big. The Big Muff pedal goes into high gear and Eric Owen’s drums come in. Owen is living on the crash for this section. The crash cymbal is the loudest, with a nice long ring to it, so it fits nicely into this entrance. The snare and kick line up pretty well with the melodic hits of the guitar, even on the off beats, which we’ll find to be the case throughout this song.
Into the verse, the chords here are a G and F power chords. G is the I so it creates that nice comfortable resolution, but the F is the vii which creates a very strong sense of unease. Neither of these chords ring for too long though, so their impact is fleeting. McKeown’s vocals (and Owen’s drums) fill the space between the chords.
My baby talks so much she lose her mind
Her violent hips and she knows how to treat me right
I don’t worry and I pay no mind
Chugging gasoline she knows how to start a fire
The lyrics here are poetic but not too deep. The song is overall about a wild lover who is passionate but fleeting. “Chugging gasoline” is a particularly evocative image of someone destroying her life to have fun by “starting a fire.” The riff here is the really fun part, with Kevin playing a IV, V, vii, and iii to create a lot of tension in quick succession before landing back on that I to finish things. He jumps back into a power chord I as soon as he finishes the riff, making the resolution even stronger.
Knee high just a baby child
Little heartbreaker, old enough to tow the line
Cheeky smile and her daddy’s good looks
She grew up hard stealing hearts just like a crook
She’s a young little thing, but she’s old enough to have some experience in love. She’s been the belle of the ball for as long as she can remember, and been sought after ever since then. But her “stealing hearts just like a crook” indicates that she’s not necessarily going to stay with our narrator very long. Not that he ever seems to mind.
Roll me over, time again
Papa don’t approve (I said)
Roll me over, time again
Papa don’t approve about the way she walks
A rebel child, her father doesn’t like the way she’s living her life, but that’s not gonna stop her. While McKeown sings this, he plays a simple I-V-VI progression, hammering on the iii of each chord, resulting in a dark tone. But since we’re in G minor, these minor thirds are supposed to be in the chords and it feels very consistent, more so than that vii power chord in the verse.
Then we go back into the intro, which is also our chorus. Kevin wails over the power chords with stunning effect.
You’d better watch your man
Before she steals him too
You’d better watch your man
I won’t be played a–
The narrator warns us that she’s not afraid to take a taken man and begins to tell us how he isn’t like them and he’s smarter, but gets cut off by the next verse.
Got mind to give you a talking to
Turn the other cheek, darling I ain’t done with you
C’mon sugar won’t you take your shot
Arms folded across, show me what you really got
The narrator here switches to address the audience. She’s another woman, one more reluctant to join the party. But McKeown encourages her to join in by “showing him what she’s really got.” Second half of the verse is same as the first, returning to our subject the little heartbreaker. Then back into the chorus where McKeown is once again cut off but this time by the bridge.
Hey mama way you roll that comb
See you cupping and a-rattling them bones
Come on down and do the Hipster Shake
Someone put me out my cage
This is the sonic climax of the song. A Gm power chord ringing out. It’s the first and only time in the song we hear a chord with all three tones, giving it maximum power only amplified by the exceptional sustain on the Big Muff Pi, which amps up the tension to ten. This is the part of the song where, if you see it live, you have to clap along. It’s built for a big rhythm section, which on the album is provided by Eric Owen’s kick on the quarter notes. Sadly, up here in Boston, I am often the only one clapping.
What exactly the “hipster shake” is will probably be Black Pistol Fire’s equivalent of Springsteen’s “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out.” Presumably it’s some sort of dance, but not one I’m aware of existing. What rolling a comb is makes another mystery, though presumably “rattling them bones” is a reference to gambling in a game of craps. While the meaning of these lyrics may never be clear to anyone outside Black Pistol Fire, the final lyric “someone put me out my cage” followed by a transition back into the chorus makes for such a powerful moment that it’ll take you a few listens to really care about the lack of apparent meaning in the lyrics.
Once more we go through the chorus, as Kevin finally finishes his sentence to say he “won’t be played a fool” as a G note rings out at the end, ended by a slide up the neck to finish the song. “Hipster Shakes” is not the most complicated song, living mostly in a G minor pentatonic scale, but it is such a beautifully executed and Ingeniously crafted one that it leaves the musician analyzing it wondering how Black Pistol Fire could get so much out of so little composition.
Elizabeth von Teig is a musician and author living in Brighton, Massachusetts. Her expertise is classic rock, folk punk, and the blues.