Right off the bat, one look at the liner notes for this release tells the story of an interesting dichotomy to this album, the debut from the band Shady Cats. Though there’s no mistaking that guitarist/multi-instrumentalist/singer/songwriter Grady Crumpler is the de facto leader of the band, on certain songs he almost seems like a guest artist on his own band’s album. Take for example the guest lead vocal from the esteemed popster Don Dixon, he of the ’70’s pop/rock band Arrogance and the early ’80’s MTV hit Praying Mantis fame. How often have you heard of a band calling in a better vocalist than the leader to take the helm on a song? I can’t speak for every album ever released but one would guess….never! It’s almost an unspoken rule never to show up the regular singer as he’s the one the band’s gotta live and die with from song to song and gig to gig but it happens here with Dixon. And not only with Dixon. A singer by the name of Phil Spence takes a lead vocal on the album as well. Not sure if he’s a “name” vocalist of not (as you can never, I’ve not heard of him before) but he sings better than Crumpler and better than Dixon as well, though that might be the fault of the song or the production. Then again, Dixon singing the phone book would be okay by me so maybe Spence is just killer.
The band itself sounds like a tight unit, and it should be. Together since the late ’90’s after meeting at a private party in which a Crumpler solo set was the entertainment, the band once was named Grady Crumpler and Last Call before selecting their current moniker and began recording this record way back in 2001 when Crumpler and his bandmates started recording demo tracks. Calling in several skilled producers to helm the boards including Chapel Hill NC legend John Plymale, Crumpler gives the impression that this album has been an ongoing effort with many starts and stops (and, in fact, the set took two and a half years to complete), but you wouldn’t be able to tell from listening, which is a definite sign Crumpler hired the right producers for the job.
The first song, Love Callin’, sounds like a male version of Rosanne Cash’s old hit Seven Year Ache in that it combines rock, country and a four-on-the-floor dance beat together to come up with a pure pop confection that transcends genres. Crumpler’s vocals are very solid here and this is a great start for the record as it gets everything going at a fast clip with a great song that sure sounds as if it belongs on radio. In other words, a great slice of country-pop if there is such a thing anymore. The next song, Lost Myself, has a solid roots feel and is a bit more rock-oriented than the first cut, with Crumpler’s plantive vocals and Ennio Morricone-sounding guitar lines making for an interesting slice of guitar pop that sounds as if it could be a lost song from Marshall Crenshaw’s first record. I am noticing a pattern here – Crumpler’s songs have a ton of hooks and are relatively short, sticking with a philosophy of getting in, making an impact and getting out so the listener wants more. It’s working for me. She Kisses Me With Her Eyes comes next and Crumpler and the band turn the guitars and the tempo loose and hit the song like a floorboarded Ferrari hits the street. Pseudo-metal guitar solo from Crumpler who manages to keep it short-and-sweet, which the pop fan in me really likes as too much solo just sounds like musical masturbation a lot of times. But not Crumpler – just enough technique to wow you, some great melodic stuff and then right back to the song! The following song In The Moment is the anomaly in the rock world I have referred to earlier. A song where the lead singer takes a back seat to let someone else sing. But, when someone of the caliber of Don Dixon shows up to sing as in this case, it’s warranted though I am surprised the esteemed Dixon did not also choose to play bass. The song is produced by Chapel Hill vet John Plymale and Dixon sounds ten years younger with a lot of the gruffness removed from his voice in favor of a smooth, youthful sounding solid rock vocal performance. Once again some solid guitar work as expected from Crumpler and the band is as tight as ever on this track. I say Dixon should hire the band for one of his own records. For the next song, You Got A Way, the band is reduced to a power trio and Crumpler is again on vocals for this slightly jazzier number until the solid wall of rock guitars kick in at the start of the chorus and the song becomes a full-throttle stomper. Lines is the next song and features a guest appearance by onetime Gladhand Wes Lachot playing the B-3 on a great roots rock song reminiscent of Eric Ambel or Duane Jarvis’ best work. Another catchy song that ought to be a decent sized country hit if country played some real rocking stuff instead of the almost-rock they tend to play nowadays. I Want Independence takes the proceedings a little to the left as the song is almost metal, making it the odd one out soundwise. Then again, it’s not bad so if nothing else, it shows the band as very versatile and though Crumpler’s vocals don’t scream ahem…metal, he does a serviceable job that may have sounded better with a different producer or maybe better production values. Take Me comes next and is a blazing riff rocker that sounds more than a little like early Tom Petty right down to the swirling organ. The thing is, Crumpler’s not singing. Instead guest vocalist Phil Spence is handling vocals and sounds as if he belongs in the spot. Nothing wrong with Crumpler’s vocals so far, but Spence has a better voice and a better presence than Crumpler, at least on this harder-edged rock song.
Following is the much-mellower All The Way with Crumpler back on lead vocals as well as guitars. This is a great “come-down” song after the rock of the previous cut. The song has a great synth hook, also played by Crumpler, and sounds something out of the late-’70’s as it has a danceable beat made for what the old folks used to call (or maybe still do) The Hustle. While Crumpler’s vocals don’t compare to Spence’s (or Dixon’s for that matter, but who can?), he acquits himself okay here, just nothing outstanding. The next song is Till The Rain Comes and shows Crumpler handling all instruments except bass and drums. Vocals are decidedly better on this Plymale-produced cut. Maybe the production is what has hampered Crumpler’s vocals on some cuts as he sounds decent here, and the song has a nice summery hook to it. This would be a great song for the radio about, say, late April. The final song, Desperation, starts with some slow dirge-like piano by Darren Mitchell and slowly starts top get more bombastic, with the drums, bass and some heavy guitar hitting at the start of the second verse as well as some sweet layered background vocals. A little bit of Led Zep’s piano from All of My Love is heard at the end of the song, which is a nice touch. I am quite enamored with this album.
Though decidedly a little lo-fi most likely due to budget concerns, the production is as top-notch as one could expect and though it varies only the smallest bit from song to song, the use of three producers does not detract from this album as Crumpler and Shady Cats have managed to hone their own country-tinged pub-rock sound. Crumpler is a very interesting songwriter. While some songs have obviously big, sing-along hooks, he has the knack of also penning songs that seem slight only to subtly lull you until the hook slowly works it’s way into your brain. I’ve always felt the concept of “grower” albums to be weak. I mean, why should a person have to listen to something ten times before they like it? A person should be able to tell relatively quickly if they like a song or not. But this album has made me think about the viability of the concept a little more. As I listened to the album repeatedly, I felt the songs I considered a little weaker melodically burrow deeper and deeper inside my brain until they took my earhole by force. Now those songs have become the most remembered. It will be interesting to see Crumpler’s progression as obviously his ego is in check and he seems to have only the best for the band at heart. Once his songwriting improves and matures another notch or two, he should become a real force in the music world. Between now and then, I will be listening to this album quite often.