Rolling the bones with Shakey Graves
“It won’t be long ‘till I belong, without all of this unlucky skin.”
Those are the opening lines to Shakey Graves’ album, “Roll the Bones.” It’s an album I can’t stop listening to and that’s the first time I can say since I got my hands on Chance the Rapper’s mixtape, “Acid Rap,” and that was nearly a year ago. Just like Chance’s mixtape, this Shakey Graves album snuck up on me. A few nights listening to it as background music turned this 10-track LP into an album I can’t stop listening to.
There are levels of complexity and creativity to “Roll the Bones,” just as there were in “Acid Rap,” that are truly refreshing to hear in 2014, despite the album being released in 2011. It blows my mind that they were both available online for free (or for suggested donation). Here’s a track-by-track introduction to “Roll the Bones.”
The harmonica swells, deeply sweet lyrics and the jumpy plucked rhythm of the opening track “Unlucky Skin,” draw you in. It’s sort of like backwoods bluegrass meets spacey Flaming Lips lyrics. Its full of folksy blissfulness and man if that hook doesn’t keep you coming back to listen time and time again.
Next up, “Built to Roam,” sarcastically sifts through a wanna-be movie star mentality, with a chorus that leaves “so long sunny California, you ain’t no friend of mine,” echoing through your skull. With its bluesy undertones, this three-minute song has a nice rhythmic groove and is lyrically top-notch.
Even though I’m just finding out about him, Alejandro Rose-Garcia, the one-man-band behind Shakey Graves, isn’t new to the music scene. He’s actually been getting a lot of national recognition for his raspy, folksy, bluesy, southern-tinged psychedelic tunes. Nor is Rose-Garcia new to the entertainment scene in general. If you’ve watched longtime NBC hit show “Friday Night Lights,” you’ve seen his face. He appeared in a four-episode span of shows back in 2007.
Rose-Garcia decided to hit the music scene after being enamored by another one-man show, Bob Log III, Austin360 reported in an article last year. Like Log III, Rose-Garcia plays his own drumbeats live, with the heels of his feet, while he plays guitar and sings. Check out Shakey Graves’ performance of “Word of Mouth” at Pickathon on YouTube. That’s the video that first got me interested in Shakey Graves as it showcases his phenomenal live performance out in the woods of the Pacific Northwest.
The title track, “Roll the Bones,” follows and it takes a few listens to get used to it. But if you stop and really listen, there’s a ton of raw power in the song, with all the emotional underpinnings of a Modest Mouse track. It even has the guitar to match. Graves’ Isaac Brock complex definitely comes through on this one: “Yeah, struggle all you like, put up the good fight, they say someday everybody dies alone.”
Graves semi-screams in true Brock fashion, as the track unwinds and the paranoia of heavy life questions can be felt in the musical tone. It accomplishes much of the depth and passion of great MM tracks, with more of a nod to southern grit.
“I’m on Fire,” rattles off Nirvana-esque with acoustic power chords and multiple voices edging out raspy lines that sound like they could be the synopsis of a “Walking Dead” episode. “Sometimes it’s like someone took a knife baby, edgy and dull, and cut a six-inch valley, through the middle of my soul.”
Raw and genuine, this song is my favorite track of the bunch, combining all the tasteful elements of Graves’ style into a brief and impactful two minutes and 26 seconds.
Rose-Garcia was named by NPR as one of the top 10 artists that music fans should’ve known about in 2012. So, while there’s a possibility he might be on your music radar, he had definitely hadn’t registered on mine until this past week.
Now I’m wondering how I hadn’t heard about him sooner.
While Rose-Garcia has bounced around big entertainment scenes, like Los Angeles and New York as an actor, he’s now living in the artistic community of Austin, Texas. He has southern roots, but big city chops and they both shine through on Roll the Bones.
Track six, “Georgia Moon,” literally hits close to home for me, as it tells the story of a drive up Interstate 81. I-81 runs through my high school hometown of Morristown, Tenn., so the familiar imagery in the song was really special: “Doing 85 going north on 81, won’t see my baby till the rising of the sun, Tennessee keeps warnin’ me if I booze it I might lose it, but shine on Georgia Moon, shine on.”
Rich Southern lyrics from tinny, indie bluegrass makes for an interesting combination on this song. While not the most impressive of the album, the track is worth remembering for its nod to East Tennessee and good ol’ moonshine drinking and driving (note: I don’t approve of drinking and driving).
Next, Rose-Garcia hits you with an audio clip to begin the sixth installment of “Roll the Bones.” I’m a sucker for audio clips in songs, so the start of this one was especially grabbing for me. The track’s vocals are weirdly inventive and are almost so distracting you’ll miss the lyrics.
But listen close, because they’re definitely worth your attention. The guitar in this track provides a beautiful background and is paired with a sparse percussion section. It’s like a much quicker, uglier version of Bon Iver, but it works: “Come skin your knees with us, life’s too short for a business lunch.”
That hit home for me, especially thinking about my career and wondering about my calling in life. Life is too short for business lunches, my idealistic side nods in agreement.
“City in a Bottle,” track seven, erupts gloriously into a mad mess of low, growling vocals matched by blistering, angry horns. It has big band sensibility and presence, but jangles around in carefree, breathy, folksy bliss. Think Devil Makes Three pushed to the max, mixed with “King Rat” from Modest Mouse. Did I mention it’s a live recording? That alone makes it unbelievably impressive.
The harmonies on the eighth track, “Proper Fences,” remind me of Peter, Paul and Mary, but updated to indie, male 21st century rock. Rose-Garcia recorded three vocal tracks for this one and they weave in and out amongst each other in odd fashion, telling a strange story. It’s not my favorite, but it’s interesting and I could see it growing on me musically.
The next track, “The Seal Hunter,” is the oddest, darkest and one of the most disturbing songs I’ve possibly ever heard. Remember what I said about audio clips? Well, if you listen to this one, you’ll see why I almost want to take back my love for them. This one’s out there. But every stroke of artistic genius has its odd points, I suppose.
And then, softly, subtly, and almost dismissively, the closing track “To cure what ails…” plays out a simple, happy love song. “So maybe I’ll die, a happy minstrel,” Rose-Garcia ponders, “or just a shadow of my former self.”
One thing’s for sure, Rose-Garcia is neither a simple minstrel nor a shadow of his former self. Musically he is putting out some wildly original and creative music, and lyrically he probes deep issues that force the gears in your head to start turning.
The craziest thing about Shakey Graves’ full-length album? It’s downloadable for donation on shakeygraves.com. Just in case you aren’t ahead of the music curb, in which case you already knew about this guy, you have no reason to not know about him now. You can get the stellar album for as little or as much as you’d like.