Classic Americana Albums: Patty Hurst Shifter “Too Crowded On The Losing End”

Evo, 2006

North Carolina has long been acknowledged by music fans as a state that punches above its weight artistically.  One of the particularly musically fertile areas in the state is the Triangle – Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill.  The local music scene has generated many well-known acts over the years.  One of these, whose star burned brightly for a brief period, was Chapel Hill band Patty Hurst Shifter.  They released their debut, ‘Beestinger Lullabies’ in 2002 and put out their sophomore effort ‘Too Crowded On The Losing End’ in early 2006.

The core band comprised J Chris Smith (lead vocal, guitars and the band’s principal lyricist), Marc E Smith (guitars, vocals), Jesse Huebner (bass, vocals) and Skillet Gilmore (drums).  For ‘Too Crowded On The Losing End’, they added support from local musicians Ron Bartholomew (who played bass on most of the tracks) and  Greg Elkins (keyboards) as well as occasional input from Caitlin Cary and Tonya Lamm (backing vocals), original drummer Jonny Williams (percussion) and Ian McLagan (Hammond B-3).

The group, whose mission statement was according to one source “rock like hell”, kicked off the album doing just that on ‘She’s Like A Song’ with its sharp guitar riffs, looping bass and harmonies pushing rather than just framing the chorus.  It’s a pretty breathless two and a half minutes.  ‘Never Know’ opens with a sustained single guitar note before dropping into a country rocker which seems to get faster as it goes with some sweet organ from Elkin.

‘When You Lie’ is another cool country rocker with a darker edge “I love it when you lie cause I have got a cold and bitter side”.  The fourth song, ‘Shake’ starts slowly but builds and speeds as the lyric gets increasingly dark before rolling into the “Home sweet home hold me down” outro.

Had this been a vinyl release ‘Sadder Side’ would have been a perfect closer to Side 1.  It’s a much slower song but one that burns with an intensity only softened slightly by Ian McLagan’s organ which swirls amongst the twin guitars.  The lyric is more mournful and resigned before rising into the chorus which echoes the summer rain from earlier in the record before “When it gets too crowded on the losing end only truly cold make it through; and if I shed enough blood in the name of love would it shed a little light on you?” The song climaxes with the twin guitars and McLagan’s organ riffing off one another.

After ‘Happy?’ rocks open the second half of the album likening true love to cyanide while distorted guitars duel, ‘All Washed Up’ kicks in with a riff redolent of the Stones which resurfaces through what is almost an old-fashioned pop rock song. ‘Break Everything’ follows managing to create a singalong chorus from “Eventually she breaks everything that she sees” while ending on the more positive “hope to love you eventually”.  It runs into ‘Shine’ a rocker once again driven by the twin guitars.

Which brings us to the album’s highlight ‘Acetylene’, a glorious almost 10 minutes of the altest-country any of us are likely to hear.  I was lucky enough to see Patty Hurst Shifter on their European tour in October of 2006 at the Burgerweeshuis in Deventer. Netherlands.  They played the free café concert parked at one end of the bar.  As they played ‘Acetylene’, jaws dropped and a roomful of punters was utterly captivated.  It’s slow paced with the drum beats seeming to switch in mid-bar.  Piano, guitars an insistent bass line; beautifully paced verse and a chorus coming together sweetly and a lyric steeped in emotion.  One of the songs of the decade if not the century to date. Once it finally slips away, the listener is given an 11 second pause before the uncredited bonus track ‘Worth 2:11AM’ brings the record to a final close.

‘Too Crowded On The Losing End’ was one of the first records that came to mind when considering a contribution to Classic Americana Albums.  It’s a record that when you put it on, no matter what else you’re up to, will work its way into your ears, head and feet.

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andrew riggs

Fine album with Catlin Cary in support. What happened to the band? Cary released two fine albums on Yep Roc as to the rest any ideas?

Gary Walker

Wow, I thought I was in the minority to know and love this band. Saw them at the Borderline in 2006. sadly missed

David Chalfen

Thanks for flagging up a totally new-to-me great album, for which this column is a real godsend