Cali-country veteran ponders life to an accordion-driven soundtrack
We Brits might call Rick Shea an Angeleno, his press might style him as a Covina singer-songwriter but when it comes down to it this, his 9th LP, is a California record. From its Bakersfield fingertips through its Norteno and So-Cal rockabilly roots to its subtle blue(s) highlights. What the hell, there are even slightly faded Laurel Canyon streaks here and there. If that means you think you have a good idea of how the record sounds, you are probably right.
Shea’s Cali-country sound was honed in the bars and truck stops of San Bernadino first recorded in the late 80’s but came to wider notice with the song ‘Foot in the Fire’ on the third go-round of the ‘A Town South of Bakersfield’ compilation series. Whilst there was an odour of ‘leftovers’ attached to this final volume of the series, Shea’s track stood out and has remained a favourite in his repertoire ever since. His sound (and feeding fund no doubt) has since been nurtured and sustained by stints playing with Dave Alvin’s Guilty Men, Chris Gaffney’s Cold Hard Facts, and the legendary Wanda Jackson.
The investment of time and effort Shea has made playing on the scene has payed dividends with the personnel he gets to perform on his records and ‘Love and Desperation’ is no exception. In fact the effort put in by the players to make this record happen is, perhaps, testament to the esteem in which Shea, his guitar playing in particular, is held in the community. We get respected core contributors such as Drummer Shawn Nourse (Dwight Yoakam, I See Hawks in L.A.), bassist Jeff Turmes (Mavis Staples) and Phil Parlapiano on accordion/Hammond B3. Indeed the ‘stomach Steniway’ is perhaps the central musical feature of the record and as well as Parlapiano we get stints from Skip Edwards and David Jackson.
Creating ‘Love and Desperation’ was considerably more complex than getting the guys together to lay down their parts. It required each of them recording individually in their own facilities and sending them for Shea to pull together into a coherent whole. This remote recording seems to have worked as well as can be expected. Shea was happy with it, describing it as sounding like “a bunch of guys playing together” and the core unit with additional contributions from Jim Shirey (fiddle), Dave Hall (bass), Probyn Gregory (trumpet) & Dan Navarro (harmony vocal) manage to generate a warm, natural sounding record.
Perhaps on reflection though Shea might notice a nagging lack of sonic dynamism, a missing energy or forward motion in the record that could conceivably be attributed to the recording process? The songs build slowly and come to command our attention and interest but the almost stilted sound lets them drift occasionally. This is a small but annoyingly persistent disaffection with the record that manages to cling on even with repeated listens. Take ‘Big Rain is Comin Mama’; this may be a song about impending disaster but musically it is, at its heart, a simple Cajun inflected country two-step, built for dancing. What it lacks though is the life-affirming lilt that comes with the great stuff. Here it just sounds as though everyone is trying just that little bit too hard and we don’t really get either the sense of foreboding in the lyric or the joy of the music.
This observation aside ‘Love and Desperation’ is still a keeper. The use of accordions in most songs gives the whole thing a southwestern inflection. The Norteno feel of a bunch of these songs blends sympathetically with Shea’s countrified Bakersfield beginnings and even the occasional cowpunk impression to offer infectious melodies, crisp and incisive guitar playing and some real atmospherics. Musically the LP is a clear reflection of Shea’s personal history and this is mirrored in a number of the record’s personal lyrics.
In ‘Juanita’ (named for his wife’s mum) Shea brings to life the getting together of his in-laws, while ‘Tender Hearted Love’ is a straight-up paean to his wife. The title track tells the tale of his own early years as a bit of an adventurous misfit escaping his inattentive parents to undertake his existential search for something’ (turns out, it was ‘inside’ himself all along!) and ‘Nashville Blues’ offers a ‘tongue-in-cheek cautionary deconstruction of the Nashville fame-game. As well as these personal insights we get classic tales of misfits and minor criminals, hookers and hobos straight from the Cali-country playbook. The closing, Elmore Leonard inspired noir tale of “treachery and deceit” that is ‘Texas Lawyer’ could have come from one of Tom Russell’s classic 80’s albums (it does come from one of Shea’s earlier records) in fact and ‘(Down at the Bar at) Gypsy Sally’s’ reprises the protagonist from Towne’s ‘Tecumseh Valley’ to comedy-drama effect, which is some feat if you are familiar with the genuine heart-breaking sadness of the original. The references in the song see Shea come across like some jazzbo, with nods to the original song itself, classic bluesmen and iconic characters as well as great Ridley Scott movies.
All of this makes for a record that sounds like it was made in and about some world that is continents and decades away from the malaise of 2020/21, even when he is addressing these very same issues, however obliquely. It is a poignant and nostalgic, if not always 100% engaging, record. If you yearn for the glory of 80s and 90s singer-songwriter country when Russell, Alvin, Keen, Ely and the like then this might just be for you.