In the booklet for Shaffer Street’s debut album is a gauzy picture of the band’s leader, Chris Shaffer, that suggests Rob Zombie about to do some damage – long hair, beard, made-up eyes, and a sly look of malevolence.
Shaffer must have some sense of the resemblance, because every other portrait has the singer-songwriter-guitarist mugging with too-wide eyes and a shit-eating grin, as if somebody commanded, “Look happy.” It’s forced but playful, and clearly beneath him.
Neither image does the music justice, but they illustrate the tough straddling act of Shaffer Street. When the Indiana-based band comes to The District this weekend to play RIBCO, the audience should expect earnest, textured roots rock that sometimes adheres too closely to the genre’s Hootie/Dave Matthews formula but at other times transcends it.
Delicate, multilayered guitars, piano, and mandolin provide the perfect musical backdrop for Shaffer’s tremulous but unprecious vocal stylings on the most standard tracks, but the album eventually travels plenty of side roads. If, like me, you find the roots revival more than occasionally tedious, Shaffer Street has a bag full of pleasant surprises for you.
The record starts with a baby’s wail, a wake-up call that you’re not in for the usual vanilla dish. But it takes some time before that promise is fulfilled.
The first four songs on Four Walls are strong but straightforward, and I’d suggest that a band with as much to offer as Shaffer Street should re-think its sequencing strategy. As examples of roots rock, these tracks succeed admirably; as attention-getters, they’re seriously lacking.
“Say You’re My Friend” kicks the record off, and it has the numbingly familiar strummy, bobbing chorus that generally makes me want to scream. A driving bass, a few hairpin musical turns, and some superb musicianship salvage it.
The next three tracks are straight out of the roots canon. And then the record takes off. When Shaffer and Company apply their style to pen-by-number songs, only the flourishes stand out; when they write their own stuff, they are reminiscent of REM, capable of virtually anything.
What ultimately distinguishes the album is the careful, detailed, and frequently startling tune-crafting and arranging of the songs. The production – by Paul Mahern, Shaffer, and the band – is unfailingly sharp, with great sonic touches and a well-rounded sound. “The Dragon” features a drum-machine beat, persistent guitar buzz, and assorted effects that drop out at just the right moments, giving way to silence. “She Pays the Rent,” penned and sung by Heather Shaffer, is driven by a subdued organ and has a happy pop feel from the ’80s. “Find a Way” offers some trip-hop touches and sampled voices with a funky, fuzzed-out chorus.
“Hell Bent on Heaven” is a sing-along that returns the listener back to the roots, but it sets the table for the languid, patient straining of “Sandman.”
Four Walls is no masterwork, but it accomplishes something tough: The album should please roots enthusiasts as well as those of us who yearn for a little more blood.
Shaffer Street plays RIBCO on Friday, February 23, with Wicked Liz & The Bellyswirls opening. The show starts at 9 p.m., and cover is $5.