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Today’s desert island disc: Michelle Shocked, Short Sharp Shocked

Michelle Shocked Short Sharp Shocked Reissue

A review of Michelle Shocked’s Short Sharp Shocked (1988)

Some of the most memorable music from the 1980s, for me at least, stems from this album (and that’s perhaps because none of it sounds like the 80s at all). Michelle Shocked appeared, pretty much out of nowhere, in the mid-80s after she was “field recorded” at a folk festival on a Sony Walkman (the recording was eventually released as her first album, The Texas Campfire Tapes). Michelle had a beautiful, blues/country voice, big Dr. Martens boots, skinny jeans, a short haircut and all that mystique of having lived on a houseboat in Holland and as a squatter. She was generally both politically to the far left of the spectrum and very musical at the same time, something I remember finding quite irresistible back in the day.

Short Sharp Shocked, her second record, was a polished affair, as country as it was folk or rock. The opener, “When I Grow Up,” has served as my preferred track to test new stereos for years – the rumbling double bass has to be heard to be believed. What makes Michelle Shocked special, though, are her songwriting abilities – and her voice. Pitched slightly deeper than your average country singer from Texas, she had more of the blues (and, perhaps, less of the victim) in her voice. She also sounded much, much wiser and more experienced than her 26 years when Short Sharp Shocked appeared in 1988. The story goes that Michelle Shocked had seen both the inside of a mental institution and traveled the world – both things that come out in the lyrics here.

In a way, Michelle is the fore-runner from “my” generation (who came of age in the 1980s) to prioneer the so-called alt-country movement. Where Dwight Yoakam revolutionized country music by staying firmly in a country idiom, Michelle Shocked re-rooted folk and rock as Americana. Of course, this isn’t surprising: Short Sharp Shocked was produced by Pete Anderson, Yoakam’s long-time guitar cohort and producer. Listen to “(Making The Run To) Gladewater,” where she’s a perfect female ringer for Yoakam’s California honky tonk. Her country timing is impeccable, and listening to her you know that she’s spent countless hours making beer runs on the bumpy backs of pickup trucks across rugged Texas terrain.

Above all, though, Michelle Shocked is about her activism – even her introspection on tracks like the radio single “Anchorage” is essentially commentary on the state of the world. The “Leroy says…” sequence in its lyrics is both an indictment of certain life choices and a passionate feminist statement. “Fogtown,” the hidden track at the end, establishes her punk cred by virtue of having been recorded with punk band MDC. The original “Fogtown” appeared on Texas Campfire and is a lot gentler, but its re-make here shows Michelle as versatile in the way of a troubadour, a bard for whom the message is what’s important, not any false notion of stylistic integrity. (Plus, she always looked more punk than country, anyway.)

Shocked’s long journey out of record label ‘slavery’ is well-documented on Wikipedia and elsewhere. She now owns her complete catalogue and continues to evolve as a musician, regularly releasing the kinds of records she reportedly wanted to make when she was still with a major label – like a gospel CD.

For me, it’s a toss-up whether her magnum opus is Short Sharp Shocked or Arkansas Traveler, which features cameos from such luminaries as Uncle Tupelo, Taj Mahal and Clarence Gatemouth Brown. If Shocked is her early work of countrified political activism, Arkansas showcases a more fully-formed Americana renaissance woman who easily collaborates with the previous generation while simultaneously forging a new genre (it’s key to remember that Arkansas Traveler came out in 1992 – well before alt country became a genre people talked about).

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