Bringing It All Back Home

Rick Shaffer is a true veteran of the indie rock scene; as lead guitarist for the Philadelphia-based band, The Reds, he released his first single in 1977, and been consistently putting out records ever since.  But like any musician with a large body of work, Shaffer has changed his style many times, testing out new sounds and reaching back towards old influences; his new solo album, “Stacked Deck,” ties it all together.

In their early years, The Reds identified with the New Wave scene, and indeed, their early successes were such that their 1979 album, self-titled “The Reds,” toured with such prominent artists as Blondie, The Police, and the Psychedelic Furs.  Their lack of further recognition today is not for lack of talent; Shaffer’s grinding guitar and keyboardist Bruce Cohen’s are undeniably distinctive.

Despite a lack of lasting recognition, The Reds continued to put out albums under various managers and even produced some movie soundtracks. Their sound vacillated between driving post-punk, ‘80’s appropriate pseudo-electronica, and dark, artistic balladry.  When Shaffer put out his first solo album, Necessary Illusion, he steered his sound towards a far bluesier, sixties-meets-distortion beat.  Rather than seeming out of place, it seemed that this sound had been hidden in their heavy beats of their songs since the beginning, waiting to emerge.  “Stacked Deck” highlights the maturation of this sound; its wide range of influences make it resistant to genres, and this diversity seems to fit Shaffer’s songwriting perfectly.

The album is not without its flaws. A few of the tracks start suddenly, so that one feels as if the beginning was cut off.  The audio is well-balanced, but a little overbearing in the sheer density of sound.  Some songs are stronger than others.  Yet one gets the sense that this is how it is supposed to be; the resulting sound is rough, unfinished and guttural.  It is a quality that most modern performers shun, but which was a cornerstone of the compelling delivery of delta blues musicians, as well as of sixties garage rock, the only genre that comes close to pinning down this music.

The first, “I Won’t Deny,” sees Shaffer channeling his inner 13th Floor Elevators; it has a crunchy bass line, a jangling tambourine beat, and Shaffer’s signature guitar whine, underlying his forcefully smoky vocals.  “Shudder And Shake,” on the other hand, takes a Rolling Stones style approach to the blues.  The one-note pulse that drives this song opens up the floor to searing guitar licks, Delta-esque harmonica moans and a genuine bluesy growl from Shaffer.

“Found My Love” perhaps stands alone more than any other track on this album.  It is built on one strong, simple riff, repeated as a refrain in the rhythm guitar and filled out with a full band, back-up vocals, and a tasteful lead guitar solo.  Its lyrics stick with the listener; they are clever, and on hearing them, one starts to relate to the frustration of the singer, even without meaning to do so.  “Cool Treatment” lays down a cool rattle of percussion over a lowdown, grungy guitar line, making for a stormy cloud of sound and the deliverance of some bitter lyrics.  “Time or Love” ends this album on a splendid note; it is a well-made blues ballad, spare and utterly compelling, and its refrain promises the listener that “Time or love is gonna get you.”  Wise words deserve a closer look; if you are in the market for good music, Stacked Deck is certainly worth the cost.

• Zosia Holden | College Underground Magazine