IF YOU don’t know Shane Parish and his oeuvre – and chances are, unless you’re a regular reader of Wire and the deeper corners of Pitchfork and suchlike, you possibly don’t – be prepared to have a new guitar soli-meets-postrock pin-up rock up on your block, as his new album, Liverpool, takes what might be an interesting, if honorably dusty, subgenre – the sea shanty – and blows any preconceptions you have about them clean away like a force 12 off the Azores.
Known primarily, perhaps, Stateside for helming the electric prog-punk band Ahleuchatistas, who’ve released nine albums since 2003 of tightly wound, intricate instrumental rock, and of whose 2004 album The Same And The Other no less an experimental icon than John Zorn said is “one of the most intense documents of compositional rock complexity ever recorded,” Shane is also hallowed in six-string salons as having a unique and beautiful approach to the solo guitar; there’s ten albums in testament to that, commandments issued in low numbers for labels such as Tzadik and Cuneiform, often two-handed, with people such as Zach Rowden and Drag City’s Tashi Dorji.
In his own words: “I began playing guitar in 1992, I was 14 years old and I was immediately hooked. I love to improvise and play tightly composed music. I love intricacy and simplicity, intensity and subtlety, to hold the tension between extremes, and to be the extremes.”
A teacher, player and composer, these days based in that Southern musical cradle of Athens, Georgia, in many ways Liverpool is a companion piece in exploration to 2019’s Way Haul Away: A Collection of Fireside Songs, also for Dear Life of Philadelphia.
Concerning this album in particular, he hypothesizes that “these old melodies are timeless due to their physiological power to vibrate the human nervous system in just the right way. They are the code to resonance within the body, and thus a fantastic and magical part of our evolution.”
His approach to repurposing the folk song canon is to enter via the portal of the voice, the melody line; he always transcribes the vocal melody first, then builds his own arrangements, allowing the contours of the tune to dictate the harmony, embellishments, and tuning. This, of course, is especially apt since the shanty is, by its very nature, a song of massed human voice, and one with both Celtic and African roots.
After months of developing elaborate acoustic readings of songs whose writers are long scrubbed from the record by the depredations of time, at the eleventh hour a burst of inspiration hit and he rearranged the entire record for electric guitar, thus allowing a new, modernist dimension of echo and chorus, of delay and feedback, of power-generated intensity; urgent, multi-hued, powerfully expressive of songs intended at source to provide a communal rhythm and brotherhood in working conditions us softened, 21st-century beings would struggle to conceive.
A nonet of songs collected opens with the almost-title track, “Liuerpul” the city here afforded a pseudo-17th century kinda spelling, and notice is immediately given of how Shane intends to break with tradition. as what you expect to be perhaps a tender and delicate reinterpretation and reading of a trad.arr worksong, older than the hills, handled with protective gloves like some ancient scroll, instead absolutely roars in on a fierce fire of shredding and distortion and fingers running up frets, like this was Sonic Youth’s “Silver Rocket” or Steve Albini or something. Fuck. The heart of the storm passes, although that distortion cloud stalks the horizons, is always visible from the crow’s nest, as Shane instead unravels a steel-grey foam of chiming, shoegazey melody; Robin Guthrie caught in the spindrift, an incantation of spirit and mystery. I swear, the way it moves on across those rolling drums and that two-note bass, you can hear the repeating plunge of bow into heavy seas.
“Black Eyed Susan”. the January single, comes with a scraping little beat, Shane in multitracked conversation with himself: a bass riff, a lonely spidery lead line, plectrum harmonics, subtle drone, all while keeping that industrious pace as the ropes are hauled. But let’s allow Shane to explore the song more, as its refurbishing architect: “‘Black Eyed Susan’ is a lover-lost-at-sea ballad of sorts,” he says.
“Susan comes to visit her true love, a sea captain named William, while his ship is docked at port. In their exchange, he professes her undying faith to her and assures her of his fidelity, and that he will not be tempted away from her by other lovers while docked at other ports around the world.
“The melody is so strong that it does not require much dressing to evoke a world of desolate and sorrowful beauty. I break it into phrases for the first section and interject watery responses to each melodic passage, before the song culminates in a driving groove where the melody repeats ad infinitum with only the subtlest of variations.”
“Eliza Lee” is a slight thing, rendered in intimate string squeak and fingerpicking, a folk melody brought up to the present through the prisms of both ragtime and current guitar solo thinking; intimate is the watchword for this song, which has a real Tompkins Square/Kicking Mule aesthetic, pausing here, suddenly flowing in glissando there. It barks as it ends, thrums and dispenses with itself, and rolls into the treachery and the fog and the unknown fishing riches of “Banks Of Newfoundland”, here cautionary and thrumming, the melody yearning for far-off and safer shores – these banks once being so famed for piscine richness it was said you could almost walk across the ocean on its teeming shoals, and which drew boats from European shores to brave thousands of miles – death, quite literally, or glory. This is all captured in a skeletal, trebly chop and rattle of bass notes, a more plaintive and lamenting lead melody – it’s very Dirty Three, in the best way.
“Venezuela” begin bare naked, a Telecaster or similar with the correct Sergio Leone amount of high-plains vibrato making it sing; Michael Libremento then turns in a rolling, pattering masterclass of percussive shuffle as Shane wends the melody deeper into the temperate forests wherein it has landed, knots and twirls it around you like vines.
“Randy Dandy O” is by turns scabrous and staccato, bass notes root and fifth, root and fifth, over which Shane plies out a guitar making for Loren Mazzacane Connors or Richard Dawson country, brittle, bending, tearing at that melody to find its core. “Haul Away Joe” a formerly popular work song both sides of the Atlantic, gets a tremulous rendering in violined feedback and a propulsively post-punk power chord framing, draining it of blurred sentiment and reinstilling in it a sense of industry and purpose and muscle memory and toil. Exceedingly clever; a finest work song for a gig economy globe that, wave by wave vanishes and blurs in the briney, visible eventually only down on the seabed, as a pearl diver’s dream find of a lost Papa M track or somesuch.
“Santy Anno” is beautifully weary, a stumbling, Mick Turner-like shimmer of layered evocation, tangled in a whispered, freer counterpoint that you can glimpse underneath, all laying out over the crackle and judder of a guitar processed into a trembling drone. It grows incendiary and bright in articulating some wordless story in scalding runs and high peaks of spontaneous surge.
And if not ashore, it’s inshore where the album includes in the seven-minute plus high tide of “Rio Grande”, gleaming bright like third-album William Tyler meets Windy & Carl, molten melody emerging from banks of delay and chorus, too bright in the six-string sun to perceive the outlines of but so very verdant and luxuriant. A track to play again and again and again, to, quite literally, set oneself adrift within. A stunner.
An album of sea shanties like you never did hear, Shane takes what might be an interesting, if honorably dusty, subgenre – the sea shanty – and throws the windows wide open on that half-forgotten side corridor of our musical discourse; lets the light and the good air in and stirs the patina of centuries from these compositions, makes them blood-red with a new, 21st-century life; makes of them a palimpsest on which the tales originally told are still visible but reprised and renewed and retold for our age. An excellent leftfield listen for fans of Mogwai and Tortoise and Nathan Salsburg and Ryley Walker alike.
Shane Parish’s Liverpool will be released by Dear Life Records on March 4th digitally and on vinyl DAJFAUREG