A musical stomach ache.
Shakey Graves and this reviewer’s time at Spectrum Culture have a history. His show in Eugene, Oregon was the first gig I was ever kicked out of. I was a naive 18-year-old, unaware that the Pacific Northwest’s draconian liquor laws did not care for my press pass. I was on my youthful ass, out the door before Mr. Graves even showed up. I declared I would defeat my age-related disability and eventually see him. Being a fellow Texan, I knew his local legend. Hell, Austin has an official “Shakey Graves” day and his spooky 2011 debut, Roll the Bones, is considered a landmark for blues-loving hippies in the Lone Star State. His live shows were all brimstone fire and humorous asides; just Alejandro Rose-Garcia, a guitar, and his trusty kick-drum suitcase, turning him into a freewheeling one-man band. But, when I finally did see him, he was now joined, at least for half of the show, with a drummer and another guitarist. At the time, I claimed that Rose-Garcia would eventually have to choose between the two worlds. Either inhabit the gloomy, ghostly folk music that had propelled him into mythic status, or embrace the pop-country of “Dearly Departed” which found him racking up millions of Spotify hits. But four years on Rose-Garcia still hasn’t made up his mind, with Can’t Wake Up demanding to have its cake and eat it too, only to end up with a musical stomach ache.
Now, Rose-Garcia has always had the pop chops, even while recording his music on a potato, but his music has become progressively cleaner, nearly to the point of sterility. That’s painfully obvious on early album cut “Dining Alone,” which, despite some excellently warblely harmonies and clicking guitars, sounds like his own “Built to Roam” played in a dentist’s office. So goes Can’t Wake Up’s takes on Graves’ previously established doom-blues. The messy, Beatles-indebted psych guitar of “Mansion Door” is derailed by a swath of overly pristine harmonies that sticky up the formally rollicking track. “Aibohphobia,” in terms of sheer off the wall spoopiness, harkens to Graves’ unhinged live show, but clutters the sound with so many Steamboat Willy sound effects and shimmering vocals that it comes off like the theme park version of his own music.
Rose-Garcia also proclaimed his love for indie titans Built to Spill in the lead up to Can’t Wake Up, and he’s certainly taken a stab at a weirdly amalgamated 90s rock. “Lost and Gone” surely is a bastard love child of Built to Spill, Mac DeMarco and Hank Williams, and basically takes all the worst traits of each to slump its way to the finish line. The slow-mo, near-vaporwave of “Foot of Your Bed” is unforgivable and the dream-like “My Neighbor” is as insubstantial as a vegan-catered BBQ. There’s no doubt that if Graves stuck to his guns, and really did want to make his own Lonesome Crowded West, his spinneret guitars and howling vocal cords could pull it off. But he seems uninterested in venturing down any one path, making both the transitions and songs themselves feel out of sorts.
Rose-Garcia, both musically and physically, showed up in Friday Night Lights and he’s certainly still got the sneaky skill to drop a dagger through the heart, or put in a bone crushing tackle. The coo of “hey coach, put me in” on “Big Bad Wolf” might be a little too on the nose, but as introduction to a disturbing theological conversation hovering around death, it’s a quiver inducing line. Opener “Counting Sheep” might be the prettiest thing he’s ever made, all dread soaked guitars, polished until they twinkle like the eyes of Texas and his own windswept voice crying out lonesome laments. And the swinging, swooning “Tin Man,” is a lovely, creepy lullaby to send us off. But these are brief glimpses of thrills caught in the snoozing morass of Can’t Wake Up. Even after half a decade, Rose-Garcia can’t make up his mind. Just like his live show, he can’t handle the gulf between sounds with grace, instead creating something woozy and unbalanced. And there comes the main concern. Maybe Shakey will never choose between anything, further filling his musical gluttony until the weight of his polyaural tendencies leaves nothing of note left.