AEM135 Thick Shakes

The Monks, The Gories, and The Detroit Cobras are staples in the litany of hip influences on modern music. For those of you who keep copies of this list in triplicate on your desks, just go right ahead and add Boston’s Thick Shakes to the top. Though they cruise on a road paved with discarded Nuggets compilations, they approach the mess of American garage rock with a remarkably refined aesthetic that brings a measure of control and sanity to a style of music that otherwise tends to run completely off the rails. At their core, these are songs made for dingy basement clubs, by dudes who don’t own cases for their instruments and drummers who make do with two broken floor toms and a cymbal made from soup cans and duct tape. The standard of musicianship is traditionally low, dominated by repetitive four chord riffs, half-sung/half-shouted unison vocal lines, and endless moments of disjointed slop. But that’s more a personal impression than a real assessment, and each band has its own particular swagger. The Monks tend to be on the experimental side, The Gories on the punk/slop side, and The Detroit Cobras on the motown/soul side. That said, the Venn diagram of their respective approaches to music is almost all overlap, and Thick Shakes are right smack dab in the middle. To anyone who’s spent weeks in their underwear listening to the Nuggets and Pebbles discs on repeat: Thick Shakes will be your new favorite band.

There’s something about organ (and I mean real organ, not this silly synth shit), that gets me off my ass in an instant. It’s like an invisible call to arms, a post-hypnotic suggestion that I must immediately rock the fuck out. Combined with driving snare hits on 2+4, some seriously blown-out guitar, and infallibly punchy vocals, this is music to dance to, to sweat to, to take amphetamines and freak out to. As Thick Shakes guitarist Tim Scholl explains, it’s “American R&B and blues, filtered through young British kids back into young Americans.” Generations of disaffected youth channeling each others’ music across the pond and claiming it as their own. To that I’d add that it’s also been filtered up a generation, to musicians who have varied tastes in (and unrestricted access to) the full spectrum of American popular music, from folk and country to blues and soul. But this panoramic view of musical history doesn’t always produce the best bands. There’s a tendency to reach for the stars and try something “new”, which almost inevitably results in something “terrible”. When the Rolling Stones set out to make music, their only goal was to be the best blues band in town. They didn’t see Exile on Main Street coming down the road, not even close, but as we all know, they eventually grew into something much more than an American blues cover band. It’s because that growth happened naturally that they made such a phenomenal contribution to rock and roll.

Thick Shakes has a similar approach to music-making, and it’s what distinguishes them from the mass of psychedelically inclined proto-punk garage bands that never quite made it. I get the sense that Thick Shakes isn’t trying to do anything special, but that’s exactly the attitude that makes them such a treasure. In his thoughts on Thick Shakes, Scholl went on to explain that “‘Musicians’ (his quotes) have a tendency to add this and that to songs, which can make them interesting, but a lot of times just sort of amounts to wankery. We write the songs, and then work on the proficiency of playing what we’ve written. We aren’t a ‘jam band’ (again, his quotes). I love that quote. Back when radio hits and 78RPM records demanded a crisp 2:30 per track, concision was a valuable asset in songwriting. We’ve since conquered the technical limitations that once constrained popular song form, and with an ever-expanding subset of artists who indulge in endless wankery, it’s refreshing to hear a band that says what it needs to say and gets the fuck out.

Lindsay Crudele, Tim Scholl, Matt Mafera, and Jerry MacDonald are the brains, voices, and fuzz behind Thick Shakes. MacDonald pretty much summed up the band dynamic with one word: fun. “__It’s fun to get together and do what we want. It’s fun to do that in front of people. It’s fun when people like it. Ultimately we were going to have fun anyway.” Crudele corroborates, “Our dynamic feels easy for me because I feel close to the others, insofar as I’m marrying one of them (Tim) and the others are close friends. Learning to play and sing, and do it in front of people all seemed like an insurmountable mystery, so to be able to pull it off to whatever degree is a lot of fun, and then to do it with people I enjoy. The songs are like the intersection of nonsense party music with a bunch of vexation.” As much as I appreciate the barely-of-this-world-tortured-artist, I’m infinitely more impressed when seemingly stable, functioning human beings enjoy life so fully that their cup spills over and floods their music with a genuine passion.

As a native Bostonian living in enemy territory, I’m naturally fond of songs that shit on Boston’s numerous detractors. A-Side “Go Back to New York” is a playful jab at transplant Bostonians who bitch about America’s finest city. Sure, the bars close at 1am when the trains stop running, the winters are cold and bitter, cars aim to kill pedestrians rather than avoid them, and the entire city possesses an almost cultish enthusiasm for the Red Sox (so sue me, I bought a Sox license plate), but Thick Shakes make a good point: You live here, right? Stop complaining, or leave. Go back to New York, asshole.

The musical recipe is simple to describe but tough to follow: 1) Find a hook 2) Build a song around the hook 3) Pick an uncomplicated topic or situation, and describe it 4) Make music

Of course, there are other essential ingredients to this mix (I already mentioned the ass-thumping organ), and the first that comes to mind is the phenomenal voice of Lindsay Crudele. Fans of Erika Wennerstrom and the Heartless Bastards or Rachel Nagy and The Detroit Cobras will feel right at home with Crudele’s assertive alto. Maybe it’s that I’m somewhat used to hearing female lead singers, but it didn’t even occur to me until I spoke with Crudele that there are more Mick Jaggers in the world than Poly Styrenes, and that rock music isn’t exactly an encouraged career path for talented young women. Crudele recalls, “__I went to shows all the time throughout high school and college in addition to dabbling in instruments. After I graduated, my coworker in radio, an engineer and musician named Bob C., asked me why I didn’t play in a band myself, told me that I should and that I could, and I didn’t have a good answer. I felt like there was a wall between the stage and me, I thought playing in a band was some magical privilege and it didn’t occur to me to try it for myself. I also didn’t see very many female faces up there or at shows in general, where I was used to watching from the back of the club because the front was too violent. In 2011, I don’t think much has changed. At a recent show, the only time I got up to the front was when I was performing onstage. A sound guy recently tried to show me how to turn on my own amp. I spoke up about how a lot of my music scene peers were supporting some really misogynistic music and I was told to get a sense of humor. We played a show where I was the only woman onstage all night and Tim pointed out that wasn’t entirely true - there were naked women painted on the drum kit. Anyone can start a band but it took a while to open my eyes to that I think in part due to the climate. A few years later, I emailed Bob our recordings and was like, ‘This is your fault!’ That kind of encouragement should not be understated.”

Thick Shakes strike a careful balance between a fullness of sound and a minimalistic approach to music making. The natural distortion in the recordings on this 7-inch is the result of meticulous planning – both tracks were recorded with vintage mics and preamps to 16 track tape with hot levels and some tape delay and reverb added to the mix. It’s an analog approach to recording that we’re sending to shit with a digital 7-inch, so do yourselves a favor and pick up the real thing at Aurora7. It’s just $6 and goes to support some great music. B-side “Neighbor’s Goods” has the percussive groove of The Monks’ “Boys are Boys” but with the tempo set to stun. Musically, everything slots in perfectly here–memorable hooks and clean fills that don’t seek to impress but instead focus on keeping everything rock solid as the song moves forward. The success of Thick Shakes is in the clarity of execution, and the distinction of individual sounds. The vocals, bass, guitar, drums, and organ each inhabit their own space, and have a well defined role within the group dynamic. Sometimes the organ and guitar blend together as a single sound, sometimes the bass and organ do the same, but I get the impression that the group sound at a given moment isn’t the result of some happy accident, but rather a rehearsed decision with an effect on listeners that’s known and understood by every member of the band. In other words, these guys are really, really tight, and in that respect, they’re a world apart from most other bands with a similar sound. Moreover, there’s something pejorative about the label of “Nuggets redux” that’s oh so tempting to slap on Thick Shakes. Nuggets or Pebbles or whatever implies that the artist in question is somehow a shining musical beacon amongst a sea of dreadful schlock. But it’s the other way around, really. Blues, punk, rock, and Americana are lost influences these days. It’s rare to find a band that’s willing to embrace a raw aesthetic and make music that’s authentic to their own experiences. So much is lost when creation becomes this distant and cerebral process, but Thick Shakes keep it real. I noticed that almost every member of the band is eager to dismiss his or her own musical talent and training:

Lindsay: I’m not under any illusion that our band is a means to a living. Music isn’t about business for us.

Tim: I’ve been involved in music one way or another since childhood. If not playing or writing, then actively listening, always. I’ve never played guitar, or really written songs before.

Matt: I grew up playing percussion in school bands, I taught myself to play a kit in junior high. I never took either very seriously. Thick Shakes is my first band, and I’m not really sure I would have joined a band under many other circumstances, it was the right mix of good friends with similar abilities.

There are no delusions of grandeur here, no lifelong aspirations to play Shea Stadium, just some folks who love music, can play a few instruments, and decided to give it a go. Consider that none of it would have happened if Bob (remember Bob?) hadn’t given Lindsay just a little push towards the stage, and it becomes kind of a heartwarming story. And so, we have Bob to thank for the sounds of Thick Shakes, and Thick Shakes to thank for the sounds on this 7-inch. Give it a listen, but you might want to stretch beforehand, as dancing is required.

Go Back to New York Go Back to New York.mp3

Neighbors Goods Neighbors Goods.mp3