By Ethan Bloomfield, Staff Writer
[Dualtone Music Group; 2021]
Key tracks: “Unlucky Skin”, “Business Lunch”, “To Cure What Ails”
The lobster review is meant to bring albums from the past forward to celebrate their influence, their merit and their lasting relevance in music. That being said, how is an album released in April of 2021 qualifying? Roll the Bones X is the product of 10 years of Americana singer Shakey Graves’ first record, Roll the Bones, released for the first time on all streaming platforms and loaded with new content from the last decade.
Over the past few years, Alejandro Rose-Garcia, otherwise known as Shakey Graves, has seen much success in the niche of folk and americana in Texas. Based out of Austin, he has two things: a devout following, and a holiday to his name. “Shakey Graves Day,” every February ninth in the city of Austin since 2012, is a day where Rose-Garcia gives back to the fans with unreleased content, odds and ends, and special extras on his website and Bandcamp. Such holiday releases like “Shakey Graves And The Horse He Rode In On” are entire albums worth of content from the vault.
This year, though, on the 10th Shakey Graves Day, a special release was in order: a rerelease of his debut project, Roll the Bones, with an entire album’s worth of bonus songs, unreleased tape recordings, and insights from Shakey himself, he fleshes out his beloved first album in a way that would otherwise be impossible. With this release, he breathes new life into the songs that made him the artist he is today.
The first half of this album is just that––the album. Roll the Bones is a 10 track meditation on what it means to be free, what it means to love and hate, and also what it means to… cover a beloved Bruce Springsteen song, apparently. In the vinyl release’s picture book accompaniment for the album, he writes about the track “I’m On Fire”, “I am a total sucker for an out of context cover.”
While this record has many serious songs about Shakey’s life like “Built to Roam” and “To Cure What Ails” there is an unmistakable humor in the songwriting. Whether that be humor about life, like on the song “City In a Bottle”, which details a strange experience with a sex worker on the New York subway, or humor about himself, like on “Business Lunch”, where he writes that the voicemail at the beginning is his “favorite voicemail of all time,” and features the sounds of his friends “reciting my lines, and generally roasting me” for landing an acting job in LA.
This humor is most prevalent on the song “The Seal Hunter”, where Shakey tells a story of “some asshole named Carl” who leaves his wife to go seal hunt in Alaska to “teach her a lesson,” but not before, in a fit of rage, he scrapes “FOR A GOOD TIME FUCK MY WIFE” on the bathroom stall (that being the original name of the song). Of course, someone does, and Carl is shown to be a fool. This, along with the sample of “graphic advice of a hippie sex counselor” that echoes throughout the track makes for a strange, jarring, and funny listen.
Roll the Bones X is also an album that details the start of Rose-Garcia as Shakey Graves, and the circumstances that brought this album about. This sort of meta-story is fleshed out more in the picture book, like the tale of the haunted guitar named Jay Manley, by which he wrote the bulk of the melodies for the album. This half-truth, half-fiction narrative spun through the record makes it feel like a true folk album––someone telling stories about life with a guitar and a fifth of whiskey.
Of course, Roll the Bones X comes with many, many new tracks full of the same folk talent. The song “Chinatown” has an elegant and distinct old-school analog charm in the backing vocals, and “Dusty Lion” is a rough-cut and soft-spoken tune concerning loneliness and a search for meaning. “The Haunted Guitar” is simply Shakey asking someone about Jay Manley over the instrumental to the track “If Not for You” from “And the War Came”, and all of these tracks accomplish the same task: they add something to an already great release.
The art of the deluxe album is a hard one to master. Many times, the outtakes and alternate songs seem incoherent and the project feels too careless. Teen Suicide’s recent rarities, b-sides, demos, outtakes, & secret songs… 2009-2019 was 46 tracks and extremely bloated as a coherent listening experience. Roll the Bones X is almost 40 minutes shorter than that and feels carefully constructed. The songs, outtakes and alt-versions, as they are, still flow and come together. They belong on the album, and they feel less like a gimmick to resell Roll the Bones and more like a glimpse into the life of a career and of a beloved first record.
Shakey Graves is, by all accounts, the true voice of the modern south. Under his cowboy hat and soaring vocal melodies, he is what country and folk music has always been: someone telling stories. This record is, by far, his most biographical. We are treated to an hour and a half of stories ranging from the comedic to the philosophical and left wanting more. So, here’s to many more Shakey Graves Days. “It’s a tall mountain / But well worth the climb / It’s a long road / But well worth the ride”.