Listening to Rick Shaffer’s solo work is like catching up with old friends who don’t always show up on time, but are always a pleasure to see. STACKED DECK — his forth solo outing — is no exception. He originally made his mark during the late ‘70’s with those seminal Philadelphia New Wave ravers, The Reds, whose commercial fortunes ran around during the skinny tie era — but continues as a studio-only proposition, with keyboardist Bruce Cohen riding shotgun.
STACKED DECK is a decidedly different beast, one that freely imbibes from the well of “60’s freakbeat, and the primal hillside scream of blues alchemists like Mississippi Fred McDowell, and Slim Harpo (although I’d put in a vote for Lightnin’ Hopkins, too as well). Shaffer carries the main musical load — on guitars, bass, harmonica, percussion and leadvocals — with some strategic reinforcement from cohorts like “Boo Boo” Spencer (bass drum, spoons and percussion).
All the trademark elements of Shaffer’s solo efforts are present and correct, from the mantra-like fuzz guitars, throbbing slide guitar fills, and that quirky sing-speak delivery hovering on top of it all. However, I’d also suggest that beat and groove play a more prominent role that ever before, too, with plenty of tambourines — what are those things? — you can almost hear the Pro Tools-era kids — and extra percussion to keep the whole business barreling along.
These tendencies burst gloriously to the fore on the fuzz guitar-driven, blues-wailin’ rave-ups of “I Won’t Deny” (“I’ve walked these gilded splinters many times”), “Shake And Shudder” (“I can’t break this losing streak, please have a little sympathy”), and “Talking About You,” which Shaffer anchors on a nifty little call-and-response guitar pattern (“I’ve been lying or pretending, the difference gets so hard to tell”).
The ‘60’s freakbeat and garage elements make themselves felt on “Reaction” — a funky, but ominous plea, essentially, to return from an emotional ice flow (“Oh, yeah, gimme some kind of reaction . . . baby, that you’re still alive / A little sign or some satisfaction could go a long way”), and “Wait And See,” whose mid-tempo bumptiousness is goosed by a jangling guitar hook that won’t slip out of your frontal earlobes for long (“Life will leave you high and dry, just you wait and see”).
Incidentally, both the aforementioned tracks also highlight the difference of hearing music in your car, versus sitting at home — which is how you’ll pick up on the subtler textures that color their respective fadeouts (for “Reaction,” a twangy, hard-charging sitar-type part; for “Wait And See,” handclaps and bits of harmonica, as we reach the finish line). I was surprised by how many of these little touches revealed themselves on earphones (such as the ghostly “ooh-ooh-ooh” backups that pop up on several tracks, including “Cool Treatment.”
Of course, Shaffer has always a surprise or two up his sleeve. That honor goes to “Found My Love,” which is markedly different among this company of tunes, and the territory he’s explored on previous solo albums. In this case, we get a shimmery update on the Velvet Underground’s nitty-gritty hot beat manifesto — imagine “Sister Ray’s” rhythmic pulse with a decent recording, and you get the idea — with missed opportunities, as ever, taking center stage in Shaffer’s mind "(“Don’t let it pass you by / ‘cause it may never come again”).
The album closes on a suitably slow-burning note with “Time Or Love” — at 4:32, the epic of the litter — on which Shaffer digs downtown again, and deep into the hill country grooves that jump-started his latest musings, laced with two ominous, droning fuzz guitar breaks to drive home his other main theme (“If you ain’t got the struggle / Oh, man, you just ain’t alive”). Where Shaffer goes next remains to be seen, but it’ll be interesting to watch . . . old friends are funny like that. As an urban wiseman once said, there’s only three certainties in life: death, taxes and trouble . . . so when you feel them nipping at your heels, reach for this album.
Highlights: I Won’t Deny, Found My Love, Talking About You, Reaction, Wait And See
Lowlights: None, dammit!
Rating: ***** (As good as it gets — you’ll keep coming back to this one.)