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Shakey Graves Sheds His Bare Bluesy Folk and Embraces Wistful Pop in Can’t Wake Up

Can’t Wake Up lulls in and out of moods and memories, a continuous thread of sentiments and songs that never hook into the troubadour twang that his sound previously encapsulated. ___________________________________

May 31, 2018 | by Angela Zimmerman

Shakey Graves

Can't Wake Up


Grade: B+

Can’t Wake Up, the fifth album of Alejandro Rose-Garcia (otherwise known as Shakey Graves — otherwise known as “The Swede” who dated Julie Taylor in season 2 of Friday Night Lights) is a clear departure from the signature sound that put him on the map; the Texas twang and bluesy folk-rock is now glossed over by a meandering dream-pop polish. Previous records — 2011's Roll the Bones, 2014's Dualtone debut And the War Came, and a few EPs ­— were defined by a spare, bucolic sound punctuated by an empty suitcase that served as his kickdrum during live performances.

Can’t Wake Up, as the title evokes, is spacier, more ambient, lulling in and out of moods and memories, a continuous thread of sentiments and songs that never hook into the troubadour twang his sound previously encapsulated. It’s expansive and moodier and even could be called ethereal. “Ethereal” is definitely not a word that would have come to mind listening to previous releases.

For stripped-down country blues devotees, like myself, it’s not as satisfying or compelling at first listen, but many doors open through subsequent forays, instrumental layers unfolding in a wistful dream sequence and lyrics skirting around a lifetime of stories and memories, the 30 year old dipping as far back as his teen years. The first track, “Counting Sheep” perfectly ushers in the mood and twilight theme of the rest of the record: “I am the very specimen / Of a sleepwalking gentleman/ If I die before I wake / Save my dreams for another day.”

The quiet strumming of “Dining Alone,” with its whistles and weepy chirpiness (yes, I realize that's an oxymoron, but listen to it and tell me that doesn't make sense) calls to mind the sleepy contentment of solitude, interrupted by the fleeting hope and yearning that anyone who has ever felt trapped by the banality of their own life can certainly understand. He sings, “One glass of wine is plenty of time / To dream about all the things that I’ll never do” as it picks up into “A Day in the Life”-esque chorus of what-ifs: ”I wonder what it’s like to fly a plane / To meet a girl on Friday night / And wake up next to her on Saturday / To swim across the ocean blue / To walk a mile upon the moon.” And so on. It strikes at the heart of the record, exploring the stability of our own lucid present but with inevitable interludes of dreaming for more, wanting for more, searching for more…

“My Neighbor” ends with what sounds like a cassette recording of some dudes kicking around in the garage with a drum kit, the voices distant and scratchy, coming off as the kind of fleeting memory that may surface, say, in one’s dreams, while “Excuses” has a swinging beat and a lovely piano flourish that trails off into the jingle of an old landline phone call — which rings and rings and is never answered.

“Aibohphobia” is a kicky little track that dances in the nostalgia of the ‘50s, both in temperament and lyrics, as it delves into a story of “Madam Palindrome”: "Last I heard, she made the news / Entertaining all the troops / Aboard the SS Guru Rug.”

I had to look this up, but “aibohphobia” means a fear of palindromes ­— and is itself a palindrome. Cheeky!

“Big Bad Wolf” explores the existential and social angst of adolescence, with reminders that Rose-Garcia is indeed a Texas boy, with mentions of church and “Hey coach, he’s ready, put him in,” and the “Silver screen” — that last being a recollection of his bygone acting career perhaps. “But the truth is I am just someone who's hungry… let me eat.”

Penultimate track “Foot of Your Bed” is a lullaby that could put the most sleep-resistant kid to bed. Strumming harp and wistful, gentle vocals are the stuff bedtime songs are made from. And finally, “Tin Man” is an ode to aging and shedding the skin of the 20s and embracing — with a wink or a twinge of tragedy, it’s hard to tell — both the novelty and bored complacency of middle age. “27 came and went / Now you live to fight another day / As the hero of the carpool lane.”

Can’t Wake Up is lovely, evocative, well-composed, and beautifully produced, but it lacks the hobo blues of his earlier stuff. It’s not lesser than, nor is it less inspired — in fact, I’m sure most listeners will find Can’t Wake Up the more sophisticated step that Rose-Garcia needed to take to evolve as a musician. But I do miss that scrappy busker sound that now only shapes his songs, rather than define them. Can’t Wake Up is a solid record, but it brings to mind countless other musicians of the past decade. Whereas the first time I heard “Only Son” it immediately struck me for its bare authenticity. Shakey Graves is still authentic, but he no longer bares it with such simplicity.

Listen to "Dining Alone"

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