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Ryan Shaw - This is Ryan Shaw Print E-mail
Tuesday, 01 January 2008
ImageYou’re going to either love or dismiss this album, turn all your friends on to it or never give it another thought. Dismiss it because it’s nothing but a rip, of classic soul artists from the classy era. So Ryan Shaw’s a good imitator. He can evoke the greats, and this sounds like some late night TV offering of The Greatest Sounds of Stax/Volt/Motown as Sung by Ryan Shaw, but adds nothing that tells us, really, who Shaw is, or what he has to contribute as an artist, today. Good voice, knows his history, his licks are in line, but so what? Why not just listen to the originals?

Me, I’m passionately on the love-it! side, thank you, and the very first time I threw on This is Ryan Shaw I was blown away, by the first song, by the first notes, by each and every song all the way through to the very last notes. And now that I’ve listened probably 20 times my jaw has come up off the ground, because I now know what the man can do, but it’s still a pure pleasure every time. It’s going to take quite a few more plays before I start to tire of it, and if I ease off on the frequency – maybe never.

If some rookie ballplayer showed up today with a classic swing just like Mantle’s, and raced after long-gone fly balls and one-handed them like Mays, blurred the base paths with the cheetah stride of Maury Wills and knocked ‘em out of the park in the manner of Hammerin’ Hank, would you dismiss him as an imitator? Or be thrilled that some kid, in an era when showboating, self-promotion, surliness and steroids rule, had developed the skills that made the Great Ones the Great Ones. Isn’t a classic swing always worth its weight in gold? If it were so easy to imitate the breadth of greatness, wouldn’t more artists do it, at least just to show they could?
I think of TIRS a little like the Beatles’ White Album. It doesn’t rank high on some people’s list of the Beatles’ best, maybe for spottiness and lack of cohesion and a dearth of truly great songs, more likely because people came away from their first listen to it saying, What are they trying to say? But for me it was always the Beatles showing what they could do, all that they were capable of, a veritable history of pop music from British dance hall to noise to classical to country to Caribbean shuffle to intense rockin’/metal to surf to pure schlock, from political polemics to Old West story telling to sexual and other anarchy. What other rock group could have made the White Album? Nobody. By that yardstick: the World’s Greatest Band, point proven, case closed.

Here’s the thing about Shaw: he evokes more than he imitates. He mines rather than mirrors. Anyone who says he copies everyone worth copying isn’t listening closely enough. When he sings you do hear Sam Cooke and Sam & Dave, the Wicked Pickett and Stevie W, Solomon Burke and Jackie Wilson and others, but not note for note. Ryan Shaw is in there, it’s just hard to catch it because you’re playing Name That Icon and grinning and having yourself too
good a time.

What he’s done is absorb the music and the vocals to his very core, and been able – and willing (very important point) – to present them in a way on this debut album that it feels like music you’ve heard before, sounds like an album of classics, really, even though many of the covers are fairly obscure, and three of the songs are from his pen, new. That – it’s called instant classic – is a good trick indeed.

Probably a lot of people are thrown into a mindset by the opening number, “Do the 45,” which is unabashedly the spittin’image follow-up to Junior Walker’s “Shotgun” (but man, it’s fun, and just knocks you onto your feet from the opening drums-bass-organ). But none of the rest of the songs follow anything or anybody as closely. So when he’s swingin’ on “I’ll be Satisfied” you can’t help but remember Jackie Wilson, who recorded it in 1959, because of the musical arrangement and the way Shaw sings in a Jackie Wilson style. But it’s not an impersonation. Just when you’re ready to hear him slide up the scale to a bell-toned whoop the way Jackie did, he doesn’t – though I’m sure he could. The second number, “We Got Love,” is one of three he co-wrote, yet the ghosts of several famous vocal chords are floating around a musical backdrop that’s nothin’ but Jackson 5. Ryan Shaw just loves the classic ‘50s-to-‘70s R&B/soul style, and everything he does on this album testifies to it. Even the sepia-toned cover showing him singing into one of the old ribbon-style microphones.

As much of a wonder as his strong, expressive voice is, you also immediately notice how classic the playing is. You catch the choppy guitar chords, the pulsing organ fills, the chimes and the drumming style and you think, Damn that’s good, and so cool, how come you never hear that kind of playing anymore?

Well, I guess the answer is it’s just gone out of style, but Ryan Shaw’s here with his first album to let you know it’s not dead, and in fact has a lot more life and style and punch and romance in it than most of what’s currently burning up the charts. TIRS has not so far burned up the charts, and despite being championed by a handful of critics and radio programmers (Meg Griffin of Sirius Disorder has been a big booster – that’s where I first heard him) is still too much a well-kept secret. I’m one of those people who can’t wait to tell my friends, and so far it hasn’t taken more than a few seconds of any of the tunes to evoke a face-busting smile and something to the effect of, “I gotta have that!” Weeks later when I run into them the big grin comes out again as they report, “I’m still playin’ the shit out of that Ryan Shaw, and loving it!” Besides the songs already mentioned, “Lookin’ for a Love” is sure-fire RS conversion material, but the one that gets the most attention is another original, “Nobody,” which hooks you like heroin in the first five seconds. Not that there are drug references in any of these songs. They’re all about love (five of them have “love” in the title) and strong men and good women … and the dances that they do.

Absolutely retro, inspired in the arranging and performed with consummate skill. The mix is just a tad too soft, though, slightly lacking in crispness and separation, and I find some choices, like the distance and blend of the background singers, to be missed opportunities to really punch it up. Tiny quibbles. It still rocks your gypsy soul, just like way back in the days of old.

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