I haven’t always been the kindest person to Jon Drake And The Shakes. In the past I’ve had some disparaging words for them. Over the past week or two I’ve been listening to their new album, Dear Ulysses, and dreading the moment when I have to eat crow and admit that I was wrong about them. Not only do I like this new release, due out in a few weeks, but I find myself humming a couple of the songs without any outside solicitation. Am I dead? Is this purgatory?
My biggest issue with the band, and I still think this is a valid point, is that there are too many members. When you see them live in a small venue like Subterranean or The Burlington, there’s barely enough room for all of them. It takes them longer than most bands to set up due to their size, and once the show starts it’s hard to pay attention to what’s going on. Maybe that’s just me, but it really bothers me. I will admit that the last time I saw them perform with Chaperone opening, I liked it quite a bit more (the other time I had seen them was also opened by Chaperone with the two dates almost a year apart). On Dear Ulysses everything is hidden. If you’d never seen them live you would have no idea how many people are working to get the sound of this record complete.
There’s a horn section. There’s a string section. Keyboards, upright bass, probably an accordion and xylophone as well. They’re listed as a octet, but I swear every time I look at them there are more people in the band. Oddly, Drake writes music that really does require all of these layers to sound the way he wants it to. It’s a larger task than I would ever want, but he seems to do it with ease. For me, the coordination of getting everyone together for practice would be too daunting. It’s a testament to their loyalty to the band and to Drake that this is a priority.
Dear Ulysses has a lot of bright spots included among one of the most listenable records I’ve heard all year. You know that feeling when you’re watching a movie and you realize it’s been on for an hour and a half but it feels like it just started? That’s how this album plays. There’s never a dull moment, and it just flies by. The music is alt-country/folk, but with so much going on in the background it’s hard to classify it as just that. It’s almost more like a travelling variety show put into digital form.
There are three or four tracks that stand out above the rest, and I’d like to highlight them here. The first is “The Fourth Of July.” I’ve seen this one performed both times I saw the band, and it was my favorite each time. The lyrics start off a little comical, and then take a turn to the darker side quickly.
I saw you at the restaurant with your hair all up
Your white streaks going back your face
You were waiting tables and taking shit
fixing drinks and yelling out the top of your lungs don’t fuck with me
I ain’t that easy won’t you lay off and go home on your own
But that kid just won’t listen
Somehow the song turns into a story about class warfare in Chicago (and I imagine it could be placed in other big cities). It’s a well put-together tune that is one of those songs that’s really fun to sing along with and also one that makes you think a bit about what they’re really saying.
The next one I want to hit is “Rattles And Snakes.” If you’re a fan of Jon Drake And The Shakes, you probably already have this one on your iPod. It was released on the EP Side A, along with three other songs also included on Dear Ulysses. It opens with a mandolin that sounds a lot like R.E.M.’s classic “Losing My Religion.” The part that gets me, though, it Drake’s “Wooo-ooooo” over the first minute that leads into some “Da-da-da”s. I find myself singing it in my head over and over. At the drop of a hat someone will be talking to me, and all I can think is “Woooo-ooooo.” After those opening two minutes the song loses some steam for me. There’s a sting arrangement that’s slow and brooding, which is the complete opposite of the opening. There aren’t many lyrics here, so it just kind of meanders to its inevitable end. Totally worth it for the first couple minutes though!
“Mary” kicks off with driving percussion by The Shakes fantastic drummer Daniel Villareal-Carrillo. This one has a bit more of a bluesy feel than anything else on the record, and I’m a sucker for songs with these 60’s-style guitar riffs (see: Rilo Kiley’s “Teenage Love Song”). Like “The Fourth Of July,” this is a very well-written song. I don’t believe they played this when I saw them before, but I definitely look forward to hearing it at their record release show at Double Door on May 11th. At this point we’re about eight or nine tracks deep into Dear Ulysses, and one thing the band has proven is that they’re not afraid to mix things up stylistically.
I’m a bit taken aback by how much I like this record. My expectations were that it would be decent, but nothing special. Some of my favorite bands in Chicago-Chaperone, Dastardly, The Future Laureates-have told me how great Jon Drake And The Shakes are, and I’ve always dismissed them based on the little interaction I’ve had with the band. After hearing Dear Ulysses I wish I could go back in time and watch those live shows again with more focus. But I don’t have a DeLorean with a flux capacitor (nor the plutonium needed to run such an automobile), so I’ll just be more attentive going forward.
Jon Drake And The Shakes is made up by Jon Drake, Nora Barton, Evan Porter, Joe Mietus, Ellis Seiberling, Daniel Villarreal-Carrillo, Drew Westergreen, and Matt Wilson. Dear Ulysses will be officially released on Grapejuice Reocrds May 29th, but you can pre-order it today and stream four tracks on their website.