"FOR THE GOOD OF THE CAUSE" - THE JORDAN WILLIAMS REVIEWS
Those of you who've followed Jim Shelley's musical career since the 1983 release of his first cassette album (there must be at least three or four of you out there besides me), know that any effort to chronicle everything he's brought out under the Ain't/Head Hot Records logos would be a daunting, if not impossible, task. (By last count, Jim had issued over one hundred different editions of his work!) So, perhaps unavoidably, this attempt at a comprehensive overview of Shelley's oeuvre isn't nearly as complete as I might wish it to be. Missing are the numerous extremely limited edition e.p.'s and albums that Jim has given away in special contests over the years, his vinyl single, and the obscure compilations to which he has contributed a song or two. Also, as you might or might not know, Jim re-issued in 1997 many of his cassettes, sometimes combining two albums on one tape, with additional rare tracks; I have chosen to ignore these cassettes (with a few exceptions--read on) in deference to the original versions of each album.
To further complicate matters, Jim acquired a compact disc recorder in 1998, recently deleted his entire cassette catalog, and began the long (but laudable) process of converting every one of his tapes to the cd-r format. At the time of this writing, Ain't Records has put out five discs (all of which feature some fine outtakes, live tracks, and just generally rare stuff), and I will consider them the definitive versions of those albums.
It seems very unlikely to me that there are many stranger, sadder tales of unwarranted neglect in the annals of rock music than Jim Shelley's. Now a middle-aged teacher/ex-football coach at a small town high school in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, he spends much of his spare time (when he's not coaching his son's little league baseball and basketball teams) writing and recording homemade albums in a garage behind his house, sweltering in the summer and freezing in the winter. And while he has achieved an extremely modest degree of notoriety among home taper devotees (most notably former Alternative Press demo-guru Jim Santo, and Gajoob Magazine'sBryan Baker, both of whom have championed Jim's cause over the last decade or so), Jim labors on to this day in undeserved obscurity, selling perhaps a hundred albums a year through his internet page and a few local record stores.
He still attempts to throw a band together on occasion, but it would seem a terribly difficult chore to find in a town of 35,000 the sort of intelligent, sympathetic musicians he needs to adequately interpret his material live. He has complained often that he must rely on younger players who are aware of his ability to draw rather fanatical crowds to his local performances and who see playing with him as a chance to advance their own "careers," but who also have at best a very narrow appreciation for the breadth and depth of his vision. Book of Kills has never been about playing it safe, about carving out a niche and hunkering down for the long haul. No two BOK albums are very similar. And that's how it should be: Any truly vital musician constantly pushes against the boundaries of his audience's expectations. That's a hard concept for most younger players to accept.
If he were not such an intriguing lyricist; if his melodies didn't soar quite so often as they do song after song; if he weren't able to master so many different styles from folk to psychedelia to pop to hard rock to industrial to ear-searing white noise; if his music just wasn't so goddamned passionate and yet intellectually stimulating, then perhaps it would be easier to justify his invisibility in the music business--"Are they all deaf?" Santo, in a recent DemoUninverse review, railed about the some 80+ record companies who've rejected Jim's demos in just the past five years--but justifiably or not, the fact remains that for a variety of reasons Jim Shelley is, and will likely stay, a musical non-entity on the very outermost fringes of public awareness.
That said, I will get on with the job of providing you with an admittedly subjective and biased review of twenty-one Jim Shelley/Book of Kills albums containing some 250+ songs, most of them recorded in just the past eight or nine years. It seems something that is long overdue and (just perhaps) useful to someone:
In his catalog, Jim describes this tape as "...a collection of crazed guitar sounds and pots and pans banging with weird backwards voices." That's as good a summation as any. If we can take him at his word, Shelley made these recordings when he was twelve; though it seems unlikely that someone of so tender an age could come up with this stuff, anything I suppose is possible. Apparently he has reels and reels of this material, recorded out of frustration with his inability at the time to actually play real chords on his Silvertone electric. Considering the date of this release (no later than 1974), this now deleted album, in some respects, seems today amazingly prescient. Parts of these tapes have been preserved on the Bloom Or Die/Noiz double album released in 1997.
This Is My Letter To The World
Although released after 12 Songs, this (now unavailable) album is actually a compilation of various early recordings from the late 70s and early 80s, and all of which predate 12 Songs, when Shelley was composing material on a reel-to-reel, using the machine's sound-on-sound layering capacity. Much of this material is negligible and darn near unlistenable, but it remains of interest to anyone who wants everything by Jim, including the stuff from his formative years. Included are early enlightening renditions of "Dear Annie" and "Abandoned."
After reading the first two entries in this article and then giving a cursory listen to 12 Songs, you might be tempted to question many of the positive things I wrote about Jim in the introduction above. Patience. Initially, the songs here seem somewhat too careful and mechanical and often rather derivative, particularly of the Cars ("Over You!") and the Beatles ("Dear Annie"--a strange, though spot-on, homage to Paul McCartney.) A tinny drum machine and the over-bright, almost shrill, lo fi production initially made this album a tough listen for me. But I eventually latched on to the subtle pop thrills of "Bright Lights Tonight," "No Time For Love," "Dark Side of Tomorrow," and especially "Turn My World Around,"-- all four of which I now would rank among Shelley's better compositions-- and the overall off-kilter freshness of the lyrics. Of note is the twangy surf guitar intros to "Heart of Gold" (no, not THAT one), "Dark Side," and "I Can't Hide My Love," a signature ingredient of Shelley's later, more mature sound. This is an album deeply rooted in the pop conventions of late 60s Beatles and early 80s new wave with perhaps a little late 70s punk 'tude tossed in for good measure; in the end 12 Songs remains an interesting, though hardly breathtaking, first step.
Bloom Or Die?
After the release of 12 Songs in 1983, Jim ceased writing and recording for six years. Why the long absence? Jim refuses to give us an explanation. But my how things changed in that time! The album opens with one of BOK's more memorable pieces, "The Day John Lennon Died," a fiery, poetic blast of chiming minor key guitar arpeggios and a great double tracked vocal. It is one of Shelley's seminal recordings, important because it seems to blaze a trail into any number of stylistic possibilities and it sounds unlike almost anything else that was going on in 1988. Imagine Sonic Youth backing Bob Dylan singing a long lost John Lennon song and you might get the picture. The rest of the album never quite measures up to that great song, but it's not for wont of trying on Shelley's part. The best of the rest: a Pixie-ish "I Hang Heavy" which became a sing-a-long favorite of Book of Kills' live shows, the rollicking Beatles cum Husker Du "Girl Can't Help It," and the astonishingly nihilistic "(I Just Wanna Be) Normal" in which Shelley free associates one angry broadside after another at the empty materialism of modern life in America while two insanely distorted guitars fight for prominence with an overdriven drum machine (can drum machines be "overdriven"? Well, this one is!) Though Bloom or Die runs a scant 31 minutes, it is an exhausting listen partially because of the unrelenting distortion in every song and partly because Jim has let his unbridled rage bleed into the lyrics of every single song. In 1997, Jim paired this album with a collage of material from Noiz as well as snippets of songs that he'd recorded in the late 70s or early 80s. Fascinating and energetic.
For The Good Of The Cause
Jim only managed a few songs in 1990 and didn't release anything that year. During the summer of 1991, he became fascinated with old folk music from the 30s and 40s (particularly Virginia's Dock Boggs) and decided to adapt some of the songs from that era to modern arrangements. The album that emerged in August was actually two vastly different eps cobbled together on one tape. Jim Santo of Alternative Press excitedly proclaimed (about the second, "folk" side of the album) that he hadn't heard anything like this material since the Byrds and he was right. Years later, it would become all the rage to wax ecstatic over the golden days of American folk, but in 1991 only Book of Kills seemed interested in dragging those seminal works into the modern age with one miraculous revisioning after another. (The only clunker is "If The Light Has Gone Out," a shameless rip off of the Violent Femmes.) Side one's not too shabby either, featuring the deliciously malevolent "(I'm Glad I'm Not A) Rock Star"; a stellar remake of 12 Songs' "No Time For Love" and Bloom or Die's "Girl Can't Help It!"; the ominous apocalyptic psych-drones of "The Sound of a Door Closing" and "Revelation"; and the excruciatingly funny ode to paranoia, "Simple World." Made on a cheap Tascam four track, the sound is overpoweringly lo-fi, but this is a classic album of the hometaping genre.
Don't Stop The Scream
The next album opens with the ferocious industrial blast of "Abandoned," long perhaps Book of Kills' most galvanic song in live performances. The tone is set immediately: Whereas Jim had previously almost seemed ashamed to have to rely upon a drum box for rhythm on his albums, now he seems to revel in the brutal, soul-less mechanics of the machine. Jim has said that For The Good Of The Cause was the first tape where he felt as if he knew what he was doing, but it is Don't Stop The Scream that finally seems to give Shelley a certain artistic maturity and focus that was lacking in previous work. Not that you could pigeonhole the music into any one genre; far from it. In fact, the songs are all over the place stylistically, but somehow everything seems to fit together because there is a clear (if despairing) vision inhabiting every note, every word, of every composition. It doesn't hurt that this is the best recorded work Shelley has yet produced, though it is a bit over-bright for my tastes.
By April of 1992, he had purchased a used eight track cassette recorder and the expanded possibilities the extra four tracks offer Shelley seem to liberate the sound. The arrangements are more carefully considered, fuller, with more space between the notes. And the sequencing of the songs is masterful. Listen how naturally you progress from the robotic nastiness of "Abandoned" to the pure rock howl of "Don't Stop the Scream" and "Before and Ever After" to the Lou Reed-ish surrealism of "Safety in #'s" and finally to the folky (twisted) pop of "Religion is that I love you" and "Cara Anne." After the last vibrations of "Cara Anne's" brilliant ending guitar solo fade, the album wavers a little. "Party's Over" seems ill-conceived and contrived. "Even Peace Becomes Warfare" is overheated blather. But Jim sets things right by scoring with three more strong pieces: The Vasolines-y "Pulling Strings"; the monumental valentine to fuzz boxes everywhere, "When Your Dreams"; and the affecting distorto-ballad, "No Scars." The compact disc re-issue also contains the better material from 8 From the Attic and five odd but technically well-done techno/jungle/avant garde selections from the recent one-of-a-kind contest disc, I Know What Love Is + 4 Others. Essential.
8 From The Attic
This tape "e.p." was originally given away to charter subscribers of Notes From Underground, an Ain't Records newsletter that Jim published on and off for some six years until expenses got the better of him. It features superior remixes of some BOK chestnuts, including "Cara Anne," "Religion is that I love you," and "Wild Hog in the Woods." Of greater interest is a balls out cover of Jonathan Richman's "She Cracked," a long, slow remake of "Abandoned" that sounds not too unlike Elvis Presley backed by Neil Young's Crazy Horse, and an early live acoustic version of "Turn My World Around." Sadly, this one has been deleted. Portions of it turn up on the cd reissue of Don't Stop The Scream.
The Haunted Life
Things started getting weird on the next album, released just six months after Don't Stop the Scream . In more than one interview, Jim has said about The Haunted Life that it is the sound ". . .of a man having a nervous breakdown. . ." and if it were possible to record a human mind imploding I think it might very well sound like this. Almost every song aches with the pain of betrayal, spiritual longing, and abandonment, and a kind of spooky (okay--haunted) aura of madness and self-loathing hangs over the whole affair. The album features some of Shelley's most eloquent, incisive lyrics; I doubt that anyone wrote a more erudite album in 1992. It is clear that Shelley is becoming more adept at arranging and recording his compositions: The sound, driven this time more than anything by muted keyboards, mouth harp, and acoustic guitar, is clear, spare, and dynamic, though sometimes uncomfortably claustrophobic, particularly on standout tracks like"In My Room," "Heaven," "Blue Man," and "Fool for Love."
The Haunted Life owes a very clear debt to Bob Dylan, and in fact, if one could criticize Shelley for anything on this album, it would have to be that on at least three songs ("New James Shelley Blues," "Notes From Underground," and "Haunted Road Blues") he very nearly oversteps the bounds of artistic homage and flirts dangerously with parody (though come to think of it, that might have been his intention all along.) The original album ends rather incongruously with the delightful "She's the Kind of Girl," a three minute bit of pop fluff that feels like a first welcome gulp of fresh air after you've held your breath for forty minutes. The cd reissue adds a couple of outtakes, the best of which is "That's the Life for Me" in which Jim intones with deadpan seriousness that he wishes he were "a cow standing in a field/stupid as stupid can be." Essential.
Wee Jim's Blackeye
Amazingly, this was Jim's fourth album (if we count 8 From the Attic) of original material in just seventeen months. With a running time of over sixty minutes, there were bound to be some weak spots, but to his credit Jim scores far more than he misses. "Face Up to Your Life," "I'm So Bored," and "Falling Down," are interesting sonic experiments perhaps but none of them hold up lyrically and come off mainly as filler, but there are many memorable BOK songs collected here: the Talking Head-ish "Bad Person" ("I'm a bad person/I was born bad/I live a bad life/I'll probably die bad"); the raging hard rock "Killing Time Again" with not one but two absolutely manic free jazz-inspired guitar solos and its terrific, twisted surf guitar lead-in riff; the Nirvana-inspired "Lost;" the lilting guitar drone of "Susan Says;" the surreal "My World Turned to Black" (with yet another memorable ringing guitar riff that surfaces again and again throughout the song); and the slow, scary "Lullabye" ("And if you should die before I wake/I pray some god your soul to take.") A cross between the subtle menace ofThe Haunted Life and and the angry howl of Don't Stop the Scream, Wee Jim's Blackeye strikes me as sort of a summation of Jim's career up to this point in time, a look back more than a step forward. By April 1993, Jim Shelley seemed to be at a crossroads with no clear notion of what direction (or directions) he'd take next.
Big Business Monkey, Volume One
After having written and recorded over fifty tunes in a year and a half(!) perhaps it would have been a good idea to take a vacation, but it was as if Jim thought he'd lose the tiny group of devotees he'd garnered since 1989 if he went more than a couple months without releasing another album: And so in July of '93 he issued Big Business Monkey(the title taken from an old Daniel Johnston song), a hit or miss collection of new material, outtakes and alternate versions of previously released songs. Conceived of as an outlet for material that just didn't fit on his "regular" albums, this proved to be the first in a continuing series of interesting, if not entirely essential, compilations. Most notable: the wacky, polka whirl of "If I Went Mad," the noisy tribute (pilfered lyrics and all) to Brian Wilson, "Brian;" a newly recorded version of one of Shelley's teenage compositions, "They Teach You;" a nice cover of Wire's "Reuters;" and the sad, bare-bones "I Wish I Was You." Nothing to write home about, but considering Jim was selling his tapes for the ridiculous sum of just $2-3 each, well. . .what do you want? The White Album?
In My Room: The Best Of Book Of Kills, Volume One
To coin a phrase, if you can only bring yourself to buy one Book of Kills album for now, then you probably should make it this one, though I'm sure more than one fan of Jim Shelley's music could argue the point. (In his review of In My Room, Gajoob's Bryan Baker writes "...the problem with Jim Shelley putting out a best-of collection is that all his albums sound like best-of's...") Featuring numerous remixes and some unreleased material, In My Room is a sprawling 90+ minute compendium of things BOK from 1988-early 1994. Most of the previously released material here has benefitted by a new remix and the unreleased stuff--the nihilistic "Shapes of Things," the Pink Floyd inflected "Sometimes I Get Happy," a solid 'live in the studio' version of the old folk standard "Shady Grove," and the spare "...Like Me," in particular--is generally pretty good. Though you could quibble about the selection (where are "Abandoned" and "My World Turned to Black"?), this is a very generous, if not entirely representative, sampler of Jim Shelley's better work. The insert features an affecting, appreciative essay by artist/photographer Aaron Farrington.
Songs For A Gone World
The truest luxury of the home taper's musical life is that he pretty much has absolute free license to do whatever he damn well pleases artistically and Jim (here masquerading as "Angel Toot Boy") certainly takes that philosophy to heart on this very tripped out, very difficult album. While there are plenty of songs here (some of them pretty good--the galloping, psychedelia of both "Sleeping Would Be Great Shakes" and "3 Chrs. 4-Ever" and the psycho-rap of "1000 Voices" in particular come to mind), almost every one of them is sandwiched between relatively complex instrumentals and dense, flowing sound collages that must have been difficult to assemble and are certainly difficult to sit through more than a time or two unless you're really into this sort of noise thing. Easily Jim's strangest album ever, there is nothing else like it in his oeuvre. Bring your headphones.
By November of 1994, Jim had formed perhaps his best live band and was playing local and out-of-town gigs on a semi-regular basis. This now deleted tape, featuring four cuts by the group plus five more with Shelley handling all the instruments himself, served as a good documentary of that time. That band, a weird conglomeration of mid-80s punk, early 70s heavy metal, and early 60s free jazz, never really seemed able to put on tape the essence of its live show, but the band tracks here (old BOK standards "I Hang Heavy," "Lost," and "Killing Time Again," plus the loony "Fat Woman in the Road") do sizzle. Of the studio cuts, Jim's crazed portrait of an arsonist, "Because Because"; "Jesco White," an indescribable sort of jazz/psychobilly tribute to the cult classic film; and the roiling, angry blues skronk, "Welcome to the Idiot Planet" are standouts.
Big Business Monkey, Volume Two
The second in the BBM series and easily the strongest, this album collects all the material from the deleted Detritus and adds many strong, previously unreleased songs. Highlights are an absolutely killer band version of "Because Because" (inexplicably left off Detritus), the Stones influenced "Never Be Like You" (a defiant statement of artistic independence), and "I Start to Fall" and "Fade" (probably the two best musical tributes to the late Kurt Cobain we'll ever have.) There are a few weak cuts scattered throughout, but this is a fine addition to the BOK canon and well worth searching out on tape until the compact disc version surfaces some time in 1999. As critic Jim Santo notes in his review, "crushing good stuff."
This is not a disc you want to miss. Every song is a winner, with several in the running for best BOK cuts ever. By the spring of `95 the band had split and Jim seemed determined to prove he could do better without them, thank you very much. Perhaps Book of Kills' most coherent, focused album yet, the lyrics reflect the dispiritedness and exhaustion of a man who has spent too many years pouring his heart and talent into a huge body of work that has been too long ignored. In what long ago became a sort of tradition, the opening song, "O To Be My Father's Dragon," is easily the album's most adventurous: A five minute free flowing collage of voice and music samples, surging electric guitars, jazzy piano, and a few simple rapped lyrics bemoaning convention and apathy. Many highlights follow: The pounding, metal pop of "I Wish I Was a Machine;" the soaring, sweet confection "La La La La La La" (`I heard you're in a band and they say you play a mean guitar/Come to think about it, you kinda look like Johnny Marr'); Jim's affectionate tribute to the Velvet Underground, "That's What She Said;" the infectious J. Mascis-influenced "I'm Not Gonna Walk Away This Time;" and the utterly unique, utterly weird "Waiting on a Friend" which features Jim's uncanny vocal approximation of Plastic Ono Band John Lennon. Introspective meditations on aging and rejection will probably not appeal to most younger listeners, but this is a mature, intelligent piece of work that ranks among the better of 1995's rock releases. Essential.
Writing On The Wall (Big Business Monkey, Volume 3)
After Saint Judas, Jim transplanted his family and his studio from Dayton to Bridgewater, Virginia and the move seems somehow to have deeply affected his music. Writing On The Wall is the first case in point: According to Jim, the songs on the first half of the album--the second half features an only partially satisfying 1994 concert atrociously recorded by an audience member on a boom box--are part of a never-completed album (presumably abandoned intellectually during the move) which show the artist moving away from the largely high energy rock of his past on to more contemplative, muted compositions that seem to reflect a musical spirit ever more troubled (and perhaps subdued) by rejection. Most of the stuff here simply doesn't measure up to the best of BOK's earlier work; too much of it seems half-finished, even tossed off, though there are a few exceptions. Probably the standout track here is the sadly ignored "Live for Love," an absolutely gorgeous, sensuous tune that layers instrument upon instrument as it builds for seven minutes to a gentle droning climax and then fades into the ether. It has an appealing Spaceman 3-by-way-of-John Lennon feel to it that I wish Jim had spent more time exploring.
Over a year passed before we heard from BOK again, but when we finally did! I'll be damned if the boy didn't go and write himself a genuine 92 minute rock opera! Now wait a minute! If you'll just stop laughing long enough to listen to Splendid Trigger, you might change your mind about these sort of affairs only being an excuse for bored rock musicians to go all high-falutin' and uppity-like on us. Yes, this is certainly a serious album, but it's not so full of itself or devoid of humor that it becomes a chore to listen to. And no, it's not the best thing Book of Kills has ever done, as more than one critic claimed, but it's a darned good piece of work. The story is simple: Young and innocent Glow Boy gets bored with small town life and runs away to the big city where he meets a nice girl who falls in love with him. It's all down hill from there as boy meets bad girl and ditches good girl and...well, you can uncover the rest of this sad tale yourself.
This is a bit of a turning point for Jim in that he collaborated with several other musicians in the writing of the lyrics and music. Consequently, the arrangements are quite varied and often somewhat fussier than what we've come to expect from Book of Kills. For the most part, the songs are sturdy and hold up well on their own as individual compositions, but I must admit that I don't feel an emotional investment with Splendid Trigger in quite the same way I do with, say, Don't Stop The Scream or Saint Judas. But there are enough great tracks here ("We've Got Our Boy Back," "I Fell Inside," "Heaven Hates Who It Hates," "The Alien Girl," and F#@%ed Up World," are exceptionally fine) to make this a necessary addition to anyone's music collection.
Nothing You Can Say
Jim formed another band in October of 1996, but they gave few live performances ("We were a great practice band") and lasted barely half a year as a viable group. They did put together one e.p. of nine songs, seven of which were recorded in one seven hour marathon session in the bassist's basement. The rush to complete so many tracks in such a brief time shows in the final product: Almost everything hurtles by at breakneck speed as though the band can't wait to be done with one song so that they can get to the next one before they forget how it goes. Of these seven, the best are "Placebo," a jaunty, deceptively simple little tune with a great sing-a-long chorus, and a funked out re-visioning of the Beatle's "Paperback Writer" that has to be heard to be believed. To be fair, the youthful enthusiasm of the band is infectious, and as always it's good to hear our reclusive hero having some fun with real musicians. The two best pieces on the album though are a live rendition of "Lost" which must've been a gas to have experienced in the flesh, and the brilliant "If I Should Disappear" which would show up again later in a slightly different mix on 1997's So Far In Every Direction.
So Far In Every Direction
A great disc this is, with a ton of great songs. Is it Jim Shelley's best? No. It gets a bit soft towards the middle (don't we all?) before regaining its form with one final brilliant burst of energy, but that's enough to keep it from a perch at the very top of my list of great BOK albums. This is not to imply that, if you haven't already, you shouldn't do whatever it takes to procure a copy of So Far In Every Direction NOW! The first seven tracks are as good a stretch of eccentric, melodic songwriting as you're likely gonna come across during these dark last days of rock and roll. Jim has been honing his craft now for years and it shows in the effortlessness with which he switches musical gears, moving ever so smoothly from one sonic idiom to another. My faves: the soaring, acoustic "Port;" Jim's dead-on tribute to Syd Barrett, "Stanley the Steamer," complete with scorching faux-David Gilmour solo; the twin spiral drones of "If I Should Disappear" and "Free Assembly" (those trademark surf guitar riffs--to die for!); and the exceptional "Angels on the Lam," with its inscrutable Dylanish lyrics wrapped around a loping soundtrack right out of the Echo and the Bunnymen songbook. When you add the eight(!) unreleased tracks found on the recent compact disc reissue, you've got yourself one sweet piece of work. Yes, essential.
The title says it all. This one was pulled almost as soon as it was released and for good reason: The only thing of real interest is a live segment from the early 90s in which Jim careens his way through three Dylan songs with a reasonably competent pick up band; the rest is dreck. Avoid.
If I Should Fall
Somewhere along the line, "If I Should Disappear" was retitled "If I Should Fall" for this extended (22 minutes) e.p. It doesn't matter: It's the same great song, but on this e.p. it seems to have a certain fullness and definition that the version on So Far In Every Direction doesn't quite achieve. Ditto "Free Assembly" on which Jim has added additional vocals and just generally tidied the sound up a bit. Add seven additional cuts and this is a fine little disc to add to your collection. Includes the striking tone poem, "Lost Puppy Flyer," and the beautiful fractured ballad, "Caroline."
Since 1998's delightful If I Should Fall, Jim Shelley's musical career has been more than a little inconsistent. We've been presented with such underwhelming fare as the Welcome To Concrete and E.P. cd's as well as a stirring comeback of sorts with the double triumphs of 2003's All About You and 2004's sprawling Wasp 51. In between, Jim formed a couple of bands that seemed to concentrate more on live performances than recording albums featuring fresh, interesting material. Jim's most prolific (and arguably, most fruitful) period--roughly from 1992-1997--during which time he issued an astounding fourteen albums featuring at least some new material on each, stand in rather stark contrast to the spotty releases of the seven years since we were graced with So Far In Every Direction. Still, Jim produced sturdy, often inspired, work from 2002-2004 in the form of a so-called trilogy: 2002's All About You, 2003's Wasp 51! and 2004's I Can't Give You Anything But Love all of which serve notice that Mr. Shelley is far from finished as a musician and songwriter.
Never Be Like You
By the summer of 1998, it was apparent that Jim was struggling to find a new direction or, even more troubling, just the energy and inspiration to create new material. In July, he released a second "greatest hits" album (this time two discs comprising thirty-seven songs) with one new song (a rough demo actually) on it. Artists usually release best-of’s for one of two reasons: to make some easy money off recycled work or to buy some time before having to issue fresh material. Since Mr. Shelley, like most home musicians, sells only a handful of albums with each new release and makes little if any money from them, we could easily assume he was purchasing time, perhaps in the middle of a burgeoning case of writer’s block. This compilation is certainly extensive, but little thought seems to have been given to sequencing and somehow I find it difficult to listen to. Besides, I have never been one for best of albums. One misses so much by focusing only on an artist’s so-called "greatest hits".
Welcome To Concrete
This e.p. from August ’99 confirmed that indeed problems existed in BOK-land. Though it’s a fun little disc, it seems to signal that Jim is struggling to come up with any substantial new material. An interesting and revealing "Banquet", a rousing cover of Tobin Sprout’s "Little Whirl", and a sloppy but energetic "The Danger That Can Drive You Home" stand out (though "Danger" had already appeared on Never Be Like You.) Also of interest is a short, bare-bones version of "See You Again", a song that would resurface in fuller glory on 2002’s All About You. But truthfully this felt more like something Jim released because he thought it was expected of him.
Writing On The Wall
Jim’s third release in just four months was simply further proof that he was struggling, though of the three ’99 records this one is the best. It’s a strangely disjointed affair: half the record features new material apparently recorded in a rush immediately after Welcome to Concrete but the other half consists of eight songs from the June ’96 release, also called Writing On The Wall. Nothing that you’d write home about but more than a few interesting compositions and lots of (as per usual) excellent lyrics make this an album you ought to get if you’re a fan. And it showcases Jim’s first experiments in constructing entire songs from samples.
Songs (1983-2000) .: The Best Of Book Of Kills
Released just 19 months after Never Be Like You, this two cd set was at least a more coherent survey of Jim’s better work and came in a far better designed package with extensive notes on each song by Jim. Best of all, it included a new song called "Truth Is A Scar", the finest sample-driven song Jim had issued to this point.
Perhaps sensing that he needed the company of strangers to kick start his muse again, Jim began looking for musicians to form his first new band since March of 1997, Sometime in early 2000, he found Casey and Jane Firkin (drums and guitar respectively), a brother and sister duo from Luray, Virginia. Eventually honey-voiced Lisa Van Fossen joined up on bass and backing vocals and the foursome produced this six-song cd with two songs from Ms. Firkin and four ‘old’ ones from Jim. The performances are a little clumsy at times and the recording itself is definitely quirky, but it was good to hear Jim making music with other humans again and the band never embarrasses itself. This was the first truly interesting cd from Jim in almost two years, even if he didn’t offer up any new material.
And then, after a year’s wait, we got…yet another "Best Of" album, this one the first in a supposed three part series. Interesting only for the fact that the first 25 copies of the record came with a four song E.P. of new material, which was actually okay, if not superlative. The problem with all of these compilations is that they are each largely direction-less hodgepodges of songs. What we still need is a definitive collection that moves the listener from the first BOK album to the last in chronological order so that we can truly see how Jim has grown as a writer and musician over the years.
It turns out that Jim and Casey and Jane Firkin had moved through any number of bass players in the sixteen months since E.P. saw release, playing an occasional live show but mainly doing lots of drinking before finally latching onto bassist Bill Bird from Jim’s hometown of Harrisonburg, Virginia and a few months later guitarist Randy Simpson, also from Harrisonburg. It had been four long years since Jim’s last really good album, If I Should Fall, so it wasn’t hoping for too much that after all this time he had been able to come up with some solid new songs. Unfortunately, he’d written the achingly beautiful "To Dream A New Dream" but apparently not much else. While Hoggett Heads (don’t ask me what it means) is a balls out rock and roll fun fest with an occasional slower introspective tune from Jane, it features just that one new song from Jim, not counting an excellent reinterpretation of Lou Reed’s ‘Can’t Stand It’. But there are credible re-workings of some classic BOK stuff ("Abandoned", "Accidentally Naked", "Bad Person", etc), and several excellent tunes from Jane ("Cave In", "Sweet", Running" and "Gemini".) Better recording facilities and a real producer would’ve probably yielded a more focused album, but it’s always a treat to hear Jim interacting with real musicians, even if all involved never rise above inspired amateurism.
All About You
Less than four months later, Jim released another cd, his first full album since 1997’s So Far In Every Direction and what turned out to be the harbinger of a late career renaissance. In fact, I would argue that All About You heralds a period of musical industry and inventiveness second only to Jim’s first great run from 1992-1998. And am I the only one to notice that Jim’s greatest work tends to come in the periods immediately after a band he has been in disintegrates? Cases in point: Jim writes a fat fistful of good new songs for Book of Kills in late 1994, which the rest of the band by and large rejects. The band breaks up in early 1995 and that summer Jim records what many (I’m not one of them) still believe to be his greatest album, Saint Judas. Next summer he produces the double disc rock opera, Splendid Trigger. The second (Or third? Who can keep up?) version of BOK comes together in late 1996 and falls apart in the spring of 1997. That summer Jim releases another favorite, So Far In Every Direction. There follows a relatively long, fallow period until yet another BOK line-up comes together in early 2000. Two years later, as (predictably) this group also falls by the wayside, we get All About You.
This album reminds me greatly of So Far In Every Direction. Both records wear their broken hearts on their sleeve, both feature songs with a distinct electronic flavor, and both tend to be top heavy with Jim’s best songs of the moment, get a little flaccid in the middle and recover with a couple of strong performances at the end. "What Never Was", "This Sacrifice", a delightful techno version of the ‘50s chestnut, "Then I Kissed Her", and the majestic re-working of "See You Again" (originally found in a lesser version on Welcome To Concrete) are the highlights of a strong set. And Jim turns in some of the most literate, heart-felt lyrics of his career. Does anyone know how seriously great a lyricist this guy is? Oh…and the drum machine doesn’t seem to grate as much this time as it has on occasion in the BOK back catalog simply because most of the songs beg for the artificiality of a beat box.
Released April of 2003. Featuring 21 songs. Ahem.
Twelve months later, fifteen years into his "career" as a prominent homemade musician, and way past the age when most musicians are still producing relevant—let alone good—rock and roll, Jim delivered what is arguably his greatest record. Yet another all-Jim-all-the-time opus, with Wasp 51 we get a consistently solid, perfectly paced and sequenced, twenty-one (if ya got the special edition) track, forty-five minute disc. New Shelley classics include the scathing putdowns of the so-called Baby Boomer generation, "Not Like A Mirror Image" and "You Go To You And I By Me"; the equally acerbic Lennon-esque attack on nihilism and hopelessness, "Things You Can’t Be"; the introspective faux ‘80s new wave anthem, "Ah! Ahh! Ahhh!"; and the absurdist electro jungle romp as filtered through Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band rock, "Scrapezoid" where Jim chants "We’re just two rock and roll fuck up’s/That’s all we’ll ever be" over and again while knocking off some of the better lead licks of his career.
Wasp 51! is also notable in that it marks a turn in Jim’s lyrical focus towards more of a politicized, though never didactic, world view where even falling in love is an act fraught with political complications. And never has melancholy and a sense of loss been more pronounced (and so elegantly addressed) than on this album. The arrangements are generally stripped down to a couple electric guitars, perhaps an acoustic or keyboard for texture, and drums and bass. In fact, the sound harkens back to mid-nineties albums such as Saint Judas and Splendid Trigger. Surely one of the better rock and roll records of 2003, even with the occasionally over-loud drum machine. Jim, you’re good on that thing, but how hard would it be to enlist the help of a real drummer or to at least turn the goddamn thing down? (Still, it’s not the instruments one uses, but rather the way one uses the instruments at one’s disposal to craft quality performances of good songs that counts.)
I Can't Give You Anything But Love
Jim took the summer of ’04 off to paint his house. Really. However, he had made contact during the previous winter with his talented old band mates, drummer Dustin Bugg and bassist Brian Temples, along with an exceptional lead guitarist with metal leanings by the name of Mike Chiarello, and reformed Book of Kills. The band only played one poorly promoted (as usual) show as well as a live radio broadcast at a local college, after which they splintered almost before they had properly begun. Unfortunately no studio recordings of this line-up were made. Predictably, this seems to have yet again spurred Jim to begin writing material for a new album (see above) which would prove to be the third in a trilogy of excellent records. I Can’t Give You Anything But Love is a deceptive little piece of work. At first Jim’s lyrics seem to be more basic than recent previous efforts, but the more you study them the more they disclose layers of meaning not readily discernible. Many of the songs ("A Space Where You Can’t Go" being the best example) deal with Jim’s disenchantment with life in a material world (‘Everything you think that you own owns you/Filling up a space where you can’t go’—"A Space Where You Can’t Go".) Others ("The Long One", "Somebody Told Me") clearly reveal his growing bewilderment and cynicism over his music’s lack of an appreciative audience and what he apparently perceives to be the inability of those who still do listen to him to accept his growth as a writer and performer. (‘They told me I better hold on to yesterday/I said no thanks I’d rather just go away’—"One True Passion Died".)
Compared to recent previous albums, the arrangements and playing this time also seem almost elementary, though a deeper listen reveals a consistent, elegant complexity throughout. These songs have a thickness about them that I don’t think I’ve heard before in Jim Shelley/Book of Kills music. And yet they’re never muddy. Just listen to everything going on in the excellent A Space Where You Can’t Go to see what I mean. The album ending "The Long One", which rockets Abbey Road-like through six song fragments, bodes well for future experimentation that stays within the bounds of listenability (unlike, say, much of Songs For A Gone World.) All in all, it’s good to see our hero still slogging away. That he continues to quality material is just delightful icing on an already scrumptious cake. As some of you know, there was a time not too long ago when my faith in Jim Shelley and Book of Kills faltered when it seemed that Jim was no longer willing to challenge himself or even care enough to produce music at a level he was capable of maintaining. My faith, however, has been restored in the last four or five years by the sound of a man finding the courage to evolve, and perhaps more importantly, to simply continue in the face of stifling indifference and ignorance just because he loves music. Because he must make music. And because he knows he’ll never be like me…or you.
(c) 2005 by Jordan Williams
(Jordan Williams - a pseudonym used by the author at his request - passed away in 2012 after a courageous battle with non-smoker's lung cancer. Besides being Jim's friend and an ardent admirer of his music, Jordan was a philanthropist and a highly successful and pioneering American businessman.)