In Shivaree, LA-area guitarist/bassist Duke McVinnie, keyboardist Danny McGough (from Tom Waits’ touring band) and the improbably but wondrously named vocalist Ambrosia Parsley stake out ground somewhere between the Cowboy Junkies and Sparklehorse — moody, moderately psychedelic, sometimes spooky Americana music with strong, distinctive female vocals. I Oughtta Give You a Shot in the Head for Making Me Live in This Dump (named for an album admired by Eb the farmhand on Green Acres) was co-produced by Joe Henry as he was transforming from straight-ahead roots rocker into something altogether more quirky and interesting, and his multi-layered, oddball production renders the album a companion piece to his own Fuse. Parsley has star quality to spare — a talent for sometimes surreal southern gothic lyrics, supermodel beauty, hilarious interview patter and a voice best described as a smoky mix of Gwen Stefani, Altered Images’ Claire Grogan and the Motels’ Martha Davis. “Goodnight Moon” is one of those songs that everyone who hears falls in love with instantly. The rest of the album doesn’t quite measure up to that highlight but it’s good enough. With Parsley’s megawatt charisma, Shivaree should’ve been set; instead they were basically shot in the head by their label.
Rough Dreams, Shivaree’s second longplayer, fell into that phantom dimension in which albums are recorded, release dates announced, advertising space bought, promotional interviews and features published, reviews printed (almost always positive to downright glowing, which makes the phenomenon even odder) then never released. Some disappear forever, others simply enter purgatory with an Amazon release date of January 1, 2010 — apparently the first day of the century’s second decade will be hellishly busy for record store clerks. From promising newcomers like Nicky Love to such successes as Fiona Apple and Nikka Costa, the disappearing album is like a random plague. Only Wilco has famously managed to turn the situation to their advantage; others have seen their hard work buried and their careers derailed.
Shivaree were lucky enough that Rough Dreams wasn’t lost forever; it saw release outside the US. Why the record went unissued in the band’s homeland is bewildering, especially since it equals or betters the debut in nearly every way. If nothing quite measures up to “Goodnight Moon,” Rough Dreams is a much stronger album than the debut, highlighted by the single “John 2/14.”
Quentin Tarantino chose “Goodnight Moon” to close Kill Bill, Volume 2, exposing the song to a wide audience and no doubt selling a lot of Shivaree albums in the process. Around the same time, Parsley was hired by the fledgling left-wing radio network Air America to provide a weekly musical recap of the week’s news. Ambrosia Sings the News became one of Air America’s most popular features, which helped the band as well. (An exclusive Ambrosia Sings the News single, “2004: The Year in Review – For Anyone Who Can Bear the Mere Thought,” was sold via iTunes.)
The timing couldn’t have been better, as they set up Shivaree’s third album, Who’s Got Trouble. The Breach EP previewed two tracks from it — the lovely, semi-upbeat “I Close My Eyes” and a cover of Brian Eno’s “The Fat Lady of Limbourg,” a lunatics-running-the- asylum tale which fits perfectly into Shivaree’s cracked universe. Breach is rounded out by covers of John Cale’s “Fear Is a Man’s Best Friend,” the Waterboys’ “Strange Boat” and the stark original “657 Bed B.” Who’s Got Trouble contains eight more band originals and the blues classic “Someday.” The group runs torch songs, Tin Pan Alley, folk and country through the filter of their off-kilter atmospherics to concoct a sound which is at once comforting and menacing. Parsley coos as if she’s singing a lullaby to a baby she’s about to smother. Who’s Got Trouble cements Shivaree’s spot in the pantheon of America’s current avant-garde roots rockers, alongside band associates Tom Waits and Joe Henry and other fellow travelers such as Sparklehorse, Mercury Rev and the solo Jay Farrar.
The concept driving the all-covers Tainted Love: Mating Calls and Fight Songs doubtlessly seemed like a hoot to Parsley and company — a collection of love songs penned by alleged wife-beaters, murderers, child-abusers, peeping toms and sundry other miscreants. It’s a funny enough idea on paper; on disc, however, it makes for an uninvolving listen. Shivaree do their best to make things interesting, but it doesn’t really seem like these were numbers they were otherwise dying to record. Parsley’s slinky reading of R. Kelly’s “Half on a Baby” is memorable, as is the oompah-inflected version of Ike Turner’s “My Heart Belongs to You,” but by and large the album falls flat, especially the fuzzed-out take on Chuck Berry’s “I Wanna Be Your Driver” and a clumsy stab at Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough.” Like Tori Amos’ similar Strange Little Girls, Tainted Love makes the listener wish that Shivaree had stuck to songs they genuinely liked rather than attempting to mount a musical manifesto.