Debt And Departure
By: Robert H.
So there's a mixed bag of good news and bad, Grifters fans. First, some bad: word has it that the Grifters are, at least, temporarily, on hold, if not permanently disbanded. Dave Shouse evidently feels that his songwriting is going in a direction other than that of the band and so wants to spend at least a little time doing his own thing. The good news, however, is that his new project, Those Bastard Souls, carries the Grifters banner with a great deal of the old character, retaining much of the familiar but unusual tone that made the Memphis band great.
Appropriate to Shouse's purpose, the songs themselves are more foregrounded on Debt and Departure than they tended to be on the Grifters' albums. While a Grifters tune might feel like several complete songs splashing into each other in a confluence of sounds, Those Bastard Souls strive to hone and perfect one good song. The result is a less busy sound, but one that is hauntingly compelling nonetheless. The second track of the album, “Telegram”, is probably the best song Shouse has ever written and provides reason enough, in my book, to have the album. The lyrics are dead-on depictions of post-relationship wanderings and longings, focusing alternately on backyard images, gin hopes, and "three words/that never left me/'cause I thought they never could." The arrangement progresses from acoustic rhythm guitars, to violin, to distorted guitars, and back to violins, all the while over a piano bass line: it accomplishes diachronically what Grifters songs did synchronically, and the result is unmistakable perfection. But Those Bastard Souls doesn't reach this peak again, and the result is that the album feels a little spotty. Many of the other songs are more straightforward, gritty, and blues-influenced pop songs that feature one driving catch. The title track is an exception and deserves to share space with “Telegram.” Once again, the lyrics keep us grounded "and the pale half-moon hangs overhead/as if half way between all or nothing/should count for something", and the song develops its energy alongside the narrative desperation.
When Those Bastard Souls shines, it is because of a tension building over the length of a song that finds vent in a cathartic crescendo, finally tapering to a reflective aftermath. Songs like "Up to You", "The Wake of Your Flood" and "Spaced Out" (a toned-down reprise from Full Blown Possession) near success with this formula, but don't quite reach the complex heights for one reason or another. (Now and again, Shouse gets a little over-ambitious lyrically: "I'm restless/like a compass/just before the earth splinters and burns." A danger for the poetically inclined. Other times, there's just not enough development in the melodic structure of the song.)
Those Bastard Souls is best when it’s mellow and precisely orchestrated. Heavier tunes such as "Train from Terminal Boredom" and "Curious State" will leave Grifters fans wistful. The fact is, about half the songs on this album cry out for that extra layer of sound and twist the Grifters were so good at placing. They are good songs, but they are not what they could be. (They miss, actually, some of the slop that made the Grifters songs so engaging.) So, while I hope Shouse continues in his current direction, I also hope he recognizes that he is still writing quite a few Grifters songs and that for those, no one does it better than his old band.