Behind The Shade – James Williamson and the Pink Hearts (Leopard Lady Records)
Plenty of people won’t “get” this record. That’s the inherent risk when you move forward and don’t stay comfortably treading water in one swimming pool.
It’s the second solo album for James Williamson (third if you count the live one with The Careless Hearts) and “Behind The Shade” doesn’t kiss-off his substantial Iggy & The Stooges legacy. More pointedly, it reinforces that Williamson is no one-trick pony.
Of course you should know James for inventing one of the most brutal guitar styles ever. Iggy himself paid him a back-handed compliment by saying that his former collaborator filled every possible space in their band’s soundscape. He did say it was to the point of claustrophobia, or words to that effect.
It would be impossible to wipe out being one of the creators of “Raw Power”, one of rock and roll’s greatest game-changers, but “Behind The Shade” is a move into different territory that most of us should have seen coming.
James might be a Dee-troit Ol’ Boy but the last musical thing he was doing before being recalled to active duty with The Iggster was playing slack string guitar (look it up) while kicking back on Big Island beaches.
Stylistically speaking, a string of solo 45s under his name has ranged from soul raunch to pop-punk to a Hawaiian lullaby. As for his “Re-Licked” record, it might have been an exercise in reviving and re-fashioning long-lost songs from his Stooges past, but it also showed considrable sonic diversity
Reflect on when this album started to take form a couple of years ago. The Stooges (RIP) were no more. Most of them were dead. Iggy wasn’t about to resume working with Williamson - read the “Total Chaos” Stooges oral history for enlightenment - and James had time on his hands. The four-track “Acoustic KO” EP with Deniz Tek, which dipped a toe in late-Stooges/”Kill City” water, was a stripped-back diversion. An album was always the main game.
Here’s the rub: James Williamson doesn’t write lyrics. He does riffs and tunes. He needed a foil. Enter Frank Meyer, an author, screenwriter, Stooges bootleg archivist and frontman for The Streetwalkin’ Cheetahs. The pair set to work, bringing in vocalist-violinist Petra Haden, one of the stars of “Re-Licked”. She’d contributed to the final Stooges record, “Ready To Die”, and played violin on “Acoustic KO”.
It’s billed as the work of James Williamson and The Pink Hearts and “Behind The Shade” is a true group effort. As well as the creative trio at the core, it involved a phalanx of sidemen. They included Michael Urbano (Smash Mouth, Bourgeois Tagg, Todd Rundgren, John Hiatt) on percussion, Gregg Foreman, Hervé Salters, Paul Roessler, Nick Hart, and Audrey Vera on keyboards and piano, Jason Carmer on bass, Don Rooke on lap steel, Geoff Yeaton and Tony Peebles on saxophone and Steffen Kuehn on trumpet.
Not surprisingly, it’s a diverse sounding record. Admittedly, at times, it is hard to work out where its centre lies. Most songs are growers, a couple niggle. Only two, raunchy opener “Riot on the Strip” and the shake-it-down “Revolution Stomp”, make an overt pitch for the ramalama-fa-fa-fa crowd. The other nine reference everything from Americana to hard-arsed funk and blues-rock pop.
If you didn’t like “The Departed” or (the mildly annoying) “DDs” from “Ready To Die”, you won’t immediately take to “Behind The Shade”. If you go in with open ears and judge it on its own merits, you’ll find a lot to like.
Williamson’s guitar is obviously at the heart of the songs but it’s not overbearing or one-dimensional. Yes, Stooges fans will love the withering licks on “Revolution Stomp”. The unsung star, however, is Frank Meyer, whose invested and passionate vocal is a huge strength.
Meyer is no choirboy; he’s what used to be called a blues shouter, but he has a good range and an earthy quality. Petra Haden’s assists (and lead on “Destiny Now”) bring texture and soul. “Riot on the Strip” is a killer hard rock wail with both vocalists bringing their talents to bear.
He carries most of the vocal load and Meyer hits the mark consistently throughout this record. No better than on the mariachi-tinged “This Garden”, or the folky “Miss Misery”, where his duet with Haden substantially lifts what could have been a slight song.
“You Send Me Down” is a soul detour that tears a leaf right out of the Stax songbook. The matter-of-fact “Judith Christ” might even score airplay in a just and fair world, with its barrel-house piano and a light wash of keys giving it a splash of colour. It’s the nuances on "Behind The Shade" that you might want to search out.
The title tune is a duet, building on the back of an acoustic bed and Williamson’s hard-picked electric guitar. Violin kicks in and you’re riding a brooding, intense smoker. It’s not “Gimme Danger” but it’s good, regardless. And it gives way to the album closer, a haunting Alerjandro Escovedo cover, “Died a Little Today” that’s even better. Escovedo is one of the world’s great yet underrated songwriters but Williamson’s haunting guitar and Haden’s wistful vocal and violin are the stars here.
As you might expect, Williamson’s production is top notch and lets the multiple facets shine through. I’ve been cranking an advance copy for six weeks or so now and it’s still to wear out its welcome. It’s not a Stooges album. It doesn’t have to be. It stands on its own feet and grows. Given that The Pink Hearts intend playing out, the next one should be even better.
"Behind The Shade" is out on Leopard Lady on June 22.