Being a fan of the band SHEL is like being Alice in Wonderland. I just hope the rabbit hole is without end because it keeps getting better and better. I should probably just rename this entire blog The SHEL report because just when I think my fandom has gotten as big as it can get, they do something spectacular and I’m at a loss for words with my jaw on the floor as my ears fill with wonder.
Lest there be any doubt about how much I love this band, you can see my declarations here, here, here and here. Now where was I? Ah yes, Friday the 13th! As in 10.13.17. This is the day the new EP from SHEL called ‘Undercover’ was released and on it are seven covers. But not just ANY covers. These are seven covers that clearly were chosen when the clouds parted and the angels appeared and spoke to these four women and said “these are the songs you should do.” Actually, what really happened was that they have incredible taste in music and chose incredibly well what songs they wanted to re-imagine. In fact, Eva Holbrook wrote in an email that went out to fans the other day. (And you can and should sign up for said mailing list by clicking here.) that during a visit with her mentor Paul Kennerley, an important conversation took place during which he asked if she knew any covers which at the time, she didn’t. He advised her to “study the masters. The artist spends half their time in the library.” He sent her home with some of his favorite obscure and essential country and blues artists of early American music and encouraged her to learn great songs when she heard them. And guess what? She and her sisters did just that. The songs on ‘Undercover’ are Willie Nelson’s “Crazy,” “Blue on Black” by Kenny Wayne Shepherd, “Enter Sandman” by Metallica, the traditional spiritual “Wayfaring Stranger,” “Somewhere Only We Know” by Keane and Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies.” If that’s not an eclectic collection of songs than I don’t know what is.
But before I get into the actual review part of this let me just say for the record, SHEL doesn’t need to do covers. Their originals kill me. Gorgeous, flowing, mesmerizing, impassioned, inspiring, haunting, emotional, catchy, musically arresting, breathtakingly arranged, hopeful, playful, vocally rich and have an overall sound that has had me spellbound since I first heard them in July of 2016.
They do however have two covers in their previous discography. The first is Led Zeppelin’s “The Battle of Evermore” on their self-titled 2012 album and the second is Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” from last year’s “Just Crazy Enough.” I especially love this live version of “The Battle of Evermore.” As for “Enter Sandman,” check out this video they made last year in Alaska. It has racked up more than a million plays because it’s that good. And now hold that thought on the song because there’s a second chapter to that story.
And with no further ado, here are my thoughts on the UNDERCOVER EP which, as of a few moments ago, is out in the world. Do right by them and do what I did; buy it from iTunes. It’s a digital only release for the moment. Supporting independent artists is SO IMPORTANT.
- “Crazy.” This is the song penned by Willie Nelson in 1961. Patsy Cline took the song to no. 2 on the country music charts in 1962. Her version is a classic. You already know this. I knew before I even heard it that SHEL was going to do two things: keep the song recognizable because the melody is so perfect but also cast their spell over it. And indeed this is what they’ve done. Hannah’s stark piano pulls you into a kind of trance and Eva’s vocals have never sounded so lovely. If it had stayed along this path I would not have minded, for this path was indeed lovely and the sentiment of the song remains timeless. But then at about 52 seconds in, Eva’s mandolin is heard, softly and surely, giving the song texture. Further in, Sarah’s violin comes into the song and then some percussion from Liza and a whole bunch of hushed vocals and the song takes an exquisite, sinister turn. It slips into madness. And then it lands softly like a daisy petal on the grass. It’s nothing like the original. This is an entirely new thing. I listened to it five times in a row and each time it grew a bit darker and all the more gratifying.
- “Blue on Black” by Kenny Wayne Shepherd. This song is 20 years old and is from Shepherd’s “Trouble Is.” I remember hearing it on the radio a whole bunch back then and still hear it from time to time. Vocals are by Noah Hunt. Entirely solid bluesy rock song. I just gave it a fresh listen and was reminded of what a good song this it and realized, perhaps for the first time, how good the lyrics are. SHEL put the song in their cauldron and stirred it slowly. They added a heartbeat of backing vocals and when Eva sings the lines “whisper on a scream doesn’t change a thing/It won’t bring you back/blue on black,” they take on a mood of their own. The song is a smoldering slow burn with Sarah’s violin stabbing into it. Liza’s drums are like another set of fists swinging at the song. Read= they’re perfect. And don’t quote me on this, but I *think* I’m hearing Hannah’s accordion in there; another accuser, another match on the fire.
- “Enter Sandman.” SHEL decided to re-visit this one for UNDERCOVER. Their first cover was already from another planet and I wondered why they chose to mess with it. And then I heard it and understood. The first version walked to the edge of the cliff. This version jumps off into the abyss. It’s bigger, bolder, darker. By the time it’s over you’ll be looking over your shoulder to make sure that shadow in the corner didn’t just move. I hear bass. I hear echoes. I hear three minutes and twenty seven seconds of insanity that’s chained to a bed but has just found the key and is coming for you. Holy hell this is brilliant.
- “Wayfaring Stranger.” Only SHEL could go from a Metallica song to a traditional folk song that dates back to somewhere around the beginning of the 19th century. Actually, it makes perfect sense because both songs have haunting themes. “I know dark clouds will gather round me/I know my way is rough and steep.” At times there’s a bit of a quiver in Eva’s voice adding to the depth of the song’s spirituality. There’s an authenticity to a song this old. You have to wonder that was happening in the life of the person who wrote it so, so long ago. SHEL’s take on it sure has me wondering. With acoustic guitar and violin, they’ve served this song up in enthralling fashion.
- “Somewhere Only We Know” by Keane. This song is from Keane’s 2004 album “Hopes and Fears.” I went through a pretty big Keane phase back then and even saw them perform this live several years ago here in Maine. I love this song. I was so excited when I saw it on the list of songs on UNDERCOVER. I’m glad SHEL loves this song too. It deserved the SHEL treatment and they did right by it. There’s a lot going on; a sea of sounds and vocals; it’s a lush interpretation. Hannah’s keys, Eva’s mandolin, Sarah’s violin and Liza’s percussion (I think she’s playing a few different things on this one) come in and out the song seamlessly and it rises and falls like a summer storm deciding how strong it’s going to become. But it’s also a sunrise that gets brighter and more beautiful by the second.
- UNDERCOVER ends with Irving Berlin’s optimistic gem “Blue Skies.” I just learned it’s from a 1926 musical called “Betsy” which was something of a flop but the song b more than survived, it became a classic in a hurry. At a few seconds over two minutes, SHEL’s take on the song is playful, cheery, bursting with their signature harmonies and is THE EXACT SONG THE WORLD NEEDS RIGHT NOW. It’s a sweet-as-pie love song and if you ever see me skipping down the street whistling it’s because I’m listening to it. The song also shows off SHEL’s versatility. They can pretty much take any song and make it into something unique and dazzling.
SHEL has made an exceptional record with UNDERCOVER. With a collection of songs hitting so many eras and genres, they’ve proven that they’re an unstoppable force. They’ve made a real thing of beauty. It will take you on a journey with many stops along away and many emotional crossroads. Their musicianship is first-rate. The music business is a strange one these days and the competition is brutal. So many acts vying for our time; our ears. SHEL is worth it, I promise you. UNDERCOVER is yet another example.
UNDERCOVER was recorded at The Blue Room in Nashville. It was produced by Brent Maher, Charles Yingling and SHEL.