Like it or not, Church Shoes’ eponymous debut record reminds me of Whiskeytown’s Stranger’s Almanac. Not because Shoes necessarily sounds like Whiskeytown (it doesn’t, but it is far twangier than the work of The B-Sharps, the precursor band to the Shoes), but because the guy writing most of the songs, Nick Allison, is a still very young man writing songs far beyond his years. At age 20, Whiskeytown frontman Ryan Adams wrote songs like “Dancing With the Women at the Bar,” “Avenues” and “Inn Town,” some of the best modern Americana songs ever written. Allison, who is maybe 22 or 23, already has this songwriter thing figured out. Having been the chief writer on both proper B-Sharps albums (both excellent, by the way), he arrives here fully formed, one of the best young writers I’ve heard in years, Indiana, Midwest or otherwise.The critical differences between the Sharps and the Shoes seem worthy of mention, and fairly simple to identify: 1) the Sharps were all about playing loud, often lo-fi garage rock while the Shoes play it pretty clear and poppy; 2) the lyrics on the Sharps records usually seemed focused on serving the songs while the lyrics on Shoes are as important as anything else on the record; and 3) The Sharps had a distinct bar band appeal (not a bad thing) while the Shoes sound like the kind of band you play in your headphones, in your car, at a party, for friends, etc. They’re the kind of band you drive 200 miles to see on a Tuesday night in January. There’s plenty more distinctions, but I’m sure you get it. To put it bluntly, the opening five tracks on Church Shoes are so good, so diverse, so perfectly written and crafted that you almost forget that Allison and monster guitarist Mitch Fraizer are the same two rowdy drinkers who bounced around on stage as B-Sharps for all those years.
Excellently titled opener “Odell Williamson Bridge” is a perfect stage-setter for the band, which plans to soon leave their home state of Indiana in favor of U.S. rock capital Austin, Texas. Allison sings “Indiana take me back … This neighborhood was center of earth … Worse comes to worse this might be a good story” in a way that reminds most of classic-era Old 97s, mixing punk energy with Southern twang – with a bit of alcohol and longing tossed in. Towards the end of the song Allison steps things up, singing “Indiana kiss my ass / You took it all / What did you give me / Yesterday I packed my bags / They said try to run but you cannot kill me.” A parting song full of hope and maturity; who’d have thunk it?
Track two, “Drop D Blues Weekend” is a flat-out classic. Play it on the radio. Put it in the next movie with Jonah Hill or Michael Cera or whoever. I’m not quite sure what all Allison is singing about in this bouncy rocker that reminds of classic-era Replacements (and countless other indie rock bands who occasionally took nods to 60s pop rock), but I like it, and I really like how he sings it, flaunting a somewhat strange vocal tone we’re not used to hearing from him. The diversity is, to say the least, effective. An amazing cut.
Track seven, the very singer/songwriter-centric “Big Bad World” is the one that did it for me – the one that bad me calling friends and sending texts of love to Fraizer. It’s a simple song for this crew, really, built mostly on voice, acoustic guitar and, eventually, a twangy build. It’s one of those songs, those perfect songs you want to put on repeat and include on every mixtape you make. Again, that a 22- or 23-year-old guy wrote this song is almost beyond comprehension, even for me, a fan of both Ryan Adams and Ray Davies. I was still struggling with my everyday modus operandi (picking my nose and shoplifting condoms) at age 23; meanwhile Allison is writing the kinds of songs that should and will be covered in years to come by lesser bands.
Next up is “High and Naked,” a huge, youthful, lowlife rocker written and sung by none other than Mitch Fraizer. If you’ve see this song performed live then, well, you know what time it is. Even if the rest of this record was full of bummer country tracks (which I’d be fine with, really), Fraizer’s first big foray into frontmanning (that I know of) results in what will go down as one of the classic Fort Wayne tracks of this era. It’s the kind of song that’s so good, so immediate, that you’ll forever be tempted to skip ahead to it each time this disc makes it in your player. It’s also the kind of song that reminds you of how Westerberg/Stinson-spirited Allison and Fraizer have been all along.
And then there’s the closer, “Shawnee Drive,” a song about, well, moving on – a theme I could, but won’t, elaborate on. Fraizer’s guitar work on this sad sacker is epic. I’ve said a lot here about how developed the young Allison is as a songwriter already. That same degree of awe goes for Fraizer’s otherworldly guitar work throughout this record. There are players, excellent players even, who never reach Fraizer’s level of play. “Shawnee Drive” ends with a bang, practically exploding out of the speaker.
I want to go through listing all the artists and eras and ideas I think Allison may have been influenced by while writing this batch of tunes, but just don’t feel the need. That game, while always amusing for a 7-inch snob like myself, just doesn’t seem applicable here. I’m gushing. I’m blown away. I have an advance copy of the album sitting here in my lap – a CD-R. Not. Good. Enough. This is the kind of record that I love so much that I can’t wait to get my hands on an official copy. Why? Well, because this is a record I’ll be listening to for years. Decades. It’s maybe the best rock n’ roll album I’ve ever heard from a Fort Wayne band. No joke.
That said, Church Shoes will say goodbye to Fort Wayne soon after the release of this gem. On Saturday, March 5 the Shoes will celebrate the release of their classic debut with a show at The Brass Rail. As far as their departure date goes, well, I don’t know. I don’t want to know. I plan to keep 13 beers (one for each song on this record) in my fridge for the day I find out that they’re gone, hopefully on to bigger things. Obviously on to bigger things.
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