Maybe you’ve heard of Red Shahan from near Fort Worth, Texas before. Maybe you found favor with his somewhat conceptualized last record Culberson County, which drew its inspirations from the vastness of West Texas. Maybe you saw him at a festival when he was booked in that dreaded late afternoon spot on the side stage, when the sun comes blazing right in the face of the performer, and most patrons are resting up for the headliners to take the stage later.
Highly regarded as a songwriter by his peers and contemporaries, Red Shahan was nonetheless cast in that 2nd tier in the Texas and Red Dirt music scene—someone for those who really love to stick their nose deep into the music and discover something unexpected. But not someone whose name you would see emblazoned in the biggest font at the top of a festival poster.
But for his 3rd record, Red Shahan delivers the ambitious and spirited Javalena that has this already-beloved songwriter receiving praise from all corners, and that very well could constitute his big breakout. It’s still graced by the presence of the grit-edged cowboy poetry that was so emblematic of his earlier records. But the music comes blazing out of your speakers, alive and enthused until you catch all those feels that only the old iconic classic rock albums gave you.
Let’s just pull the curtain back a bit and explain exactly what’s going on with this album that so many are raving about. Red Shahan has done what some others have done before, which is tapped into the energy and big hooks of rock & roll, infused it with the melodic sensibilities of pop, and delivered it to a country audience. After listening to the drab production of your average Americana record, and/or the twangy moments of your favorite hard country records that rely mostly on muscle and nostalgia for their appeal, you listen to a record like Red Shahan’s Javelina, and it sounds like the first time you ever heard Tom Petty.
But unlike some other projects that try to pull this off, Red Shahan does it a level better because the songwriting doesn’t suffer. If anything, it rises to meet the demand of the soaring moments and rising choruses to give you substance behind the infectiousness, enhancing the experience that much more, and gracing it with more longevity. These are earworms that burrow deeper into the brain, and down to the heart and soul.
The opening song “Javelina” about some desert character crossing into old Mexico is about what you’d expect from Red Shahan, even if the bursts of horns and the keys high in the mix catch you off guard a bit. “Get The Money” sounds like it could be a track from some 90’s pop rock outfit, even if it delivers a harrowing cops and robbers story, filled with an unexpected twist of self-realization.
Keeping you on your toes is what renders Javelina so compelling, even after you’ve smashed the repeat button a few times. In fact it’s one of those records that may feel a little too fey, or conversely, too sugary at first taste. But subsequent spins and patience are rewarded.
We’re so damn uptight these days, so much of the wildness of old country and rock has been lost. Everything is taken so damn seriously and literal the the modern mind. But Red is willing to take the baby bumpers off and leave the edge on with a song like “Mrs. Buy Me Something.” Surly women were such an inspiration for music back in the 70’s, and this reminds of that less prudish time. The song “Wild Ride” is so raucous, it makes me wish I had tits so Red Shahan could snort cocaine off them.
But Red Shahan keeps it all just above board by delivering cunning lines and phrases like the best songwriters can. His use of character and scenarios is savvy, even if the situations themselves recall seedy moments. And the final song of the set “Easy in the Undertow” delivers the sentimental moment the album needed to ground it all.
Still, let’s be honest about what we have here. You listen to a song like “Good Morning Levee,” and the music sounds like it could be from a Sheryl Crow radio hit in 1998. Some may find that as a compliment, Red Shahan included. But it’s only roots music in the way the rock format has imploded just as much as country, and anyone who actually writes songs and plays real instruments is looking for a home in Red Dirt and Americana. Otherwise this is pop rock, and some purists will be rendered disappointed.
Nonetheless, the songs of Javelina would sound real damn good blazing out of a big sound stage at a festival at 10:30 p.m. instead of 6, or a club in Lubbock packed to the gills as opposed to a songwriter bar with polite patrons sitting around round tables. Red Shahan has pushed all his chips to the center of the table and upped the ante with Javelina, and should be rewarded handsomely for his pluck, and the overall performance captured on this album.
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