Thursday, June 11, 2009

Shivaree: Ghost in the Machine (Illinois Entertainer, 2000)

Finding a fresh angle on the New York-based trio Shivaree is as hard as classifying its music. Although it came together four years ago, the group--Ambrosia Parsley (vocals), Duke McVinnie (guitars), Danny McGough (keyboards, gadgetry)--didn’t release its first album until last October (on Capitol/Odeon), and already the band has been the subject of over a dozen prominent features in magazines such as Billboard, Spin, Detour, and Elle, not to mention the subject of album and concert reviews in every publication worth its salt and many that aren’t. In short, Shivaree has been picked clean.

Actually, it's Parsley who has undergone the picking. So far, McGough (pronounced “McGoo”) and McVinnie (pronounced “McVinnie”) have combined to do a total of exactly zero interviews. So, for the what seems like the hundredth time: yes, “Ambrosia Parsley” is her given name, and, no, her middle name is not a food (please, hold the “eating Nicole” jokes). Yes, her father was a coal miner from West Virginia, and hence she, like Loretta Lynn, is a coal miner’s daughter. Yes, she made her public debut at age seven, fronting a ninety-nine-piece senior-citizen banjo band at a southern-California Shakey’s Pizza, singing “All of Me” and “Goody Goody.” Yes, she got the idea for the title of Shivaree’s album--I Oughtta Give You a Shot in the Head for Making Me Live in This Dump--from the name of the song that was playing in the stomach of a cow that swallowed a radio in an episode of Green Acres. Yes, she sings like the country-jazz chanteuse of David Lynch’s dreams, and, no, she’s never heard of Julie Miller. Yes, she smokes Parliaments, and, no, she doesn’t only smoke brands named after funk bands. Yes, she’s twenty-eight, and, yes, she’d like for McGough and McVinnie to talk with the press once in a while, but she doubts that they will. “They kick me out the door and make me do all the interviews and take all the pictures because they hate doing it,” says Parsley, chuckling. “I’m like the sacrificial lamb.”

Speaking of sacrificial lambs, Parsley insists that the refrain of “Arlington Girl,” which goes, “She’s waiting around for Jesus,” has no Christian significance and means only “waiting around to die.” Furthermore, the seventy-four-second “Ash Wednesday” has no Christian significance either, but it does mention toys, candles, cats, stupid boys, and the New York Yankees and, like the album‘s other eleven selections, sounds as if it belongs in a pop firmament other than one in which ’N Sync, Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, and Christina Aguilera are big stars.

At first I Oughtta Give You a Shot sounds “experimental,” its unpredictable stylistic shifts, weird rhythms, electronic noises, and production effects calculated to knock listeners off-balance just enough to keep their preconceived notions from operating at full strength. Actually, though, “accidental” would be a better term for the album’s slow, tortured gestation. In 1996, shortly after assembling and circulating a three-song demo, Shivaree--based at the time in Los Angeles--found itself at the heart of a major-label bidding war. Then, after signing with Capitol, the group found itself in the studio with Joe Henry, the justly celebrated Mammoth Records singer-songwriter and Madonna’s most famous brother-in-law. An unspecified but sizeable amount of studio time and money later, both Henry and Shivaree had to admit that scrapping the album would be the quickest way to put it out of everyone’s misery. “We had to start over,” remembers Parsley.

Starting over meant relocating to the recording studio in Henry’s backyard, the studio in which “a big chunk” of what finally made the album was recorded. In the two-to-three years that followed, Shivaree added, subtracted, remixed, and shuffled songs, eventually recording in New York and intermittently benefiting from an array of outside producerly input (Mickey Petralia, Tony Mangurian, George Drakoulias, the Elegant Two).

But it’s an anecdote from the album’s Joe Henry phase that best indicates the interest that the group was generating within the music community as well as the degree to which the unexpected came to play a role in the album’s creation. “There are some little samples that sound like tap-dancey things going on in ‘Arlington Girl,’” says Parsley, “which was one of the songs that we got to work with Jim Keltner on. He’s a friend of Joe’s, and he lives up the street. He came over one night, helped us out, and told us all these really neat stories. The next day, we’re working, and all of a sudden there’s a knock, and it’s Jim Keltner. He’s holding all this sampling equipment, and he says, ‘I hope I’m not bothering you guys. I wanted to come over to try this thing out on “Arlington Girl.” I haven’t used it since I recorded “Kokomo” with the Beach Boys.’”

Not that I Oughtta Give You a Shot evokes Aruba, Jamaica, Key Largo, Montego, or Bermuda--the Bermuda Triangle is more like it. Parsley has spoken often about “Goodnight Moon” (the song, incidentally, that Shivaree performed on the Conan O’Brien show in late April) and the real-life haunted-house incidents to which the song refers, but it turns out that, like Paul Harvey’s, there’s more to her story. “It was a really funky, gnarly, majorly haunted house,” she says of her former SoCal domicile. “I could never go to sleep in the house until the sun came through the window.”

Had her life been a Wes Craven film, audience members would’ve shouted at various points, “Just get out!” “Well,” she says, “it’s hard to just get up and move, and it was such a great little place.” Besides, she says, the ghost “started out [doing things that were] kind of cute and funny, but then it started to get mean--relentless--and not good-feeling at all. “All the lights would go out, and you’d get the creeps; and the phone would ring, and you’d get the creeps; and the stereo would go on, and you’d get the creeps; and the stereo would go off, and you’d go see why, and all the CDs that were in the stereo would be stacked in the middle of the living-room floor; and dog toys would be rolling across the floor for ten minutes from one end to the next; and things would be missing and show up in really weird places.”

Then there were the “really horrible dreams, scratching, laughing, and running footsteps.” “Everything creepy you’ve ever seen in any ghost-story movies that freaked you out as a kid started to happen in this house.”

And then, one night, she saw It. “Duke and I had just come home from Joe’s house. He walked me to the door, and I said, ‘Good night.’ I closed the door, and then I heard this noise, this low, weird hum that made all the hairs stand up on the back of my neck and made all the bones in my chest rattle. It wasn’t a sound that I’d ever heard before or that I could recreate. And when I turned around, it was standing in the corner of the living room. It was this gray, short blur that ran--whooshed--right by me. I saw it go into the kitchen, and then it turned the corner into the bedroom.”

Hysterical, she ran down her front walk after McVinnie, who accompanied her back to the house, placed a small pile of salt in the corners of each room, and assured her that all would be well. “I locked myself in my bedroom,” says Parsley, “turned on all the lights, turned on the T.V., and sat there just completely freaked until the sun came up. Then I took a nap.”

Strangely enough, Parsley made no connection between her ghost and the presence in the living room of a six-foot statue of Satan carved in 1919 in Africa, the prize possession of her folk-art-collecting landlord. “It was called The Devil Root,” she explains. “It had the head of an owl, a big beard, and a big, muscular body, and it was wearing a skirt. It had tiny wings on its back and a big tail that curled up over its head.”

To make the statue less frightening, Parsley would sometimes “dress him up in drag,” replete with feather boas. One can’t help thinking that perhaps The Devil Root didn’t appreciate the makeover. “Too bad!” she snaps. “He needed a hat, some feathers, and some jewelry because he was really creepy looking.”

Now, three time zones, many months, and over a dozen well-placed Shivaree features later, Parsley has achieved the ultimate musician’s perspective on the ordeal. “It was a nightmare,” she admits, “but we got a pretty funny song out of it. Anyway, it was always all very Scooby-Doo, you know?”

To which one can only say “Zoiks!” and suggest that in the future the First Lady Of Shivaree avoid houses with hungry demons who might mistake someone named “Ambrosia Parsley” for a Scooby Snack herself. #####

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