Never underestimate the power of a good rhythm section. It’s the backbone of any group. It can carry any band in spite of a pedestrian guitar player (here’s looking at you, Primus). It can make the most boring, run-of-the-mill pop song sound interesting and concise in spite of a pedestrian lead singer (here’s looking at you, Vertical Horizon). And it can provide that very important backdrop of a song that forces even the most hateful music mind to tap its feet every now and then, in spite of how pedestrian the finished product may appear (here’s looking at you, Train).
Unfortunately, it’s also what’s lacking in Miss Shevaughn and Yuma Wray’s latest EP, “Snake Oil Songs,” a six-track effort that showcases the local group’s latest recordings in an extremely low-budget manner, yet a somewhat promising light.
Why that is has nothing to do with the bulk of the release though. One song is dreadful, two are just short of dreadful, and two aren’t dreadful at all. But the sixth song of the record isn’t just good — it’s great. And it’s enough to suggest that something far more substantial lies beneath the under-produced disappointments that surround it.
That song, “A Fool & Her Heart,” sets the bar so high for the rest of the EP that the following songs appear worse than they actually are. Accompanied by a mere guitar for the majority of the song — with a splash of Memphis soul organ that fades its way into the mix — the song is 3:48 of pure, heart-wrenching female-leading blues that stands well against anything Etta James offered after 1968. Shevaughn’s voice carries like it was born to croon as the clean guitar plays the perfect Lucille to her B.B. King. It’s inspiring. It’s beautiful. It’s impressive. And it’s also the only glimpse into how great the group can be.
The problems that follow are deeper than the lack of a rhythm section. In fact, the problems center on a notion that isn’t even a death sentence to any prohibitive musical group trying to build a fan base. It’s something that is fixable and even somewhat excusable considering the apparent lack of funds or time to really put into making a record.
The problem is focus, or lack thereof. “Take Me Home” begins wonderfully as the singer channels her inner Dolly Parton to provide a stellar a cappella performance that displays true talent. But then the acoustic guitar kicks in and somehow transforms an otherwise pretty song — ready-made for the Grand Ole Opry — into something impossible to listen to — sounding like something that is ready-made for a Riverdance soundtrack’s cutting room floor. It’s awkward. While the performance is a clear attempt at trying to show the versatility the singer may possess, the song comes off as a distracted mess.
And it doesn’t really get any better. “Baby Blue” is the only true attempt at straight rock that looks The White Stripes in the eyes only to find both Jack and Meg laughing in its face. “Fadin’ On You” isn’t bad, but because the ballad lacks the fire “A Fool & Her Heart” effortlessly portrays, it makes you wonder how much time the group put into writing the song.
“Dead Men” is so bad, it’s laughable. The singer’s spotty crooning faded into the background sounds as though someone heard Beyonce’s “Baby Boy” and thought it would be fun to buy a $3.99 Egyptian music compilation and try to emulate the idea with an acoustic guitar, a bass drum, organ, tambourine and — wait for it — the sound of a triangle. Yes. A misplaced, unnecessary high-pitched semblance of an actual triangle (whether or not it is would be impossible to prove — there are no musician credits to be found anywhere).
The song is the perfect example of why the album doesn’t work nearly as well as it should. With the help of a nicely-played bass guitar and a steady, time-keeping drummer, “Dead Men” could have been an interesting idea.
But it would be unfair to dismiss the release as a failure based on those missteps. What sets “Snake Oil Songs” apart from most other locally produced, low-budget recordings is that true talent does lie within the fabric of the EP. It’s true that you can’t underestimate the power of a good rhythm section. But you can’t underestimate the power of a great voice either. And with any luck, by the time Miss Shevaughn and Yuma Wray find themselves in a studio again, they will have the good sense to take care of the one thing they are missing from that equation.
** 2 1/2 STARS OUT OF 4 **