George Carlin once wrote, “The only good thing ever to come out of religion was the music.” And certainly, spirituality and music go together like chocolate and peanut butter (unless you’re Switchfoot. I have it on good authority that Jesus hates that band. And don’t even get me started on Creed). The Beatles did drugs and went to India to kick it with mystics and managed to get some good tunes out of the adventure (not least of which was “Within You, Without You.” If you like that song as much as I do, you’ll probably love Sonic Youth’s cover of it. You can find it on the second disc of their Legacy Edition of Daydream Nation). Tom Waits has collaborated on two exceedingly beautiful pieces of religious music: Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet (I know it should be “Jesus’s” not “Jesus'” but I wrote it the way it appears on the disc) with Gavin Bryars and “Lord, I’ve Been Changed” from John Hammond’s (completely awesome) Wicked Grin record. John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme is a love letter to God. So I wasn’t discouraged to read that Nicholas Delffs, vocalist for my much-beloved Shaky Hands (from my much-beloved Portland) went on a trip to India, found some inspiration, and then came back to make a completely sitar-free, meat-and-potatoes rock record.
Let It Die is the third Shaky Hands record (and only the second one I’ve heard. The Shaky Hands won their way into my heart with last year’s Lunglight) and it forefronts the band’s Beatles/Good (read: early) Stones influence where their last album had a pretty heavy (at least to my ears) early R.E.M. influence. At any rate, Let It Die is the poppiest album I’ve heard from Delffs and company (“company” includes bearded badass bassist Mayhaw Hoons), and its clanging guitars and stomping drums are, to say the least, goddamn charming.
There’s really nothing new on Let It Die; it even closes with an “I Went to India and All I Got was this Profound Sense of Peace” hymn called “Leave It All” (Zombie George Harrison would be so proud, if only he could stop chowing on Ringo’s brain long enough to listen). And, up to that point, there are hand-claps, howls and growls galore, and a generally good time is had by all. There is one sort of regrettable track, “Gonna Hold You Tonight,” which, while earnest, still comes across as slightly forced. And being “nothing new” is hardly a bad thing – someone once said there’s nothing new under the sun (my favorite current band, the Hold Steady pretty much traffics in classic rock for people who read poetry and, you know, literature) and they were probably right. It’s what you do with the same ol’ same ol’ that really sets you apart.
The Shaky Hands’ greatest asset in that department, the thing that prevents me from dismissing them as another band with the same record collection I have (mostly), is Nicholas Delffs’s voice. He has an all-time great rock ‘n’ roll yelp and he sings every word with conviction, tearing into album opener “Let It Die” like a lion tearing into the slowest zebra in the herd (for those of you who are wondering how ferocious that is, consider that a single lion is successful on the hunt only about 15% of the time* – so, assuming Delffs is a lone lion, just imagine how you’d tear into some food if you skipped meals 85% of the time and calibrate accordingly). His growly warble is actually more melodic on this album than it was on Lunglight and you can actually understand more of what he’s saying, which is a big plus. Although I have to say that one of my favorite things about this band is that their singer actually sounds like a guy who has shaky hands.
Let It Die is an almost surprisingly tuneful album – it’s one of those treasures that I find myself listening to several times a day, a feat I didn’t achieve with Lunglight until I’d had it a while. Of course, it helps that I keep forgetting my CDs when I leave the apartment and Let It Die is the disc currently in my car’s player. But I haven’t gotten sick of it (listening to it right now in fact, for about the 9th time in three days) and, in fact, I find a new favorite song each time I listen to it. Right now, my current favorite is “All You Recall” which marries Rolling Stones guitars to a Beatles pop melody carried on Delffs’s shaky voice and featuring some really pleasant harmonies on the refrain. Where Lunglight was pervaded by a sort of quivering paranoia, Let It Die wants to rock out until it breaks itself. The spirit Nicholas Delffs found in India moved him to shake his moneymaker and craft a killer rock album – I’ll even excuse the “Hare Krishna” bollocks on “Leave It All” because, at the end of the day, it’s a really lovely song. Although the best spiritual moment on the album still comes from the title track, a raucous ode to impermanence (“there’s a world that’s comin’ on/ you gotta/ let it die!“). If I ever meet the Dalai Lama, I’m gonna clap that shit on his headphones, let him rock to it for a minute or two, and then I fully expect him to remove the headphones, look me dead in the eye, and say, “Matt, that’s what I’ve been saying all along.”**
* according to naturalist George Shaller. In the 60s, I think. Your lion mileage may vary.
** had a friend in college who saw the DL (Tenzin Gyatso, to his parents. And seriously, if your kid grows up to be the Dalai Fucking Lama, you get all time bragging rights in your neighborhood. “Jimmy is going to med school.” “Oh yeah? Tenzin is the 14th Dalai Lama. Suck it, Jimmy.”) speak and said that His Holiness was snacking on caramel chews quite enthusiastically throughout his speech. I only bring this up because it seems kinda funny to me and it may also be a sign of enlightenment. Discuss.