While I was hanging out recently with Kevin Russell, the shaman of soul who fronts Austin swamp-pop party band Shinyribs, to talk about his new CD, I Got Your Medicine, something struck me when I asked him about some of the favorite songs he's written. While some hangers-on still can't get over the fact that his previous band, the Gourds, is no more, Russell has already compiled an impressive body of work under the Shinyribs aegis, having released four albums in the past seven years since the band started as a side project — more music than some bands release in their entire careers. So if you're late to the party and need a primer, here's a list of the ten coolest Shinyribs songs — not counting Russell's plethora of quirky and inspired covers — presented chronologically, including some of my picks and some from the bearded vocalist himself.
"Who Built the Moon"
Well After Awhile, 2010
The opening cut on the first Shinyribs release, two years after he started the whole thing as a solo gig at Under the Volcano. At the time this record came out, Russell had already felt the Gourds weren't really progressing musically anymore, despite drawing huge crowds at their gigs. Talk about making a statement that he had something different to say. This cut's simplicity, carried by the bass line, helps highlight the lyrics about a dude who built a lunar object, as a metaphor for Russell's idea that he had already embarked on a different musical voyage: “Once there was a pilgrim, he was lonely as a broom; he had the idea to build the moon.”
"Shores of Galilee"
Well After Awhile
In the past seven years, Shinyribs has evolved into an eight-piece R&B machine, including the addition two years ago of backup female vocalists Sally Allen and Alice Spencer. This duet with Allen from the first record still stands up today as one of the best examples of what their vocal combination brings to the mix. It also kicks off a theme he has visited frequently ever since – the idea of darkness and light, or love and lust, being separated by a thin veneer: “I made no confession, I lost all possession/ Busted like a red light playboy I didn't know that it was against the law/ Trusted, she thought I was a choirboy, that's the wages of sin.”
"East TX Rust"
Well After Awhile
This is Russell's favorite song from the first record, which includes a guest appearance from Ray Wylie Hubbard on the studio version. While Shinyribs has written lots of songs that are made for shaking what your mother gave you, this one could arguably be the best. It also gave that first hint of where Russell was heading as more of the Gulf Coast and New Orleans-influenced arrangements began to evolve into their signature sound. Winfield Cheek uses that same funky old-school electric keyboard setting that Stevie Wonder used back in the day on “Superstition.” And nobody beats Russell when it comes to his use of the English language to describe doing the deed: “I'm advocating a mutual grazing.”
"Take Me Lake Charles"
Gulf Coast Museum, 2013
Another song showcasing those soaring Russell-Allen vocal harmonies, and one that stands up as one of Russell's favorites today, it marks the more complex arrangements that Russell was hearing in his head, just as he knew the days were numbered for the Gourds, who broke up the year this CD was released. While Ray Wylie Hubbard and Hayes Carll have written plenty of songs about lovable losers over the years, this one is right up there, a tale of a guy whose luck is bound to change if his girlfriend will drive him over to the casinos at Lake Charles and loan him $100 to hit the blackjack tables: “21's comin' to me, I can feel it in my bones/ Gonna have to change my name to Savings and Loan.”
"Sweeter Than the Scars"
Gulf Coast Museum
Russell has always been comfortable writing in that 4/4 pocket where the bass line locks in on that snare beat. This one sprinkles in some Beatlesque syncopation and some falsetto for good measure. It's another bittersweet song about relationships, and how hanging in despite the bad times can be worth it: “Dreams are about the future, songs are about the past/ Sometimes it takes a suture to make the feeling last.”
Gulf Coast Museum
Russell's voice can easily pull off the R&B classics made famous by the likes of Marvin Gaye or Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, and Russell's cover of the Blue Notes' classic “If You Don't Know Me By Now” made the cut on this album. But this more overlooked, stripped-down song is one of the most melancholy, emotion-laden vocal performances you'll find anywhere. It's easy to imagine how it would easily stand out in a Shinyribs set today, with the addition of the horn section that Russell brought to the table on his next album release, Okra Candy.
Okra Candy, 2015
A song involving picking up beer and cigarettes at a corner store never sounded so mysterious, in which the protagonist has been watching a woman out of the corner of his eye, and he notes that the “bourgeois bullshit is always killing the spark...but they can't kill my spark.” It starts with just Russell's voice and guitar and builds up a driving momentum, as the rest of the band kicks in, that never lets go.
Sure, Russell has written some silly songs that have ended up being crowd favorites, especially “Donut Taco Palace” from this same album, about an eatery he used to frequent near his son's middle school that serves up chorizo next to the cream-filled pastries. Russell wrote that song to get that name of the store out of his head. But “Walt Disney” is the one stuck in my craw. It's dark yet playful, and pretty creepy, with that “Hi-ho, Hi-ho” refrain to boot. In this one, the main character isn't happy with his girlfriend's behavior: “Where the hell you been? Don't try to kiss me with that alcohol on your breath. You actin' so sweet and so fresh...you actin' just like Walt Disney.” We'll leave all the Walt Disney conspiracy theories for another time.
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"Don't Leave It a Lie"
I Got Your Medicine, 2017
Russell told me his first three Shinyribs records didn't quite capture where the band was with its live shows at the time – partly because of its ever-expanding roster that is now up to eight musicians. But I Got Your Medicine captures his newer style of arrangements and songwriting that he adopted when he first added the horn section to the band during the making of Okra Candy. This track on the new record captures the full-throttle Shinyribs vibe, but still keeps the quirky sound alive that spawned the project in the first place, with Russell's ukulele still chugging away in the background. What stands out is the memorable break half way through the song that intersperses the uke, flute, pedal steel and electric piano, woven around a delicious bass line — then the band's vocal power kicks in and takes it home.
"A Certain Girl"
I Got Your Medicine
Russell has always had a thing for old-school novelty songs (Sam the Sham, anyone?) and the original swamp-pop sound from the 1950s of Louisiana band Cookie and His Cupcakes. This remake of an Allen Toussaint song — which has also been covered going way back to The Yardbirds, and also by Warren Zevon — is a reminder that a Shinyribs show is simply a hell of a lot of fun, featuring the call-and-response between Russell and his female backup singers, and, what else, a '50s-era sax solo.
Shinyribs and special guests the Peterson Brothers perform Friday, February 17, at the Heights Theater, 339 West 19th. Doors open at 7 p.m.