After five years away from the recording studio, the Legendary Shack Shakers don't sound as frantic as they did back in the days of Cockadoodledon't, but their commitment to bad craziness below the Mason-Dixon line is as strong as ever, so the title The Southern Surreal is more than fitting.
Instead of going for the breakneck psychobilly of their formative days, in 2015 the Shack Shakers continue to explore the swampy sound that dominated 2007's Swampblood as they ponder the more forbidding side of life in the deep South. Bassist Mark Robertson and drummer Brett Whitacre lay out a deep, implacable rhythm as guitarist Rod Hamdallah spreads echo-drenched guitar figures over it all and Col. J.D. Wilkes howls and moans his tales of booze, bad living, the walking dead, and other unhealthy phenomena of life along the riverbank (and occasionally tosses in some high-powered harmonica work).
The band also brings along a few high-powered guests (including former Jesus Lizard guitarist Duane Denison and sax player Ralph Carney, best known for his work with Tom Waits), and Billy Bob Thornton steps up to the vocal mike for a brilliantly creepy spoken word piece. As the Shack Shakers' formula has grown more complex with the passage of time, the pickers have gotten better and their take on blues, swamp rock, and hillbilly stomp is richer and more satisfying than many would expect, and the group's efforts to create a soggy netherworld of the mind are impressive and effective. Raw, organic, but ambitious, The Southern Surreal shows one can play with less than noble images of the deep South without taking cheap shots, and that these jokers are getting more serious -- and better -- each time they return from the studio.