Deena Shoshkes is back with another fresh dozen of quirky, hook-laden rock and roll gems. Combining genres and crossing boundaries, Shoshkes continues her streak of offering something different from what’s being done in pop music today.
Deena is probably best known as one of two essential elements of the seminal group, The Cucumbers. Shoshkes and guitarist hubby Jon Fried burst onto the scene in the early 1980s with the wildly triumphant song, “My Boyfriend,” an ingenuous little piece that propelled them into millions of living rooms across the MTV nation.
Immediately recognizable, Shoshkes’ little girl chirp and soprano flush timbre drove The Cucumbers into high levels of fan affection across the nation. The band had several strong years touring, recording and being celebrated in upper crusty rags such as People and Rolling Stone.
The Cucumbers made their rich run and continue to enjoy music scene renown till this very day. But in a world of limitless artistic possibilities, Shoshkes and Fried continue to roll with the tide, releasing brave new music outside of that group and scoring big with faithful seekers of sound.
Rock River is Deena’s latest venture into the world of the true solo artist. While husband Jon provides guitar tracks, Deena has enlisted Rob Friedman (Lou Reed, Nick Cave, and Philip Glass) to co-produce this pristine package of thematic pop diamonds.
Rock River is an interesting mix of co-writers and artists that come together to present 12 songs ranging from the celebratory salute to love, life and the never-ending summaries that pour from within the human heart. Shoshkes co-wrote five of the 12 songs with David Graham, as well as one each with Chris Dickson and Vaughan Daniel.
The first thing that hits me on Rock River is the dark, reverb-saturated vamp of “My Own Advice.” Shoshkes glides right into her “icing on the cake” vocal on the lyrical lamentations of ignoring one’s inner voice. The punchy drum and bass work created by Friedman is immediately addictive as guitars accent and jangle choruses and bridges à la acoustic and electric phaser swirls. The lead break is quick and piercing, delivering hornet sting accuracy before darting back out of the pathway of Shoshkes’ sweet as honey vocal gait.
The synth line on “Find The Love” directly focuses offbeat direction in this unconventional victor. Emphasizing a cool, backbeat pocket, “Find The Love” pumps its mid-tempo pulse underneath Shoshkes’ addictive lilt. The guitars join in on the synth riff in the choruses before immersing to support in the bridges. Handclaps promenade with hi-hats, triangles and organ hits as the song fades too soon for me.
Deena has always been an original singer. Her range is like an intimate, laughter-filled conversation, and I enjoy it most here as she slices into back porch, melodic twang, reminding me of a punky Loretta Lynn as she dances between the syrupy pedal steel lines of Friedman, and the backcountry, summertime drumming of Dave Anthony on “Bring It All.”
The vulnerability and innocence in Shoshkes’ vocal waltzes into the mix under trestles of guitar work by Jon Fried and the unadulterated, Nashville-tinged bass performance of Ed Iglewski, which helps set up this song up as one of the most stunning on the disc.
“Comes With Kisses” sparkles with shimmering volume swells and fingerpicked icicles that break and fall into the ethereal harmonies of Shoshkes’ sing-song story. “Comes With Kisses” is a pure, unassuming tune which brings back 1980s visions of Harriet Wheeler and her band, The Sundays.
“All She Wrote” is a funky, funhouse adventure down the boogie woogie trail. Shoshkes is having fun on this one and she told me via email that “All She Wrote” is really “just a little window into my personal life.” Featuring Rebecca Turner and Elena Skye (The Jersey Girls), Deena puts out stop-and-go, three-chord clout that opens the door for some gnarly lap steel yowling courtesy of Friedman.
Some of an artist’s best songs are written quickly, and seems to be the case for “I Will Never Be Your Valentine.” Deena told me, “The songs just came through me and poured out of me, and after writing them, I realized, ‘Oh, wow, THAT was on my mind!’” I admire the country-flavored twang and tremolo-clean tone of electric guitars as they run in melodic tandem with organs, making way for Deena’s fetching ode to cautious engagement. “I will never be your valentine, you will not be mine. Still I’m giving you my love, singing you a song, giving you my time.”
“My Friend Superman” is another disc pick for me. Co-written by Shoreworld compadre Chris Dickson, the tune highlights some bodacious Bob Kenselaar horn designs. Shoshkes and crew blend funk-inspired guitar and organ with Tower Of Power-style brass to great impact. Verses jump and pump with bass guitar acrobatics and the sizzling, middle-eight guitar works of Rob Friedman which is red-hot and reminiscent of original Spin Doctors axe man, Eric Schenkman. Kudos also goes out to Phil Rinaldi and William Newrock for trumpet and trombone work alongside the sax action of Kenselaar.
Another song that stood out was “Always Tomorrow.” Deena lists this song as a favorite when it comes to words. “I love David’s lyrics. His line, ‘Tuesday afternoon, looking at what’s left of a blue sky,’ from ‘Always Tomorrow,’ is my favorite on the album.” Once again, another quasi-country rocker that weaves tapestries of organ, bass and drums underneath clean, truck-stop guitar work and smooth, candy-coated vocals that can play all day long.
“When I Fall” closes the disc and is probably the most significant and personal song on Rock River. Deena tells me, “Some of the songs co-written with lyricist David Graham go back quite a few years. Working with another’s lyrics removed my ego from it, and the songs revealed themselves to me. ‘When I Fall’ is one of the first songs we wrote together. I’ve always loved that song and felt I had to find a way to record it and get it out into the world. In a certain way, that song is the reason for the album.” Lap steel bends weep throughout the intro as Deena dances in, setting up the catchy choruses with sunny, summer-kissed lyrical charm, interspersed with strummed acoustic guitars, tight drums and bass. Friedman’s lap steel work is extremely underrated and reminds me of some of the vigorous years of guitarist David Lindley.
When I asked Deena to reveal to the readers what this record meant to her, she explained it to me quite easily. “’Rock River’ is a river of time, love and music—all the wonderful forms of rock and roll music I’ve loved and been influenced by. I am a water person; I swim and feel renewed, cleansed and inspired. The cover art is a painting by my mother of my sons swimming underwater in the ‘Rock River.’ Everything is blended together—love, family, music, the river, all the sources of my inspirations.”
Emphasized with skilled collaborations from a myriad of gifted musicians and composers, Rock River is a highly recommended CD that shows Shoshkes in a new and more personal light and well in control of her ever-changing current of compositional know-how.
For more information on Deena and her new album, Rock River, head over to deena.nfshost.com.