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POP MUSIC REVIEW : Michelle Shocked: The Gap Between Art and Attitude

Times Pop Music Critic

Michelle Shocked, who headlined the Palace on Tuesday, is a Texas vagabond who has been hailed as everything from a Joan Baez with humor to a female Woody Guthrie.

In an age obsessed with technology and flash in pop music, Shocked favors plain attire (a black cap, black sweater and jeans) and plays her songs on a $75 guitar she bought 10 years ago in a pawn shop. Even the lanky performer’s songs are simple--at least on the surface.

Employing a folk singer’s restlessness and innocence, she writes in her most affecting numbers about such everyday matters as old dirt roads, volunteer fire departments and kids’ pranks.

In last year’s highly acclaimed album “Short Sharp Shocked” she turned those down-home images into wonderfully perceptive and original commentaries on people’s aspirations--and the factors that sometimes crush or defuse those dreams. Like much of Guthrie’s work, the commentaries are occasionally laced with a sharp social bite.

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At the Palace, the freshness and warmth of the album’s songs were especially endearing. How surprising then that Shocked’s manner seemed far less generous and engaging.

While working hard at disarming the audience with a folksy informality (lots of shy winks and aw-shucks smiles), she seemed discouragingly programmed.

Many of the song introductions were word-for-word and wink-for-wink repeats of her set when she opened a few months ago for Billy Bragg at the Wiltern Theatre. Even worse, there were signs of the ultimate protest singer’s disease: a patronizing attitude.

Shocked explained to the supportive Palace audience that she now lives in London because she is disenchanted with the social apathy in her native land.

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Rather than offer the charitable spirit of someone who wants to encourage people to be more understanding, she acted as if anyone who disagreed is an inferior being in need of scolding.

“This is a song about Vietnam,” Shocked said sarcastically, in introducing an anti-war song by the late Steve Goodman. “That was a war about 15 years ago.”

Later, Shocked took on a discouragingly easy target: evangelical hucksters.

The obvious and heavy-handed moments contrasted sharply with the grace of the album. They also raised questions about the future of Shocked’s work--work that to this point has been exceptionally promising.

Because Shocked is female and sings in a folk-based style, she has been frequently linked in pop trend pieces with Tracy Chapman and Suzanne Vega. But Shocked is in no way a shadow of either artist.

There is a rural, open-spaces feel to her music, as opposed to the urban tension of Chapman or the uptown sophistication of Vega. On record, where she uses a band, Shocked offers inviting folk, rockabilly and roadhouse blues touches.

At the Palace, where she was accompanied by just the $75 guitar, the music was more plain, but the themes were no less engaging.

In songs such as “Memories of East Texas,” Shocked sets the scene with a greater sense of landscape than most pop writers. She speaks of the “pine-green rolling hills” and “all the curves down by Kelsey Creek and the detour by Lindsay’s pasture.”

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In establishing the comfortable, everyday images of hometown sentimentality, she is just setting up the listener for a twist at the end: a reflection on how small towns can be intolerant and break the spirit of young mavericks.

The same sense of understated commentary--and even fury--is found in “Graffiti Limbo,” a story of a New York graffiti artist who died of strangulation under reportedly cloudy circumstances after being arrested by police.

But Shocked’s artistry isn’t limited to confrontation. “Hello Hopeville” is a sweet tale of two people on the run, one eager to leave home and the other looking for one after a long time on the road. Sample line, “He was waiting for a station / Just like some people wait for a train.”

With songs this graceful, there is no need to hammer people with sarcasm or turn them off with smugness. The humanity of Shocked’s work carries its own power and persuasion. At the Palace, she needed to show more faith in that humanity.


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