Alejandro Rose-Garcia (aka Shakey Graves) didn’t take the straight path to the country world. He went from playing late-night open mics in New York to joining the underground LA freak folk scene while looking for acting gigs before finally settling in Austin — the perfect setting for his lo-fi Americana. Shakey Graves’ mix of those three cities tends to make his music a bit of a hodgepodge of influences and places. His previous full-length and EP were lo-fi folk excursions, experiences where Rose-Garcia displayed both his excellent musicianship and dreamy, heartfelt songwriting.
His new LP, And the War Came, slides in and out of clean, foot-stomping folk, lo-fi, freak folk, bluesy rock, and quiet, personal bedroom pop. All are well-written in their own way, though the record starts to feel inconsistent as it goes on. Perhaps Alejandro Rose-Garcia would be better off sticking with a single style for longer than a song or two because — at only, essentially, 10 tracks — the wide variations inflict some whiplash.
Even after multiple listens, it’s hard to find a footing in the album. The front quarter features one track of each Shakey Graves style, and while the flow isn’t bad, Rose-Garcia clearly works best in the country realm. Tracks like “Dearly Departed” and “Only Son” are the strongest in the first grouping. The former is the first of three duets with Paper Bird’s Esme Patterson, and she and Rose-Garcia create a beautiful, energetic dynamic in the vein of Shovels and Rope. Rose-Garcia’s guitar easily strolls on top of bouncing drums, while his and Patterson’s voices playfully stretch to the edge of their ranges as they sing about lost love.
“Only Son” sees Rose-Garcia in his one-man band setup, with just guitar and suitcase bass drum. He sounds best when he’s playing solo: You can finally hear how immensely talented a picker he is. His fingers slide and hammer all over the fretboard while simultaneously pounding out a quick, sporadic bass beat underneath. Rose-Garcia’s voice stays in a strained whisper throughout the track, but he backs himself up with a more angelic drawl, like he’s singing from the back of a church. He changes up his picking for “Hard Wired”, where he takes on a more Kaki King or Jose Gonzalez style of plucks and string slaps, creating a wonderfully percussive backing to his southern yelp.
If Rose-Garcia stayed within this introspective, singer-songwriter world throughout the album, And the War Came would be a solid record. However, aside from the other Esme Patterson collaborations (the rollicking country jam “Big Time Nashville Star” and closer “Call It Heaven”), the album meanders and drifts. “Family and Genus” combines a Lonesome Crowded West-era Modest Mouse sound with electronic atmospheres, a formula that doesn’t really fit Rose-Garcia’s voice or the album. The song is interesting in its own right as a sample of his freak folk side, but in the context of other, more personal songs, it feels sudden and startling.
Rose-Garcia tries to do a lot with And the War Came, and it scatters his focus. The through-line is missing in the album, as if he doesn’t know what exactly he wants these songs to accomplish or what world they should live in. He isn’t your average country and folksinger, to be sure, and that weirdness helps him stay away from the commercial current currently flooding the market with anyone with a rough beard and a guitar. However, he is able to stay close enough to fish from that current and pull out gems like “Dearly Departed”. If he can control the efforts of his imagination just a little more, he has the potential to really blow things wide open. The other option would be to let his freak flag fly, delve into the echoed expanses of tracks like “Family and Genus”, and just see what happens. But he can’t seem to do both at once.
Essential Tracks: “Dearly Departed”, “Big Time Nashville Star”, and “Only Son”