"Wry, contemporary singer/songwriter (who is the sum of every scrap of music he has ever heard) manages to be reverent of his diverse influences while sounding original and contemporary and infusing his songs with subtle humor and loads of unmistakable point of view." There, we said it!
Michael Shelley's new album "I Blame You" (Bar/None Records) is his fourth collection, if you count "Four Arms To Hold You," his side project with Cheeky Monkey, and it's stamped with his unique brand of well-crafted songs, that are never crafty at the expense of true feeling.
For his new album Michael wanted to combine the tight pop feel of his debut "Half Empty" (recorded on a credit card in one room with his N.Y. band) with the more kitchen sink approach of his second album "Too Many Movies" (recorded in the U.K., Los Angeles, Connecticut, and Brooklyn with four groups of musicians). The result is a cohesive breeze of an album that invites repeated listening.
Long-time Shelley collaborator Peter Katis recorded the solid rhythm section of Dennis Diken (The Smithereens) on the drums and John Lee (ex-Mercybuckets, and Michael's touring ace) on bass at Tarquin Studios in Bridgeport, Connecticut. The bulk of the overdubs were recorded by Michael in his tiny Brooklyn apartment. "I produced it, but EVERYBODY contributed," Michael says. "John and Dennis really helped with the arrangements and the tempos and feels of the songs. Producing is just getting people to give you all their good ideas."
Other friends, lured by a fridge stocked with beverages, who dropped by included a number of folks. Laura Cantrell (Diesel Only recording artist) came over to sing harmonies on "Lets Fall In Hate," and ended up making it a duet. Jon Grayboff, on a break from touring with Amy Rigby, packed a taxi with instruments and added some great pedal steel and some nylon string guitar to "Listening to The Band" (we swear what's on the album is one take). That's also Jon on the trippy 12-string at the end of "Stoop Sale." Mark Bacino returned a favor (Michael sings on his "Pop Job" LP on Parasol) by adding some layered background vocals. Crooner/ trumpeter Lief Artzen added his double-tracked harmonies on horn to "Listening To The Band." Frank Bango (Hoboken singer/songwriter extraordinaire) added vocals and Accordion to "Don't Fence Me Out."
To keep his neighbors happy Michael recorded the horn section on "Nine Lives" and "I Blame You" in a studio. It also seemed easier to bring the tapes to the studio to record Dave Amels' vintage keyboard collection, rather then try to lug a Hammond organ, Farfisa organ, celest, mellotron, and Wurlitzer electric piano up three flights of stairs.
Not working in a "real studio" had its ups and downs. There was more time to experiment and make up parts, but if you listen closely, you'll hear the sound of the honking of a car horn from the street below captured inadvertently while recording the bridge to "Stoop Sale" (right after the line "camping equipment"). "Recording at home was interesting, fun, and I learned a lot," says Michael. "Looking back,
there's a million things I'd change, but I'm pretty happy with the results. The combination of techniques worked for the songs, I think. It was nice inviting people to come over and add something; it was a really relaxed atmosphere, and not having a clock ticking was a real positive change. I was trying to mix the one room cohesive sound of my first album with the recorded-in-several-places approach of my second album.
The Shelley moniker appears next to other writer's names for the first time on this album. On "Stoop Sale," which was inspired by walking around his Park Slope, Brooklyn neighborhood one weekend, Michael was assisted by Stevie Jackson (of Belle & Sebastian, and a member of Michael's live U.K. band) who was a house guest while Michael was working on the song. The opener "Mix Tape," an almost true story, was an idea Michael had in his head for a while, but couldn't find the right tune for until Jay Sherman-Godfrey (guitarist in Michael's band) offered up a cassette with a few finished tunes, and one was a natural fit. The title song was written with Francis Macdonald (Teenage Fanclub, BMX Bandits) while the pair was touring Spain with their side project Cheeky Monkey.
Michael grew up in one of those houses that always had music playing in it. When he was a kid, the family had a few records that were repeated endlessly: Beatles, Sinatra, Kingston Trio, Carol King's "Tapestry" and Christmas albums. Additions to the family record collection were mostly procured through the local Salvation Army. (Michael cherishes his Mad Magazine "Mad Twists Rock & Roll" album Mom bought for him there.)
Many of Michael's earliest musical memories are from the listening to top forty AM radio from the back seat of the family station wagon. Born in New York City, Michael moved to the suburbs at age 8. He still has 45's of Alan O'Day's "Undercover Angel" and The Spinners "Games People Play" purchased around that time.
For many of his friends "top 40" gave way to the late 70s "classic rock," a phase which Michael is happy never to have fallen in to. (He claims he never "went through a Doors phase"). It was when his older brother brought home the first Ramones album and a Jonathan Richman album that everything changed for Michael, who then started writing songs and formed a band. "Groups like The Ramones and Jonathan Richman were the first time I heard music and equated it with something I might be able to be a part of myself," Michael recalls with a smile. "But probably my biggest influence was the radio, because the radio was always there, the true soundtrack of my life."
It took a while for Michael to find a record deal, he initially signed with Big Deal in 1997. In the meantime, he kept busy by playing in bands and toiled at a number of pursuits: being thrown out of film school ("My songs have been described as "little films," he says), working as a P.A. in Hollywood, working as a "sound guy", working in a museum gift shop, working as an overnight engineer at an all-Spanish-language radio station, hosting a Saturday night program for five years on WFMU, and most recently bartending at the Park Slope Brewing Company in Brooklyn.
Since the release of his first album, Michael has been lucky enough to be invited to open two tours for They Might Be Giants (whose John Flansburgh took the photos for "I Blame You"), one tour for Shonen Knife and five touring treks of Europe. The press has compared Michael to everyone from Nick Lowe to Aimee Mann, and from Fountains Of Wayne to Freedy Johnson. Michael himself describes his music thusly: "It's the logical regurgitation of all the music in me. My Mom's folk records, early '70s AM radio, late '70s FM radio, new wave, '80s indie rock, '90s thriftshop, and WFMU-record-library explorer. With heavy dose of point of view, and with a sense of humor."
Do yourself a favor, though, and wad this bio up. Toss it in the garbage. Stick "I Blame You" in your player and decide for yourself what Michael Shelley sounds like. No labels! (Well, except Bar/None.)