Sounds Great: Shawn Ames, “The Sound of One Hand Clapping” (Review)

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There are two dramatic statements in recorded music. The first is the announced final album, in which a band or artist announces well in advance that their next album will be their final piece of recorded work. The next is the double album, in which a band or artist announces well in advance that they have so much recorded music and such creative breadth available that they need two lps, or cds or whatever, to house it all. Both announcements tend to make fans of said band giddy with excitement, edgy with anticipation, knowing that the upcoming release (be it either a double or a final) will be a grand gesture, something defining and essential. So when veteran songwriter Shawn Ames announced almost a year ago that he was retiring from making records and that his last record would be a double album, I, as a fairly vocal fan of Ames’, work was understandably excited.

And I was not disappointed. Comprised of twenty one songs and two hours worth of music, the resultant record, The Sound of One Hand Clapping, is a creative tour de force. Born of frustration and obsession, the record guides listeners through the mind of a man with nothing to lose, a man bent on clearing from his head everything that’s been swimming around for years. It’s a raw and intense shit-show, with the music forming a theater for a battle between the intense joys and crushing sorrows that animate daily life. The soldiers, like the songwriter himself, are of a bizarre and different sort: A suicidal clockmaker, a “sinister minister”, a dying, confused musician, children that never existed, broken men haunted by love, all individuals damaged and left alone in a world that was supposed to love and nurture them.

But maybe I’m overthinking this, as I am accustomed to do. It’s not a battle between light and dark, it’s a goddamn rock and roll record, right? So, okay, here goes. If you listen to this record you’re gonna get an education in the history of rock music. Ames is such a talented musician that he’s able to take listeners through a plethora of styles: cheesy doo-wop, smoky blues, schizophrenic prog, proto-metal, straight ahead aggressive rock and even a psychedelic adventure or two, and more, is what you’re in for when you sit down and attempt to wrap your mind around this effort. There’s something for everyone here, and it’s impressive how adeptly Ames can shapeshift through genres.

But I don’t think that’s the point. I don’t think this record is Ames showing off his mastery of the cannon of rock music. And I don’t think this record is the Golden Corral smorgasbord of rock and roll records. And I also don’t think that this is Ames just fucking around. If you listened to his Out of My Head series, which I recommended in my weekly New Music Weekly column, that was Ames fucking around, just writing songs because that’s what he does. This is his LAST album, and it’s serious. That’s why the highs are so high (“The Best Thing”, “The Pickle Tree”) and the lows so low (“Nine o Clock High”, “He Hates It”). In all of it’s desperation, all of it’s obsessiveness, all of it’s twisted fantastical glory, the work represents the last words of an artist who, while he may never have found the audience he deserved, at least found his voice.

Most artists don’t find that. They find their gimmick, or they find what will sell and trade everything away for it. And as dramatic as it is to announce that your next album will be your last album, or that your next album will be a double album, it’s rare that those albums live up to the expectation. One Hand Clapping is different. Not only does this last, final, double album live up to what I expected, it exceeds it mightily. Congratulations, Mr Ames. You’ve made a record that I will be listening to for the rest of my life.

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