Friday, April 2, 2010

April 2: William Shatner, "I Can't Get Behind That"

Artist: William Shatner (With Henry Rollins)
Song: "I Can't Get Behind That"
Album: Has Been
Year: 2004

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Picture for a moment the most random group of musicians you can possibly think of, all gathered together in a single recording studio.  From all styles of music, from across the generations, pretend that somehow, someone was able to convince these seemingly unrelated performers to "just show up," and see what sort of musical magic or mayhem might occur.  Far from a jam session, these musicians in question must be from such different walks of life, that even the idea of them being in the same room, let alone making music together, is unfathomable.  Begin with a television star turned "wannabe" singer, then add in an icon of hardcore/punk, mix in one of the most highly respected "indie rock" mainstays, and then polish it off with one of the most lethal guitar-slingers in music history.  The location: Nashville, Tennessee.  The album? Ex-Star Trek Captain William Shatner's 2004 record, Has Been.  With appearances from artists ranging from Joe Jackson to Amiee Mann to Brad Paisley, one would be hard pressed to find a more eclectic group of musical styles on a single record, and yet none of these bring the power, presence, and sheer randomness of the records' finest track, a beat-style spoken word piece simply titled, "I Can't Get Behind That."Alongside Shatner on this track are musician/producer Ben Folds, former King Crimson guitarist, Adrian Belew, and a dueling vocal track from none other than former Black Flag frontman, Henry Rollins.  It goes without saying that there is simply nothing else ever recorded that sounds quite like "I Can't Get Behind That."

The music on the song is nearly as wild as the group of musicians gathered together in the studio.  Falling somewhere between beat-style jazz, noise-rock, and an almost "jam band" sound, until you have heard "I Can't Get Behind That," you simply cannot grasp the sonic genius that it contains.  Led by percussionist-extraordinaire, Matt Chamberlain, it is clear that each of the four performers is feeding off of one anothers' energy, and they keep pushing each other to higher limits.  Chamberlain, who played along acts like Tori Amos and David Bowie among many others, is absolutely on fire as he flies all over the standard drum kit as well as a host of other percussion instruments.  This almost unhinged, wild sound presents a sensational juxtaposition to the lyrical delivery of Shatner, and the song literally jumps out of the speakers.  Furthering this mood of bordering chaos, Adrian Belew is as amazing as ever, and it is on songs like "I Can't Get Behind That" where he once again proves that he is easily one of the most underrated guitarists in history.  Bringing a seemingly endless amount of creativity and raw talent, Belew tears across the background of the song, adding stunning points of punctuation and giving the song an almost dark or spacey feel.  The two musicians seem to be completely in tune with one another as they plow through the song at breakneck speed, careening around corners before coming to an abrupt halt near the end.  It is due to these two musicians that the song is so exciting, and one simply cannot say enough about their ability to turn what could have been a small, simple part into something truly extraordinary.

With Belew and Chamberlain setting a superb tone for the song, it is truly amazing how perfectly the vocal styles of William Shatner and Henry Rollins fit into the mix.  Beginning in a calm, measured tone and then building in energy and volume in equal relation to the music, the song perfectly displays how one should properly build tension in a song.  Though both vocalists work their style easily into the song, the fact of the matter is, the sound and style of the overall song is a far cry from anything either had previously recorded.  Where Shatner's previous release (in 1968) was a rather tongue-in-cheek, overly-dramatic affair, Rollins will always be remembered as one of the most intense and aggressive performers in music history.  Yet somehow, the two find a common ground on "I Can't Get Behind That," and neither seems out of place at any point.  The lyrics are rather self-explanatory, as the pair take turns in commenting on aspects of life that they "can't get behind."  From spam email to student drivers to poor grammar, nothing is off-limits, and it spins into one of the most brilliantly unique and enjoyable vocal tracks ever recorded.  Whether it is Rollins' voice going through distortion to sound like a telemarketer or Shatner poking fun at himself with the line, "I can't get behind so-called singers that can't carry a tune, get paid for talking, how easy is that?" the pair are clearly loving every second of this inexplicable duet.  While both Shatner and Rollins will certainly be best remembered for other parts of their career, there is no question that this shared performance is easily one of the most unique and truly inspired recordings that either has ever done.

As has been said, the fact that "someone" had the crazy idea to get these four musicians into the same room is nothing short of mind-boggling.  Thankfully, for those who wish to hear a first-hand tale of how it all "came to be," as well as the sessions themselves, Rollins captured and released his telling of the story on his 2004 album, Talk Is Cheap, Volume IV.  His version of the events makes the song even more enjoyable and adds an entirely new level to ones appreciation of "I Can't Get Behind That."  Looking at the song as a whole, it is almost impossible to comprehend that for all intensive purposes, Adrian Belew is a "session musician" on this recording, and along with Matt Chamberlain, they prove just how much impact such musicians can have on a song.  It is largely their performance that makes the song the "beast" that it is, and there are few recordings that can rival "I Can't Get Behind That" in terms of walking the line between wild music and pure chaos.  The fact that these two musicians are able to achieve such sonic power with only drums and a guitar further reinforces the amazing nature of the song as well as their own musical prowess.  However, as brilliant as these musicians are, at the end of the day, the song is still about the absolutely fantastic vocal performance of William Shatner.  Bringing a far more aggressive and high energy style than anywhere else in his recorded history, it is clear that the presence of all these players, perhaps mostly Rollins, aids him in bringing out a rarely seen side of his personality.  Chamberlain, Folds, Belew, Rollins, Shatner...there is simply no excuse to NOT want to immediately seek out a copy of "I Can't Get Behind That;" if nothing less, than for the experience of hearing this unthinkable musical grouping.

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