ROY SHAKKED – Throwback

Roy Shakked’s ‘Know Nothing’ EP (released in 2018) provided a superb look into his idiosyncratic and varied writing styles. By pulling influence from Eels, Jack White and Paolo Nutini, it covered a broad musical range, but still sounded like the work of a man with his own set of talents. He then threw a massive curveball by releasing an album’s worth of waltzes (fittingly titled ‘Waltzes’) which blended some low key pop with piano pieces, and bits that sounded as if they were written with soundtracks in mind. For the more patient listener, it was an album that offered a few cherry-pickable treats, but it suggested that Shakked always made music for the love of the creative process rather than chasing easy fame.

2022’s ‘Throwback’ returns to the exploration of a varied pop/rock landscape and, once again, Roy’s influences colour a set of tunes that’s happy to hop between genres. That never makes the album feel directionless; rather more, sort of cheeky. It’s a record that exudes confidence, and gladly takes the listener on a journey that’s three parts sun filled soundtrack, one part retro mood lifter. ‘Play On’ sets this mood in place by dropping some superb funk pop where his sharp rhythm guitar work dances above a buoyant bass, creating a sound that has a similar quality to a couple of Beck tunes circa ‘Midnight Vultures’. This is enough to draw your attention almost immediately, but a shameless hook loaded with oohs and retro brass adds a brilliant disco-ish flair that more than stokes up the fun. Over the top of the multi-layered arrangement, Roy’s easy vocal further invites the listener into his world of sophisti-pop cool. A strong opener, certainly, but these traits are amplified in an even stronger way on ‘Nothing You Can Do’, a tune driven by muted guitars, heavy 70s grooves and a slight jazz funk undertone. Here, Shakked takes an instantly familiar tune and uses it to work towards a massive and instant hook, and although his natural vocal sits well with the music, it’s always the musical arrangement that dominates. Swathes of keys call back to early 80s Prince; a jazz keyboard solo falls somewhere between the melodic end of Herbie Hancock’s disco fuelled years and Bob James getting busy, and a taut bass holds everything together with a reasonable amount of punch without being the dominant force. Overall, there’s plenty to entertain anyone whom has been enamoured by Roy’s work to date, and it could be just as appealing for a first time listener.

Released as a single ahead of the album, ‘Harden Your Heart’ works an acoustic guitar loop with folky and jazzy moods beneath programmed beats, eventually creating some terrific adult pop. Contrasting a mangled Beyonce lyric with the old idiom of “bringing a knife to a gunfight”, the track’s playful heart eventually shows no fear, but it’s by no means a novelty track. As before, extreme care has been taken to ensure the arrangement is tight and professional; a floaty vocal occasionally calls to mind ‘Soft Bulletin’ Flaming Lips and the way beats are used against a laid back, very natural arrangement is pure Holmes. If anything sticks, though, it’ll be a sharp chorus where pop-ish vocals dance against an indie pop groove that could well be one of Roy’s best melodies. ‘I’m Telling Everyone’, meanwhile, teases with more funky pop interspersed with piano interludes from a very 90s stock. Its harder beats are an interesting touch against synth bass, but thanks to Shakked’s always melodic ear, nothing sounds too fake. The almost trip-hopish backdrop allows the vocal to sound bigger than before, and although it often favours a neo-spoken approach, the performer is able to soar into the main hook with a soulful cry that contrasts everything brilliantly, reminding everyone of his already strong pop past.

Increasing the beats, ‘Fly On The Wall’ mixes funk with a blues guitar solo that’s impeccably played, creating something with a much bigger feel. Almost as if he’s afraid of getting too rocky, though, Shakked offsets the punchier edge with a few vocals that have been heavily processed to sound unnatural and almost robotic, a core melody that hints at 80s pop fare like Curiosity Killed The Cat, and eventually, a couple more jazz quirks. Autotune weirdness aside – you either love or hate that kind of thing – it’s great; a superb example of Shakked’s shameless borrowing of influences, magpie style, but also his ability to make the familiar feel fresh. A little moodier, ‘Emotional’ centres around an electric piano and jazz guitar to offer a tune that sounds like an acid jazz jam steered through pop waters by Hall & Oates. The music conveys a fairly synthetic sound, yet at the same time, there’s a surprising warmth. The stabbed keys brushing against an easy rhythm sets up something that has one foot in the 70s and the other in a 90s revivalist landscape. In lots of ways, the tune’s highlights are supplied by a stately bass and some brilliant jazz keys, but as before, there’s plenty within the natural vocal style that lifts a great arrangement further still.

Another highlight is supplied by a new “Throwback Mix” of the 2019 digital single ‘Oblivion’ which makes a great feature of more trip hop beats, over which some understated organ sounds swirl, and a heavily reverbed 60s guitar twang adds a genuine sense of atmosphere. It sounds like something that would play very naturally over the end credits of a film. It’s almost Bond-like, without sounding like a front end Bond theme – if that makes sense – since swelling strings have a grandiosity that’s magical. Eventually, with a few guitar effects hinting at Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’, its becomes almost timeless in its own retro way. Also worth an ear, ‘Ocean’ presents some pleasingly light pop-funk, but stands out thanks to a twist towards the end, when a few new wave keys sound as if they’ve been dropped in from an old Yazoo record. In some ways, it’s one of the album’s less immediate tracks, but there’s a real coolness in the way swirling notes lend a sense of space and the rolling of the tide, again conveying a mood that’s clearly been inspired by film scores. That alone makes it great in its own way; it might even take a few listeners off into the more obscure corners of Shakked’s brilliant back catalogue.

In some ways, this is Shakked’s smoothest recording to date. There’s a bigger all round concession to pop, but those who found time to enjoy ‘Know Nothing’ – and by turns, some of Shakked’s earlier releases – will still find plenty to love within ‘Throwback’. It’s got a timeless pop heart, and a great production sound, which steered by the varied talents of a man who obviously knows he can turn his hand to most things with ease, results in a very rewarding listen.

August 2022