Don't Ask Don't Tell

After releasing rather few new albums in the past decade, Michelle Shocked currently has out not one, not two, but three new albums. Don't Ask Don't Tell is ostensibly the rock 'n' roll CD. There's also one called Got No Strings, which is comprised of Western swing covers of Disney songs, and Mexican Standoff is a Latin and blues excursion.

She can make such an unconventional move--releasing three new albums at once--since she's her own record label as well as artist. She had a high-profile but troubled run being signed to Mercury Records in the late '80s and early '90s but soured on her major label experience, eventually leading her to put out an independent album titled Artists Make Lousy Slaves in 1996. So she formed her own Mighty Sound Records, and now calls her own shots.

This week, we're focusing on Don't Ask Don't Tell, which is, in Shocked's description, the "Santa Maria" of her "three musical vessels." It's an album rife with references to the recent breakup of her thirteen-year marriage.

"How You Play the Game" is quite the Bob Dylan-esque number, both in its inventive and droll wordplay and by Shocked's execution. "Soldiers play the game but they call it war," she sings. "Masochists play the game, they come back for more."

There are two half title cuts, one called "Don't Ask" and the other, "Don't Tell." "Don't Ask" is an allegory about turning into a rabbit and subsequent encounters with other animals, mostly spoken of a sultry, bluesy backing track. Meanwhile, "Don't Tell" is a New Orleans-tinged track, a story about an unwelcome party guest who ruins the party and nearly the host as well.

The album's tracklisting ends with a the cabaret-flavored "Goodbye," in which she refers to her divorce. "My dearly departed heart lies in an unmarked grave," Shocked sing theatrically, and concludes, "Scatter ashes on the sea, sing 'A Closer Walk With Thee'/All is well, safely rest, goodbye," before introducing the band and urging listeners to tip their waitress.

Although the last song on the album's tracklisting is called "Goodbye," as I mentioned, the album does conclude with an unlisted encore, a terrific slide-guitar workout called "Hi Skool." It's a scathing look back at teenage life with lines like "The values were ridiculous/It was survival of the prettiest" and the grimly sardonic declaration, "I've seen more compassion in a butcher shop."

Shocked's starting point for writing these songs may have been some personal pain, and some of the album reflects this emotional tumult. But though confessional at times, it's a surprisingly upbeat, or at least playful, album. Don't Ask Don't Tell is a fine return to form for a tremendously talented artist.

Mike Sauter, WYEP Music Director