CME Session - Amanda Shires Live at Chicago Music Exchange

We’ve all seen the movies. The characters stand abreast, facing down an unending road. They turn to one another and exchange a meaningful look. One laughs and soon they all share a hard-earned laugh as music fades in and they walk off into the sunset, the life they knew coming to an end as the dialogue becomes almost inaudible and the sun’s light wanes, giving way to darkness and a new, uncertain beginning.

Amanda Shires’ sunset is different, and uncertainty has no place in it.

She recently joined us in our Lincoln Ave. studio to show us why her new album, To The Sunset, is not an ending or a beginning, but rather the next phase of a career in flux, and a decisive step forward toward a bright and certain horizon.

Shires’ roots in country music and Americana run deep. She picked up her first fiddle in a pawn shop in Texas at age 10. By 15 she was playing with the Texas Playboys, and later John Prine, Shovels & Rope, Justin Townes Earle, Billy Joe Shaver, and her husband Jason Isbell.

To The Sunset shows an emboldened Shires looking to step out from behind her country roots and define her own sound, no longer strictly country, and ditch her image as a side-woman. It’s a gamble so successful that she ultimately sheds it, or perhaps more accurately, shreds it altogether.

The album begins in reverse, opening with “Parking Lot Pirouette.” Distorted bleeps and blips swell and pan. Then it hits. The bass is heavy. The drums are dry. There’s synth. The vibe is more barroom than barn dance and remains so throughout the record. Shires’ Dolly Parton-esque delivery is dipped in whiskey, doubled, delayed, overdriven and wreathed in reverb. Electric piano is very up in the mix and Shires has producer Dave Cobb make her violin “sound like it's in an aquarium, but more bright.”

The effect is emotional. The sound is swirling and swings from dark to light and back again, a wholly electrified thing that is unlike her previous work and closely akin to the alt-country of her husband’s 400 Unit and cult favorites Songs: Ohia, a similarity Shires makes all the more poignant by including one of their songs in her session with us.

“Just Be Simple” is a track from Songs: Ohia’s 2003 masterpiece, Magnolia Electric Company, recorded with Steve Albini at Electrical Audio, right here in Chicago Illinois. Written by the late Jason Molina, the song is as subtle as it is affecting and complex, a hallmark of his work. It features a narrator thinking about the way back and wondering, if after a while, it will all just disappear, and would it even matter if it does?

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