SHAWNDELL MARKS – Punk Ballads
The EP can also be streamed here.
Read another review: Shawndell Marks – Broken Dam
Shawndell Marks does not outwardly appear to be a torch bearer for angst-driven punk rock. Her new quarantine-inspired EP entitled Punk Ballads demonstrates that there are often cloaked drivers submerged within an artist’s ethos. Five of the six tracks (which are all covers) were simultaneously captured on film by director Jayson Moyer who recently returned to his home state of Wisconsin after living in Los Angeles and having some career success there. The locations are all in Sauk County, in places that normally witness what we would now term “mass gatherings” and which succeed in communicating the transfiguration of society as well as the musical interpretations.
You might think that reducing these punk and rock anthems to solitary piano ballad status might diminish their power. No chance. Marks is able to reach to drop anchor emotionally and here she goes deep.
Especially poignant is her rendition of the Clash’s “Police on My Back.” Marks transforms it into a mournful murder ballad, her vocal full of yearning. The song is utterly transformed betraying the treachery in the lyrics. It could hardly be more fitting in 2020. Moyer’s video production brings out the fear and the creepiness, visual blips and graininess as Marks sits at a piano in an abandoned school hallway.
The claustrophobic presentation of Black Flag’s “Nervous Breakdown,” shot in the tightly crowded confines of Baraboo’s Village Bookstore, is a jarring reflection of the widespread psychic breakdown that cast its pall over most of the year. The musical bed is barely recognizable, the choppy guitar riffs transposed to a nearly barrelhouse piano sequence, the lyrics drawn out for effect. This could be the gutsiest choice Marks made when selecting these songs.
Marks’ version of “I Want to Be Sedated” doesn’t impress quite as well but it’s an interesting entry nonetheless. Played on a distorted Fender Rhodes in the abandoned Al Ringling Theater, her rendition of this Ramones classic keeps the buoyancy intact making it more of a cover rather than a reinterpretation. Along the same lines, the Cure’s “Lovesong” is an obvious choice for Mark’s treatment, the lyrics invoking distance, loss and self-deprecation. Shot in a high school gymnasium, Marks is fittingly attired in formal dress, suitable for a scholastic social event. We know how badly those can turn out and what is a Cure song without emotional devastation?
The Buzzcocks’ “Why Can’t I Touch It” has been referred to as the grooviest of all punk songs; its funky beat, illusive lyrics and psychedelic flourishes melding punk with the sixties. Here it’s visually transformed into a ghost song complete with visual energy surges and apparitions. This may be Moyer’s most successful landscape and shooting it in the vast and creepy expanse of Sauk Prairie’s Freethinkers Hall is convincingly paranormal.
“Motorcycle” by Love and Rockets is the final song on the EP and doesn’t have an accompanying video. It’s a bit of an odd choice as the original is a rather unremarkable, repetitive drone but Marks probably zeroed in on the line “She’s not gonna let me down,” as in the exhilaration of riding can’t damage my psyche like people can. This allows her to convey the concept of emotional damage in keeping with the theme of Punk Ballads.
Musicians of all kinds are having a rough go of it in this pandemic as we all know. Some turn to concert livestreaming to keep some kind of direct interaction with an audience going. Some post the occasional video update. Still others choose to create using whatever means they can and many of those focus on the bleak isolation that we all are experiencing. This isolation can tamp down creativity as day-to-day life becomes drab and monotonous. Kudos to all artists who shine a light in the darkness, even if it’s a black mirror of sorts.