Two archetypes of SUV-driving boomers give Pittsburgh its distinctively aged, smoked-beef flavor: the suburban office drone with three rugrats and a beer gut who lives for the Stillers, and the more sophisticated art-fancier who listens to WYEP, dines in Shadyside and shops at Whole Foods. If three representatives of the second group were to form a band that could still interest the first, I’d imagine it sounding like The Shanks.
The Shanks are a “supergroup” in the sense that all members have moved and shaken the regional art/music community for quite a while. Bassist Sara Radelet is the executive director of the New Hazlett Theater (after many years working for the Mattress Factory), while guitarist and singer Charlie Humphrey heads the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts and Pittsburgh Filmmakers. Résumés aside, The Shanks were originally supposed to be a temporary ensemble, issuing The Sabbatical Files EP in 2002, and playing a couple of benefit gigs. But half a decade later, they’re still going, which proves that even very busy people can be tenaciously creative.
The band’s output can be characterized as jangly, mid-tempo triple-A rock with nods to R.E.M. and Neil Young in the songwriting. Humphrey’s style veers from the declamatory mode of Lou Reed on “Back to Scratch” to the drone of Michael Stipe on “Obvious(ly)” to the raspy, radio-ready whine of a Tom Petty or Warren Zevon on other tracks. The production is meticulous and top-notch, no doubt thanks to third Shank Rick Witkowski (formerly of Crack the Sky) who churns out lead guitar lines and meaty overdubs to flesh out Humphrey’s skeletal structures.
Yet the best song in this collection is the anthem with darker, distorted guitar, “Let’s Fight,” to which I could see some shades-wearing, receding-hairlined 50ish dude singing along, driving home from a Lucinda Williams concert at the Byham.