It’s unusual – and unexpected – to receive a CD with an accompanying press sheet describing that album as the artist’s final release. But that’s the case with Southern Fables, the fifth album from Memphis-based group The Shoe Birds. The band’s lead vocalist Norman Adcox passed away unexpectedly days after the sessions were completed. But Adcox’s final years had been creatively fruitful ones, co-writing songs with band co-founder Scott Coopwood.
As it happens, though, the music on Southern Fables doesn’t have its roots in Adcox’s last couple of years. Instead, the album (I’d characterize the seven-song collection as an EP, but let’s not quibble) features songs the group started work on in 1985. The finished album is a mix of old tapes and more recent overdubs, all completed before Adcox’s passing. But listening to the songs, there’s very little about them that suggests vintage recordings. There’s a vaguely college-rock character to songs like “Straight Line,” but the songwriting and arrangement is reminiscent of Gin Blossoms.
“Straight Line” is a bit short on lyrics, but its melody is compelling. “Bring it Home” has a loose and friendly campfire vibe that emphasizes its heartfelt character. “Change” is subtle and catchy with some lovely, relaxed vocal harmonies. “Looking at You” has a vaguely R.E.M. feel. The sonics of “Mr. Peterson” suggest its origins as a demo, but its chiming guitar and atmospheric arrangement add up to the disc’s best track. And a guitar solo – something that doesn’t always figure prominently in Shoe Birds tracks – is quite welcome.
In contrast to the homespun quality of some of the tracks on Southern Fables, the closing track “The Storm” is a completely new recording. Based on a lo-fi recording the group made decades ago, I’s a stirring tune with forlorn fiddles, crystalline guitar and a yearning lead vocal from Adcox. And it’s a lovely way to cap off an album … and, as fate would have it, a career.