When Th' Legendary Shack*Shakers debuted on Bloodshot Records in 2003 with Cockadoodledon't, perfervid frontman J.D. Wilkes openly expressed disdain for alt-country and its musical carpetbaggers. Unsurprisingly, the Shack*Shakers' stay at Bloodshot, which popularized that sound, didn't last beyond Cockadoodledon't. Wilkes—a native Kentuckian—also wanted to explore different styles.
Wilkes' ideas have come to fruition on the aptly named Pandelirium—an album heavily influenced by gypsy, klezmer, and carnival music. Only three of the 12 songs ("Somethin' In The Water," "Thin The Herd," and "The Ballad Of Speedy Atkins") resemble anything close to alt-country. The rest sound like a film-noir carnival, full of sketchy characters and an almost palpable sense of unease. Wilkes can't recreate his electric stage presence on disc, but here he sounds like a lifelong carnie, completely at ease in this seedy underworld. Punk, gypsy, rockabilly, and noir Americana blend perfectly on the opening track, "Ichabod," a blazing song propelled by a breakneck drumbeat and a manic two-note bassline played on an upright by Mark Robertson.
The Shack*Shakers fire on all cylinders on Pandelirium's first half, particularly in the nihilistic "No Such Thing," but the carnival theme occasionally gets tiresome thereafter. They switch to full circus mode in "Monkey On The Doghouse," working Julius Fucík's "Entrance Of The Gladiators" (a.k.a. "that clown song") into the melodies as Wilkes beckons onlookers to kill a "wicked monkey." On the penultimate track, "Bible, Candle And Skull," he speaks of the "bastard son of the carnival strongman" against a strutting bassline and saloon piano.
The Shack*Shakers underline and punctuate almost every song on Pandelirium to emphasize their dissociation from the Bloodshot/No Depression scene—it's far more Gogol Bordello than Uncle Tupelo. Even though the Shack*Shakers have (mostly) emancipated themselves, they haven't quite mastered a sound to call their own.