"I want to make myself go somewhere better and more aspiring. Or inspiring," reflects David Shouse, ringleader of Those Bastard Souls, who expertly pull off both lush folk-rock and glammy rave-ups. Shouse's mission takes him (and us) on a trek through lyrics that crack open along deep emotional fault lines -- baffled, yearning, brushing up against the grandiose: "The thicker the skin/ The slower the sin/ Is unwrapped to reveal/ All the trouble you're in."
Those lines come from "In the Wake of Your Flood," a song so fragile you don't want to breathe, which highlights Those Bastards Souls' 1999 CD, "Debt & Departure." Shouse regularly invokes themes of forgiveness, surrender and regret, so it's no wonder his songs often get tagged as "romantic." The guitarist/ vocalist is fine with that label, although he gets a little flustered trying to explain how exactly it applies.
"It was such a personal thing to write," he says of "Debt & Departure." "It was kind of a purging record -- redemption amongst trouble or personal evil, but there's always a light at the end of the tunnel. So there's a general romance with -- God, I almost said there's a general romance with myself." Shouse lets out a chuckle. "Well, maybe there is a sort of narcissistic bent to this, because I was not self-absorbed but more self-focused, without being so analytical that you end up chasing your tail."
The delicate grandeur of Those Bastard Souls' songs invites comparisons with the late Jeff Buckley's work -- and indeed the connection is even stronger, since Those Bastard Souls includes Michael Tighe, who was Buckley's guitarist. The band is something of a collection of indie bright lights: Shouse is the longtime leader of ragged, swampy rockers The Grifters; bassist Matt Fields comes from Chicago experimental-rock band Red Red Meat; violinist Joan Wasser and drummer Kevin March are ex-Dambuilders, with March also claiming a spot with Shudder To Think. Besides these five, Shouse estimates an additional eight to 10 people have played with the band at some point.
Last October when Those Bastard Souls came through town, it was just Shouse and Fields on the stage, offering an impressive show full of ease and charm. The Monday, Feb. 21, Sapphire date features a full band, though it won't be the CD's exact lineup. For Shouse, the rotating personnel isn't a problem; in fact, it makes for creative possibilities.
"I want to learn from the people I work with," he says. "If the song's going to be structurally and probably emotionally fixed to a certain extent, then these other people can help get the emotion propelled a little bit more." The result is a very shape-shifting sound, sometimes so dense you could stick your hand through and not reach the other side, and sometimes gently sparse.
The tag-team musical dynamism shows up in in the song "Telegram." The violin descends, the guitars flare up then pull back, while Shouse sings, "Outside a wind-blown apron/ Hangs from a spool of twine/ Just like the way you left it/ That day I couldn't change your mind."
Debt & Departure roots around in such poetic images of loss, and Shouse readily admits he's aiming for provocative, dark territory. "I've done this in the studio: I've had the songs written, and I have two sides of a chart, and I'll go, OK, this is the element that's beautiful. Now I need to counter it," he says slyly, "with something that's a little more insidious."