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Albums Of The Week: Painted Shield | Painted Shield

PJ guitarist Gossard colours outside the lines with his eclectic new side project.


THE EDITED PRESS RELEASE: “Sometimes an album by a new band gets everything right. Such is the case with Painted Shield and their eponymous debut release: Rather than sounding like a tentative identikit of musical styles, it’s a brilliantly conceived, bold and cohesive portrait of its creators — chiefly Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard, singer-songwriter Mason Jennings and drumming star Matt Chamberlain — and a clear-eyed statement of purpose.

Driven by pulse-racing electronic and live drums, bursting with gritty and sometimes psychotic guitars that weave in and out of luxurious keyboard soundscapes, and brimming with glorious melodies that fill the senses and hang on tight, everything about the album — a genre-bending mix of roots-rock, electronica and contemporary folk-pop — feels so effortlessly assured. Pre-destined even. Surprisingly, this wasn’t the case at all.

“I love making music, and I especially love collaborating with other musicians,” says Gossard. “For me personally, this collaboration started very innocently, so I was able to go into it without any expectations other than ‘I wonder what this could sound like?’ But that’s the fun part, when you experience synchronicity between the music and the people you’re involved with. A song can become like a painting or a piece of sculpture. Little by little, as you work on it, a song reveals itself and becomes what it is, and that’s what we have now.”

The origins of Painted Shield go back six or seven years ago, when Gossard began working with Chamberlain on a series of instrumental demos. Chamberlain, a powerhouse drummer whose credits read like a who’s who of the music industry (everyone from Bob Dylan and Peter Gabriel to Fiona Apple and Elton John), had played with Pearl Jam for a brief time in the early ‘90s. “He’s beyond great,” says Gossard, “and obviously there was a big comfort level between us already. Beyond Matt’s unbelievable drumming, he’s also a really strong writer and arranger.”

Jennings, however, was something of a wild card. Gossard had never met the folk/indie rock star and was only vaguely aware of his musical output, but after Jennings’ manager floated the idea of a possible collaboration, the guitarist was intrigued. “It was almost whimsical — ‘Let’s see what could happen,’ ” Gossard recalls. “I sent Mason a couple of songs, and I was really pleased with what he did with them. We started out with these instrumental tracks that came from one perspective, but Mason had a whole different take on them. It was cool.”

For Jennings, the opportunity to step completely outside his wheelhouse was an artistic challenge he relished. “I’ve been a huge fan of both Stone and Matt for years,” he says. “I listen to a lot of electronic and heavy rock music, but most of what I do is my voice and an acoustic guitar. I was excited by the idea of bringing that intimate side of what I do to this mega sound they were creating. It would kind of widen the scope, though it took some trial and error.”

After recording a few songs — one of which, the strutting and sexy rock rave-up Knife Fight, was issued as a vinyl single on Pearl Jam’s Ten Club — the three-way collaboration went dormant for a few years. But as Gossard says, “Eventually, we reconnected and started bouncing songs back and forth again. As we got better about finishing things, we picked up steam and then the project took on a life of its own.”

A pair of songs — the beautifully hypnotic album opener Orphan Ghost and the surrealistic psych-rock anthem I Am Your Country – began as Chamberlain compositions before Gossard and Jennings had their way with them. “I remember listening to them over and over and becoming lost in them,” Jennings says. “It was amazing to hear my voice on music that’s so radically different from my own stuff. I found that I could write words in a whole new way. In the case of I Am Your Country, I started with lyrics which I was talking to my kids, but then it morphed into a song more about the state of the world and COVID. The whole thing was very cathartic.”

Similarly, Jennings weaves environmental concerns into Time Machine — a bracingly rude slice of stoner rock infused with rousing choir backgrounds — but he also seizes on poignant periods from his own life, the pain of a first failed marriage mixed with the joys of a new union with the woman he recently married. “It’s an age-old thing: I wish I knew then what I know now,” he says. “I’m asking why I couldn’t have met this person back then instead of having to go through so much hardship?”

The answer to that question arrives in the swaggering, infectiously optimistic classic rock gem On the Level (which includes bass by Jeff Ament and a guitar solo by Mike McCready). Over a crackerjack rhythm bed and squawking, hellfire guitar lines, Jennings explores the idea that all things are for a reason. “So things didn’t turn out the way I planned,” he says. “That doesn’t mean the game is over. The future can still be bright — in fact, better than I once thought.”

Guitar-wise, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Gossard brings his A game throughout, but he’s quick to award special props to Mike McCready for the wild, off-the-grid slide and wah-wah guitar he contributes to the furious percolator Evil Winds. “That’s some pretty amazing playing by Mike, so all credit goes to him.”

And on the spacey and bruising corker Ten Years From Now, Gossard tips his hat to another guitar star by channeling the spirit of the late T. Rex legend Marc Bolan. “He’s always sort of floating around me, and I kind of keep going back to his style of playing on certain songs,” Gossard explains. “I also love Matt’s playing on this track — the Ringo Starr dryness of the drums.” Chamberlain is paired with bassist Lonnie Marshall, leader of the band Weapon of Choice. “Lonnie is one of the giants of the L.A funk scene. He’s got crazy grooves,” says Gossard. Of Jennings’ work on Ten Years From Now, Gossard describes it as “a groundbreaker. He proved how he can really sing the blues, but the song isn’t mournful. It’s filled with the complexities of life, but there’s also hope as long as we don’t cling to nihilism.”

The album’s sweeping title track is epic stuff — big-hearted, pastoral, sunny and warm, with widescreen hooks at every turn – that recalls the transporting majesty of George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass. “That was one we had a lot of fun with while mixing,” says Gossard. “We were pretty irreverent — anything could be put in or taken out. It was a real joy to put together.” Describing how the band arrived at its moniker, the guitarist says that the song came first. “Mason and I talked a lot about the lyrics and how personalities are based on protecting ourselves from times we don’t even remember. In a sense, we create masks — painted shields — and they can be whatever we want at any given time.”

And with Raven, Painted Shield sends listeners off righteously. “We’ve come so far, don’t let your heart be haunted by the past,” Jennings sings, his earnest voice filled with firm resolve. And the music rises to meet him – a wonderous, cavernous wall of sound that gives way to blitzing guitars that ultimately carry him away.

Gossard sings the praises of his Painted Shield bandmates (“With Matt and Mason, this is what collaboration is supposed to be”), but he also stresses the importance of other friends and artists who contributed to the album, chief among them keyboardist/singer Brittany Davis and mixer John Congleton. “Brittany Davis is a Seattle singer-songwriter and force to be reckoned with,” says Gossard. “Her voice and incredible keyboard playing is foundational to Painted Shield’s sound. She would play some wicked parts that really opened songs up, like on the outro to Ten Years From Now, she did a whole outro on the B3. Plus, hearing her sing with Mason was really special. And John is a brilliant mixer and musician. His interpretation of the songs and the way he built dynamics really floored everybody. With people like that, it’s easy to say, ‘OK, here’s the song. It’s yours to mess around with.’ That’s where the magic is.” Other artists featured on Painted Shield include drummer Josh Freese, singer Om Johari and guitarist Jeff Fielder.”