Michelle Shocked was recorded in 1986 around a campfire in Kerrville, Texas. The occasion was the Kerrville Folk Festival, and the recording device was a Sony Walkman. Despite the lackluster equipment, Shocked's spiky, playful personality comes through in spades here, as does the astonishing assuredness of her singing. Though she sounds girlish here--and looks about fifteen years old on the cover--there is a maturity and depth to the songs and the phrasing that announce the presence of a mature musician.
Pete Lawrence, the man who recorded the songs, gets Shocked to explain some of the inspiration for the songs in between tunes, but for the most part you hear only Shocked, her guitar, and the crickets in the background. The effect is both immediate and intimate. "5:00 AM in Amsterdam" opens with Shocked sounding like an incredibly youthful Joan Baez or Joni Mitchell, but with a wry and boyish twist. On "Who Cares," there are little flashes of Billie Holiday, believe it or not, and a jut-jawed attitude of defiance that comes across loud and clear despite the primitive recording. "Down on Thomas St." is a brisk and frisky tune and "Fogtown" (about San Francisco, of course!) has a melancholy longing to it. Shocked is a master at conveying unspoken longing and mood without spelling everything out for her listeners. She's also got a great gift for getting your attention right off the bat, as she does with the opening lyrics to "Necktie":
There was a naked man standing in an alley
And he weren't wearing no clothes . . .
Fans of Shocked's later albums will recognize the Elvis-flavored tune "(Don't You Mess Around with) My Little Sister" and "The Secret to a Long Life (is Knowing When It's Time to Go)." Less successful is "The Incomplete Image," a spoken-word piece interspersed with propulsive guitar work. Overall, though, especially given the inauspicious circumstances under which the album was recorded, this is a terrific album hinting at the maturity and brilliance Shocked would display on later albums.