The Cryan’ Shames “A Scratch in the Sky”

Every now and then something unexpected hits you in a way that leaves a deep and  lasting impression. For me, one of those occasions came with Chicago garage band The Cryan’ Shames’ recording of the old Drifters hit “Up On the Roof,” off their incomprehensibly under-appreciated psychedelic classic A Scratch In the Sky. Granted, “Up On the Roof” itself has been overplayed to the point of nausea since it first made the scene back in 1963, but the Shames take the old Tin Pan Alley standard and turn it into a soaring, tightly woven piece of teenage magic that does not waste a second out of its three minutes and twenty four seconds. It’s the sound of youthful rebellion and romantic angst woven into a thing of panoramic beauty.

As a matter of fact, I reckon that the record that this song is buried in is itself well-defined by the above platitudes. A Scratch In the Sky is one of those rare records laid down at the height of the sixties which manage to pull in the best qualities of the band’s many influences and turn back out something wholly unto its own. The cosmic harmonies of the Beach Boys, the jangling spirit of The Byrds, the rollicking pop of The Beatles; these are all commonly borrowed sounds, but rarely ones so expertly disassembled and recast as we hear on this record. Though this collection of songs remains well-polished through studio-craft and the musicians’ own abilities, it retains a freshness and noncommercial edge that makes it both an accessible and adventurous listen.

The second track, “Sailing Ship,” is a good example of what I mean by all this. There are all sorts of influences detectable here, but nothing absolute. I never fail to be impressed by the thundering drums, jagged guitar chords and droning bagpipes here, all of which make the song sound strangely ahead of its time, or at least out of its own time. In true Sgt. Pepper fashion, the band clearly strove to make each song stand out as a distinct work of art, rather than sounding like something they had simply worked up on the road. The arrangements are ornate and layered with lysergic sounds and tape tricks, and besides the previously mentioned bagpipes the band manages to bring in accordion, harpsichord, tamboura, french horn, and…french lyrics (on “In the Cafe,” of course). If there’s any song reminiscent of the band’s work on their previous record, Sugar and Spice it’s the hard grooving “Mr. Unreliable,” which retains a lot of the garage band attitude and sweet harmonic edge that painted earlier jewels like “Ben Franklin’s Almanac”.

I’m rather blown away to find that the 2002 Sundazed reissue of this record has already dipped back out of print, leaving it perhaps the hardest of the Shames discs to track down. Should the following tracks catch you like they caught me, however, you shouldn’t have to fork over too much for a vinyl copy. It seems strange that so many new reissues end up becoming more obscure and desirable than vintage releases of the same recordings, but I suppose that’s the way it goes.

mp3: The Sailing Ship
mp3: I Was Lonely When

:) Original | 1967 | Columbia | ebay ]
:D Reissue | 2002 | Sundazed | amazon ]

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  • rkwasman

    i literally just put the song “the sailing ship” up on my facebook,less than 10 minutes ago. amazing stuff.

  • Great record. First time I heard it I was almost unimpressed but when I paid proper attention… it suddenly appeared!

    VERY underrated.

    Anyone knows if the rest of their albums are this good? As far as I know there are only two or three more.

    Thanks a million!

  • Fantastic little record by a fantastic little band. Awesome review as always, Nik!

  • Max Maxwell

    I bought this record when it came out. Loved the Shames- saw them live several times. Everyone in Chicago thought they were destined for much greater fame and fortune, but it was not to be. Some really nice songs on this record.

  • Len Liechti

    “Sailing Ship” is great stuff, classic early US psych. Eric Burdon also used a bagpiper on “Sky Pilot” around the same time – if it was the same guy and he was a session player, I’d say he had that niche in the bag (sorry). Sundazed looks to have reissued all the Shames’s original albums around 2002 but they’re all out of print again now and garnering silly prices pre-loved on Amazon. Crying shame (sorry again).

  • Tom Eckels

    A Scratch In The Sky was the 2nd of 3 albums. They had a number of what I guess you could call regional hits, starting with Sugar and Spice. Being in West Michigan anything that was a hit in Chicago was usually a hit here too. Never got to see them live in their heyday, but was a big fan. They had charting hits off this album of, Up On The Roof and It Could Be We’re in Love. Although this was pretty much the last “pop” album I bought back then (Next album I bought was Country Joe and the Fish – Electric Music for the Mind and Body… goin’ back after that…..) I still dearly love this record today and play it occasionally just to revel in those amazing harmonies. Those were definitely good times for music.

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