On July 21, after a hiatus of almost two decades, The Cucumbers — part of the Hoboken alt-rock scene of the ’80s and ’90s — will release a new acoustic album titled Old Shoes on their own Life Force Records label. The first single, though — the album’s title track (see video below) — was released yesterday.
Old Shoes is worth the nearly 20-year wait, delivering well-crafted, catchy songs that reveal maturity and wisdom. Some of the tracks are moodier than what I am used to from this band, but that’s not surprising given that these songs were developed during the pandemic.
“The album is hand-made and homey … a blend of garage rock and back porch strumming,” said group member Jon Fried in promotional material.
Fried and Deena Shoshkes, the energetic couple who co-founded the group and now live in Millburn, have been making music together since about 1977, when they met in college. Their last full album of original songs as The Cucumbers, All Things to You, was released in 2004, though they have had other projects since then, including The Desk Drawer Tapes in 2021 (featuring unreleased material from 1988 to 2005); “Love and Joy,” a holiday single (2019); “The Rent Party Theme Song” (2014); and Songs of the Spectrum, a 2010 album with songs by Fried, Shoshkes and lyricist John O’Neil (in addition to The Cucumbers’ contribution, songs were performed by Jackson Browne, Dar Williams, Marshall Crenshaw and others).
Shoshkes and Fried are also members of the band The Campfire Flies, creating stunning vocal harmonies with bandmates Matt Davis, Ed Seifert, and John and Toni Baumgartner.
Not only did Shoshkes and Fried pull together Old Shoes during the pandemic, but Shoshkes released several songs as a solo artist during that time, including “Dear Leader,” written in 2017 about then-President Trump and his dangerous antics; and a two-sided single featuring “Dance the Night Away” and “Thursday.”
Produced by Shoshkes, Old Shoes was recorded at Magic Door Studios in Montclair and The J Club in Millburn, mixed at Little Life in New York and mastered at Storybook Sound in Maplewood. The songs were written and arranged by Shoshkes (guitar and vocals) and Fried (banjo and vocals); they were joined by their son Jamie Fried on drums and Rick Wagner on bass. “The songs on Old Shoes were written over the past five years, during and before the pandemic,” said Shoshkes, with one song, “Mr. Moon” “kicking around a few years longer.”
The pandemic “impacted the sound of these songs in a big way,” she said. “The songs which predated the pandemic, I’d been holding onto, trying to figure out how to produce and record them. They were some of my favorite songs and they hadn’t found their way into the world yet.
“The process of creating a band during the pandemic seemed daunting. The Campfire Flies couldn’t gather, because with six band members, we couldn’t all be singing in a room together. Jon and I could play together, however. Playing together was a bright spot during the pandemic. The sound evolved out of playing our acoustic instruments with The Campfire Flies.”
She said that Fried, originally a guitar player, developed the banjo style heard in his playing on Old Shoes with The Campfire Flies.
During the pandemic, Shoshkes and Fried performed the album’s songs on livestreams and at outdoor concerts. Their son’s visit to study for med-school exams gave them an opportunity to add him to their band. He stepped in as the drummer.
The title song has a sparkly sound; it’s sweet and dreamy, with a poignant message about longevity in relationships. And it’s a bookend to The Cucumbers’ 1987 song “My Boyfriend,” said Shoshkes. That song (see video below) describes moments in the early days of her relationship with Fried when the irritation of his failure to wash dishes was soothed by his ability to make her laugh.
Shoshkes sings in “Old Shoes”:
Some people let go of things — I would never do any such thing
I hold on and so do you — a little bit worn, it may be true
We may not be beautiful, but we’re inseparable just like a pair of old shoes
I don’t mind if you take me for granted
In a certain way, it’s sort of romantic
“The song is about my relationship with Jon and the beauty of sticking it out,” said Shoshkes, adding “we’ve known each other since we were 18. I do believe that it is a great luxury and a powerful sense of security to be able to take someone for granted (as long as you can get their attention when you need it!). I knew the song was quite corny from the moment I wrote it, so I wasn’t sure about it. But more than once when we played it live, people would tell me they had tears in their eyes listening to it. So I kept playing it!”
“Gotta Start Somewhere” is an infectious, rocking tune that reminds me of Lucinda Williams’ energy. “It came from playing around in an alternate guitar tuning known as ‘drunk’ tuning,” said Shoshkes. “It’s mystical. Anywhere at all can be a point of entry. Anywhere is everywhere. Everything you do, of any size and dimension, at any point in your life can bring you to the spark, the love, the joy, the meaning.”
She sings: “Take me back to the days and the nights we had all February/Time on our hands and nothing much better to do/You’ve gotta start somewhere/And anywhere is everywhere.”
“Blue Guitar” grabbed me with its ’60s pop sound. And it’s oddly romantic when Shoshkes sings that “everything goes shimmering, dreaming of the night with you.”
It is “about the feeling I get when I create a song,” Shoshkes said. “It’s through songwriting that I access my unconscious and live out my dreams and fantasies.”
Shoskes says she has songs floating around in her head all the time. “I like to write in my little studio where I have recording gear available to catch my ideas as they come out. Ideas come to me in all kinds of ways: in dreams, when I’m walking somewhere, when I’m addressing or thinking about a particular person. I love spontaneous combustion, when a song comes out whole and I don’t know how it happened. Just as much, I like to sit still and make myself open to what happens.
“I think of songwriting that way as a practice, like any other practice. It’s a way of accessing my unconscious and figuring out what’s on my mind. Sometimes I work from lyrics — my own, or some in collaboration with other writers. … Some songs are based on dream imagery.
“I believe that individual unconscious is connected to the collective unconscious and it’s fascinating to me when my very personal dreams lead me into a larger realm. My writing process is a combination of practice and inspiration. I try to set aside time to make myself available to inspiration. Meanwhile, whether it arrives or not, I am honing my skills: singing, playing guitar, recording experiments. Sometimes, after I’ve written a song that all along I felt was dreadful and uninspired, I find that I kind of like it, and vice versa.”
How are your current songs different from the songs you wrote in the ’80s?
“I write about my life,” she said. “Early on it was about moving in with my boyfriend and the feeling I had when I heard that my childhood friend was getting married. When I had kids, I wrote music for them. Now I’m writing about old shoes.”
Why did you put The Cucumbers on hiatus?
“Chiefly, Jon wanted to pursue his fiction writing with his creative time and I wanted to explore my collaborations with other musicians and also to find my own particular voice,” she said. “The Cucumbers was my first band and I needed to explore my own musical identity outside of it. The pandemic brought us back together. Jamie made it groove and Rick made it rock.”
The Cucumbers were booked at Maxwell’s in Hoboken for one of their first gigs, in January 1982, opening for The Individuals (fronted by Glenn Morrow). At the time, their rent in Hoboken was $175 a month. Hoboken gave them a tight social community at a musically exciting time, and their exposure at Maxwell’s gave them entry to venues on the Lower East Side, including CBGB.
“The 1980s in Hoboken was a very exciting time and a truly nurturing home base,” said Shoshkes. “There were so many great bands and musicians living there, or nearby, or who came to perform there. It was all concentrated in one square mile and connected to a moment in time that was happening nationally.
“Bands like REM and The Replacements came to play in Hoboken and then the Hoboken bands went on tour and played in Athens, Ga., and Minneapolis. It coincided with the birth of MTV, the popularity of college radio and the post-punk/indie-pop/new-wave sounds. We knew nearly all the other local bands, would run into them at parties and on the street regularly, share rehearsal spaces, ideas and music.
“Now there is a very rich, somewhat more dispersed scene. Many of my musician friends from those days are still in New Jersey but all over the state — some still in Hoboken, the Asbury Park area, Maplewood, Montclair and points north. They’ve kept music primary in their lives.”
Shoshkes said her current music community grew out of the Hoboken scene, with friends from those days living nearby. She co-founded The Saturday Afternoon Song Swap with singer-songwriter Rebecca Turner and connected with the Rent Party concert series that has presented shows in South Orange and Maplewood.
The internet has broadened her network. “David Graham reached out to me online and we began collaborating quite a few years ago,” she said. “Now I am collaborating with people in England, Norway, Sweden and Tennessee.”
Who has inspired Shoshkes over the years, I wondered.
“Most recently I met an amazing man, Frank Hamilton,” she said. “He was Jon’s first guitar teacher in L.A., now living in Atlanta, where he’s started a music school. He played with Woody Guthrie, toured with The Weavers, was one of the writers of ‘We Shall Overcome,’ carries forward the legacy of Pete Seeger and was co-founder of the famous Chicago Old Town School of Folk Music.
“He believes that teaching and sharing music creates community and that is how to change the world for the better. He’s as committed to unions, free speech and progressive ideals as ever. We spent a day with him trading songs and stories. I am full of admiration for him and how he’s lived his life. He was genuine in every way and gave off a glow of positivity and encouragement. He made me feel like what we were doing was the most wonderful thing one could possibly do.”
Shoshkes is thrilled to be back to her usual activities, including performing, and teaching piano. “Somehow I imagined we’d just pick up exactly where we’d left off” after the pandemic, she said. “But everything changes and we’re all three years older, even though it seems like time stood still.”
Shoshkes shows great appreciation for the musical bounty in New Jersey.
“One of the beauties of living among so many musicians is we are each other’s best audience,” she said. “At any of the best local shows you go to, the core audience is other musicians.
“There may no longer be a national scene or moment that we connect to, but I believe that what’s happening locally is where it’s at. We have to work at it and fan the flames, because it ebbs and flows.”
The Cucumbers will perform at Parkside Lounge in New York, July 16 at 6 p.m. (Shoshkes and Fried will be joined by Scott Anthony and Rebecca Turner, singing their songs and those Shoshkes wrote with Pete Cenedella). Also performing that evening: Girls on Grass, Erica Smith, Mike Fornatale, Charly Roth and The Pickups.
The Cucumbers will also perform at The Shillelagh Pub in West Orange, Aug. 18 at 7:30 p.m. The Anderson Council will also perform.
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