Alongside his formidable guitar-playing chops, Joe Satriani's recordings continue to sound fresh 18 albums in. This is largely due to an innate yet sophisticated songwriting prowess (verses, choruses, and bridges) rather than stacked tracks of technically proficient riffs and solos. Satriani possesses a gift for combining and recombining styles, dynamics, and various strains of lyricism from a nearly astonishing variety of genres. The "Satch" sound is iconic; this is due in large part to the fact that the guitarist continually seeks to reinvent himself. Each of his albums is a reaction to its predecessor, not an exercise in repetition.
Shapeshifting was co-produced by Satriani and Jim Scott (Tom Petty, Widespread Panic, Foo Fighters). His drummer is Kenny Aronoff, who played with him on the Chickenfoot and the Ultimate Hendrix Experience tours. Jane's Addiction bassist Chris Chaney is here, as is keyboardist Eric Caudieux, rounding out the core musicians. The title-track opener twins his guitar leads in the verse atop a funky bass line and popping snare and kick drum. In "Big Distortion," the melody line and bridge are so catchy harmonically you may find yourself humming it. Satriani can deliver a fine ballad, too, as evidenced by "All for Love," with its nods to Roy Buchanan's "The Messiah Will Come Again" in the bridge atop a processional bass-and-drum shuffle. As Caudieux's synths wash the backdrop with shades of gray, Satriani offers a superb, emotional solo that nearly sings. "Ali Farka, Dick Dale, An Alien, and Me" is almost self-explanatory. The guitarist goes for modal tunings and droning distortion; simultaneously, he channels the hard-edged surf plectrum picking of Dale's later years, combined with some wild knob twisting to give the jam a real space/alien feel. Bass and synth offer countering pulses, with the drums offering a Malian rhythm. "Teardrops" is a slow blues with Satriani's leads entwined in the bridge. The playing is slow and dreamy, dripping with emotion. Certain lines get repeated throughout as if the guitarist is trying to come to grips with their interior meanings. The choogling boogie "Perfect Dust" almost sounds like a ZZ Top instrumental until it reaches the bridge, where Tangerine Dream-esque synths create a diversion before boogie returns with call-and-response from the rhythm section. Guest Lisa Coleman's (Wendy & Lisa, Prince and the Revolution) lithe piano graces "Waiting," an atmospheric ballad with gorgeous interplay between pianist and guitarist; it's framed by organ, reverbed tom-toms, and a lilting bass line. "Here the Blue River" is deep, dubwise reggae with Satriani's rhythm playing holding down the beat with the rhythm section as he grinds out chords, riffs, and vamps to accompany his melody. Writer, director, and actor Christopher Guest (Nigel Tufnel from Spinal Tap) adds his acoustic mandolin to closer "Yesterday's Yesterday," a back-porch acoustic jam complete with multi-tracked whistling. While Satriani's large catalog boasts a remarkable level of quality and consistency, Shapeshifting stands out for its imagination, lyricism, and infectious musicality.