Album Review: Tommy Shaw – Girls With Guns

Tommy Shaw Girls With Guns album artwork

About 10 years or so ago I saw Styx for the first time and walked away with a broad smile on my face.

Styx put on a great show, beyond expectations. I was familiar with a lot of their songs, realized they sang a few others I knew but did not know it was them and learned the great Tommy Shaw was their lead guitarist and sometimes singer.

Tommy Shaw? He’s been around for a while. How else do I know him?

Girls with guns!

Sadly, one of those eureka moments I’ve crossed over the years once I began diving into bands outside my radar, heard on radio but never fully embraced their catalog until later in life.

Back in the day, I had this strange, and thankfully short-lived, habit of buying albums if I liked a song, but rarely, if ever, bothered to listen to the whole album. I’d listen to the hit song I liked, maybe tried the following song which was never as good as the song I bought the album for and simply moved on to something else.

Girls With Guns from Tommy Shaw was one of those albums.

Tommy Shaw released his 10-track 48 minute debut solo album in October 1984, the same year he left Styx after expressing dissatisfaction with the direction of the band into more pop and soft rock compared to a harder rock edge Shaw preferred. Eventually, Shaw returned to Styx in 1995 and today continues a pretty hardy tour schedule with the band.

Shaw wrote or co-wrote all the songs on Girls With Guns while playing guitar and providing vocals. He brought along a number of musicians to help including drummer Steve Holley who played in Paul’s McCartney’s band Wings and keyboardist Peter Wood who worked with Pink Floyd as a touring and session member. “Girls With Guns” reached #6 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock Tracks chart and hit a high of #33 on the Billboard Hot 100. “Lonely School” the second single topped out at #60 on the Hot 100.

Tommy Shaw Girls With Guns cassette tape
If you look closely at the tape, you can see decades ago I listened to “Girls With Guns” then stopped.

Tommy Shaw Girls With Guns Album Review

I never listened to Girls With Guns in its entirety and likely got two songs into it on a few occasions before popping it out of the tape deck and slipping something else in. Therefore, I am truly hearing much of the album for the first time. So, let’s try a track by track breakdown and see how it goes:

1. Girls With Guns – The sole reason I bought the album. Great song, unfortunately the shortest of the lot. Just as it gets started it fades out.

2. Come In and Explain – A harder, edgier song. Comes in heavy after the quick paced melody of “Girls With Guns.” Shaw reaches deep on the vocal work and you can hear the Styx influence here but this works as a Tommy Shaw tune.

3. Lonely School – How come every ballad from the 80s sounds like it played on the closing credits of some 80s rom-com or teen gets heartbroken but wins the girl in the end movie? Yes, “Lonely School” is a ballad and sounds soooo 80s. Not even close to the greatness of “Crystal Ball” Shaw brought to Styx in 1976 when he joined the band. Reminds me a little of Paul Young’s “Every Time You Go Away” which came out a year later but “Lonely School” mostly sounds like every other ballad from that decade.

4. Heads Up – Starts off a little goofy (almost like TV show theme song) but gets right into the melody. Your basic soft rock song. Nice guitar solo to close it out.

5. Kiss Me Hello* – This could be a Styx song. Pretty theatric, lots of elements incorporated with piano, synth, some varying drum work and bit of an odd chorus. It sounds at times like a musical score then it and loses direction halfway through. It’s the longest song on the album with the extended version adding an extra two minutes.

6. Fading Away – This is not a great song. The final minute simply repeats the exact same chorus and music rhythm.

7. Little Girl World – This is a great song. Shaw in fine form melodically.

8. Outside in the Rain* – This song doesn’t work for me. Check out these insightful lyrics: “You can lead a horse to water/But you can’t make him drink.” Seriously, those are lyrics in the song. The extended version adds another minute and a half.

9. Free to Love You – Not a bad song. Pretty straight forward adult contemporary. Easy melody, lots of synth. Dang, long fade out.

10. The Race Is On – I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. I really don’t like the saxophone in pop or rock songs. Totally bugs me. This song starts out with a saxophone. But you know what? It’s actually not a bad song. Shaw gets a good grooving rhythm going on this one, the sax blows but overall it doesn’t suck. Seriously though, what’s with the long fade out?

*The CD and cassette versions of “Kiss Me Hello” and “Outside in the Rain” held extended cuts not on the vinyl version.

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Girls With Guns sounds like a grand departure from Styx and as a debut solo album from Tommy Shaw isn’t all that bad. But, it needed better production and I can’t see rock fans or even Styx fans from back in the day finding this album much to get excited about. Drop “Girls With Guns” and “Come In and Explain” you pretty much have a soft rock, adult contemporary album. Herein lies the problem: Girls With Guns opens with a classic pop rock song full of energy and great melody then it immediately hits some musical quick sand which explains why I didn’t get past the opening title track so many years ago. I have more patience and willingness to listen today but still found Girls With Guns knock it out of the park with the title track and mostly settle into mediocrity thereafter.

Overall, Shaw doesn’t rock out much on it, gives decent guitar solos but nothing head-banging. Not that Styx records head-banging music but whatever Shaw was trying to get away from by leaving Styx originally, Girls With Guns sounds like he went in the same direction, if not softer. Girls With Guns  also comes across somewhat dated nearly 40 years later thanks to that saxophone, the reliance on keyboards and the easy-going melodies – not Shaw’s fault of course – but if you want a Tommy Shaw fix, stick with Styx.

Grade: C

Tommy Shaw Girls With Guns Track List:

1. Girls With Guns
2. Come In and Explain
3. Lonely School
4. Heads Up
5. Kiss Me Hello
6. Fading Away
7. Little Girl World
8. Outside in the Rain
9. Free to Love You
10. The Race is On