The Shondes, Searchlights
September 20th, 2011
Artist: The Shondes
Label: Exotic Fever Records
Release Date: Tuesday, 2011.9.20
So it’s only fair that I confess up front that I’m an unapologetic fan of the Shondes, not only as a band, but as people. I’m on record as saying that they’re one of the most interesting bands working today, and I hear nothing in their 3rd album to dissuade me from that stance. The album, called Searchlights and out today on Exotic Fever Records, is a brief, but wide-ranging album of solid rock music. While longtime fans will no doubt hear the raw power and exotic influences they expect, they’ll also hear a lot more polish and maturity in this album than in previous efforts.
One instantly notable improvement from the previous two albums is production value. Whereas as Red Sea occasionally felt thin and My Dear One was muted and muffled, Searchlights feels bright and raw, a sound much more befitting bouncy, energetic rock music. The only possible exception to this rule is the otherwise excellent tune “The Fortress”, which sounds flat and grainy. This is a real pity, because it’s a fantastic, hard-driving, lilting tune with a fantastically prog rock sound.
Another pleasant surprise is that the album is much more stylistically broad than some of the earlier albums. Contrast the gutsy, wailing, almost Prog-Rock-y “The Fortress” with the subsequent “All This Weight”, which is evocative of Police-era Sting. Or consider the poppy, but world-weary “Coney Island Tonight” with the archtypical Shondes tune “Give Me What You’ve Got”.
Instrumentally speaking, the band is in top form. Of particular note were Fureigh’s guitar work all across the album. It’s so rare to find a guitarist with enough style, personality, and guts to carry off syncopated, exposed melodies with no rhythm guitar to back them up. And yet on almost every song, the guitar lines add hugely to the style and melody of the tune. Probably the best example of this are the clean, stylish fills and choppy hooks during the verses of “Ocean to Ocean”.
I’m continually amazed how solid the Shondes manage to sound in all of their instrumentation. Replacing the rhythm guitar with a violin means that, not only is it harder for everyone to hide, but there’s one more melody line out there in the open. I strongly suspect that, for a lesser band, the result would be a caterwauling mess. For The Shondes, however, the result is simply layers of well-crafted melodies and counter-melodies, all supported by Temim Fruchter’s rock-solid drumming.
There are some real gems on this album. The title track is staggering. Louisa Solomon’s vocals are expressive, the melodies through the pre-chorus and chorus are haunting and perfectly syncopated. Elijah Oberman’s violin lines give the whole song a haunting quality, as well as serving as an engaging counter-melody.
The album closer, “Bright Again”, also bears special mention. It’s rare to hear so personal a song that doesn’t come off as saccharine or lame. It’s a tender, beautiful song of perseverance, at the end of an album full of images of rebellious strength and impenetrable, almost petulant resolve. Its lush harmonies and simple melody are a striking counterpoint to the frenetic composition and layered counter-melodies of the previous songs. Its message of hope strikes a wonderfully fragile note to close out the album. Truly a stunning song and a perfect close to an awesome album.
All of this musical hagiography isn’t to say that the album is flawless, though. The single from the album, “Ocean to Ocean”, comes across as a bit self-indulgent and, while it’s probably very cathartic for the band to perform, I find it hard to relate to. It’s also, musically, one of the weaker songs on the album. (This probably praising with faint damns, though, considering just how solid the rest of the album is.) The slick, boppy guitar lines and beautiful, sweeping vocal lines feel wasted on a poor concept and uninspired lyrics.
I have more tepid objections to “Coney Island Tonight”. The songs reads like a well-crafted, “woe-is-me, woe-is-the-world” tune, but the chorus, in which all is absolved by a trip to Coney Island, feels anticlimactic and hollow. Again, this might be simply an issue of my own inability to relate. I have never, flawed creature that I am, been to Coney Island.
Searchlights feels to me like an innovative band finally coming into their own. They’ve done one album to establish what’s unique in their style (The Red Sea), they’ve done a second album to exercise their demons (My Dear One), and now they’ve released an album that shows the full breadth and depth of which they’re capable. I highly recommend Searchlights. If you’re a fan of the Shondes already, you’ll hear tons of the raw power and musical intricacy you love, as well as better composition and a broader style, all served by much better production and mixing. If you’ve never heard of the Shondes before, then this is a great, accessible place to start. It’s a great album, and it’s well worth your time and money.