The Shondes, The Garden
September 16th, 2013
Artist: The Shondes
Album: The Garden
Label: Exotic Fever Records
Release Date: Tuesday, 2013.9.17
Verdict: Strongly Recommended
I have a deep appreciation for bands that clearly work to cultivate a unique sound. Those rare bands that develop a sound over time, discarding what doesn’t work for them, keeping what does, and gleaning the elusive sound that they want from the chaff of what didn’t work. I love hearing a band’s sound evolve under the selective pressure of their various musical experiments.
Those metaphors were tortured in the service of saying that The Shondes are one such band. Their first three albums all worked to refine a unique aesthetic, each playing with the band’s sound in different ways, keeping the lessons of prior albums and trying new tricks to see what else worked. From the raw, almost elemental Red Sea; to the hurt, angry My Dear One; to the life-affirming resolve of Searchlights, the Shondes have tried out several facets of their own brand of anthemic, outsider rock music.
Their new album, The Garden, feels like a studied fusion of these past experiments. The album takes the barely-contained chaos of Red Sea and blends it with the pathos of the following two albums. The result is a pleasant blend of progress and nostalgia. New listeners will get a good introduction to the band’s sound and existing fans are guaranteed to hear a lot of what they liked in the previous three albums, plus a few new tricks.
“Nights Like These”, in particular, feels like it could have been a b-side from Searchlights. It matches well thematically, but is just different enough the band’s last release that I could easily imagine it being a track that didn’t make it onto the previous record. The upbeat, soaring vocals, spacy guitar bridge and prominent violin hooks blend to form a catchy, fist-in-the-air life-affirming tune that would feel a little saccharine if it weren’t so damned catchy.
And that gets to something that is part of what makes the Shondes so effective as a band: they are willing to take risks. They typically ride very close to the line between drama and melodrama, but always manage to end up on the right side of it. Safety kills rock music just as surely as any other art, and I think that the Shonde’s willingness to risk a few eye rolls ultimately serves them well.
“On Your Side” is a another example where this risk tolerance pays huge dividends. The anthemic tune plays with glammy guitar solos and a particularly epic, stadium-rock key change. The end result feels a bit like the Shondes covering an unreleased Queen track. It’s a big, bold rock tune that manages to hook the listener with well-textured guitar and violin hooks and an irresistibly catchy chorus.
One music dork sidebar: the mixing and production value on the Garden is much better than on previous albums. I’ve harped on muddy or weak mixing on, I think, every review I’ve done of a Shondes record. This album, more than any of the previous ones, feels like a fair accounting of the music. The mix does a good job of drawing the listener’s ear to important changes and there’s a great deal of aural separation between the various parts. Music production is, at its best, completely invisible and that’s the case here.
This is a great record, serving both as a synthesis of the Shondes’ efforts up to this point, and as a next step in an ongoing evolution. If Red Sea is the chaotic, elemental distillate of the Shondes’ sound, then The Garden is the finished form that manages to be more powerful than its unrefined source material. I highly recommend this record to all comers. If you like creative, unique rock music, then The Garden is right up your alley.