Reviews: Shamir, Strand of Oaks, Lower

shamir
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opinions by SAMUEL TOLZMANN < @scatlint >

ShamirNorthtown

Pop music is teenaged Las Vegas singer-songwriter-producer Shamir Bailey’s oyster. His debut EP, Northtown, boasts five songs that sound like the work of the same utterly unique artistic voice without sounding much like one another, and which hearken back to very specific eras of America’s musical past without losing their grip on the here and now.

Early single “If It Wasn’t True” is a classy disco kiss-off; “I Know It’s A Good Thing” rides a repetitive, vampy piano phrase like the hollowed-out memory of an classic house song. The spastic electropop of “Sometimes A Man” could be a Shaking The Habitual outtake the Knife cut (get it?) for being too accessible. Slow-burning showstopper “I’ll Never Be Able To Love” is a ragged, gospel-indebted paean to heartbreak over minimal beats and low keyboard tones that couldn’t have been combined in any other year than 2014. But the star of the show is Shamir himself, not his compositions. His androgynous, angelic pleat has a rich, sepia-toned graininess to it that belies his youth. Coupled with his unostentatious technical command, Shamir’s voice is the rare and fortunate kind who reference points–all equally extraordinary and unlikely–necessarily tell you more about the effect it has than what it actually sounds like: formidable jazz greats like Holiday and Simone, contemporary art-pop sprites like Björk and Antony Hegarty.

The EP’s closing track is a cover of country singer Lindi Ortega’s “Lived And Died Alone.” It’s a 2013 song that could have been written at any point in the last hundred years, and as Shamir sings it, you can hear the ghost of Nancy Sinatra clawing for a chance to do her own version. On record, Shamir refuses to be tethered by gender or time period, and consequently the nineteen-year-old’s limited output already feels timeless and singular. B+

Strand Of OaksHEAL

Timothy Showalter’s work as Strand Of Oaks is consistently classified as “folk-rock” (or, oh no, “alt-country”), and that’s not inaccurate per se – it’s just a very limiting way to describe Strand Of Oaks. The slept-on 2010 LP Pope Killdragon was a slept-on masterpiece that owed as much to doom metal and medieval-fantasy literature as it did to Hank Williams or ‘90s indie rock, and its centerpiece was one of this century’s great mourning songs – only, it mourned for John Belushi and was sung from Dan Ackroyd’s perspective, and Showalter lacquered over his own guitars with amber-glowing synthesizers. 2012’s Dark Shores was a guitar-led album that hewed closer to Strand Of Oaks’ debut Leave Ruin, but fourth album Heal takes the singer-songwriter’s brainiest, most left-field impulses to even further extremes: opener “Goshen ’97” is an absolute bulldozer of a rocker tricked out with the trademark six-string snarl of guest guitarist J. Mascis, and it’s succeeded by the title track, an urgently pulsating slice of gothic synth-pop that has basically nothing whatsoever to do with anything you might attempt to call “folk-rock.” The rest of Heal only takes us further down the rabbit-hole, culminating with the bruising quasi-metal theatrics of “Mirage Year” and the skyscraping, piano-led “Wait For Love,” a closer worthy of M83.

Throughout, Showalter comes over like a visionary risk-taker with nothing to lose, not to mention like a consummate frontman. Over his unlikely arrangements, his ragged vocals, literary lyrics, and swaggering performance put him in a rarefied class with the likes of Matthew Houck and Josh Tillman. Even there, Showalter has an edge with his combination of deep respect for the American country music tradition and his complete lack of respect for that tradition’s conventional boundaries. The ultimate effect is his concern, so if a rollicking Appalachia-set narrative ballad’s going to hit more powerfully streaked with fluorescent new wave keyboard hooks, so be it. Purists be warned; everyone else, enjoy the show. B+ 

LowerSeek Warmer Climes

What were Iceage doing calling their band that, anyway, if not to herald the incipient sea change? In the global/online pop-cultural consciousness, Copenhagen, Denmark has transformed from Scandi-pop satellite and death metal tour circuit pit stop to raging punk hotbed, and Iceage’s New Brigade was the call-to-arms that made us all stand to attention. Like their peers in that band, Copenhagen quarter Lower are quite young (all members are in their early twenties), and also like that band, Lower have the great twin cultural advantages of retrospect and impeccable taste. Not content to merely make a racket or pay homage, Lower’s brand of blasted post-hardcore punk has shades of U.K. post-punk’s industrial austerity, ‘80s NYC no wave’s perverse love of negation, and black metal’s rapid-fire bludgeoning technique.

Unfortunately, debut full-length for Matador Seek Warmer Climes has trouble synthesizing these influences into a potent whole. The record’s extremes are ominous dirges and no-holds-barred spurts of pure aggression, and these points don’t have much in common with each other or converse in a particularly interesting way; not surprisingly, Lower’s first release, the EP Walk On Heads, stuck to frenetic cacophony and is a more compelling and cohesive collection. Seek Warm Climes is certainly more coherent, though, with Adrian Toubro’s fine lyrics seizing the center spotlight. Hooky, lyrics-first cuts like “Lose Weight, Perfect Skin,” and “Soft Option” with its armrest-grabbing build-and-release, offer the best glimpse of how Lower could simultaneously streamline and complicate their music on future releases. The upside, though, is that Lower are equally good at every strain of brittle, angry rock music they try their hand at on Seek Warmer Climes, so although it exhibits significant growing pains, it still makes for an exciting and entertaining spin. B-

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