Apr 282010

The Shondes, My Dear One

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Artist: The Shondes
Album: My Dear One
Label: Fanatic Records
Release Date: Tueday, 2010.5.4
Score: 9.5/10

I’ve often harped on the importance of Sophomore albums. They’re easily important as first and last albums, and perhaps even more so if the band wants to have any sort of longevity. So it’s my pleasure to say that the second album from The Shondes is good. Really damned good.

Loyal readers (there have to be at least a few of you) will remember that The Shondes released one of my favorite albums of 2008. That debut (Red Sea) was one of the most original and important albums of the year. It was also awesomely fun and rocked pretty damned hard.

Well, The Shondes’ sophomore effort is about to hit the market and, thanks to the good folks at Fanatic Records, I’m happy to report that I’ve gotten my hot little hands on a copy. And it’s flat-out awesome. It’s every bit as excellent as their first album.

The instrumentation and pacing of the new album are much as they were in the last one. Energetic, mid-tempo rock songs with a lyrical focus and plenty of tasty instrumental hooks. (For the record, the violin/guitar/bass/drums instrumentation works far better than I would ever have imagined.)

The Shondes themselves claim that it’s a break up album. But I genuinely think it’s more than that. I think it speaks to a deeper, more visceral human experience. While most of the songs are framed in terms of the end of a relationship, I think that it’s really more of a heartbreak album. Heartbreak is a more universal human experience, and I think it’s one that My Dear One speaks to well extremely well. Songs like “Nothing Glows” powerfully evoke the sick, sad greying effect of heartbreak. The notion that one’s “bruises don’t turn black and blue” is a particularly effective image for the fact that it shows just how dulling heartbreak can be.

The lyrical focus of the Shondes’ sound lends itself particularly well to this album. Songs like “You Ought to Be Ashamed” profit from my lyrical breaks and a melody that’s carried (or at least matched) in the vocals. This is largely to the credit of Louisa Rachel Solomon, who provides most of the album’s vocals and whose dusky, dextrous voice is powerful and expressive throughout the entire album. (Though for a particularly good example, give a listen to “Miami”.) Also notable are the vocals that Elijah Olberman contributes to the album (“The Coming Night” and “All the Good Things”). Olberman’s smooth, expressive voice has a wonderfully androgynous quality.

As in the first album, Temim Fruchter’s drumming is rock solid. Fruchter reminds me of some of the best jazz drummers I’ve heard, adding energy and style to a song while never stealing the show. (Cf. “Fire Again” and Fruchter’s rambling, snare-heavy lines.) Solomon’s bass work is similarly solid and unobtrusive.

The only lineup change since the first album is the replacement of Ian Brannigan with an artist named Fureigh. Fureigh’s style is remarkably similar to Brannigan’s, and meshes well with the rest of the band.

My only major complaints about the album are with regards to the production quality. The whole album seems to have a flat, muted sound to it. This saps it of some of the energy it would otherwise have. This is particularly noticeable (unfortunately) on the lead title track. While this sound grew on me somewhat, I feel like the album could have profited from a brighter, cleaner sound and less post-production sophistry.

My Dear One is great rock album. It’s raw, emotional, and gutsy as hell. Songs like “Let’s Make It Beautiful” show how well the Shondes can take classic Rock forms and give them a unique sound and form to create something new and interesting. This album is well worth the price, both for fans of the first Shondes album and for people who love rock and want to hear something that’s genuinely new.

Sep 032008

Interview: Elijah Oberman of The Shondes

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The Shondes are a four-piece rock combo out of New York City who have been making waves recently with their first full-length album The Red Sea which is available from all the usual sources.  I recently got the chance to correspond with violinist Elijah Oberman and ask him a few questions about the band, their music, and the tour upon which they have just embarked.

Fifty-Two Tuesdays: First of all, thank you for taking time to answer my questions. Your debut full-length, The Red Sea, has been met with a largely positive critical response.  There are a lot of people saying not only that it’s a good album, but that it’s a unique one (e.g. calling it “genre-breaching”, “the only music that truly matters”, etc.)  How do you feel about the reception the album has received and does it surprise you at all to see it be praised in the ways that it has been?

Elijah Oberman: Thanks for taking the time to interview! It feels really good to see fans and music critics get excited about the album and appreciate it. It’s so affirming to read quotes like those because it’s about something we poured our hearts into, and it’s also really humbling because we just put something out there and now people are making it their own and having their own experiences with it, owning it, so it starts to feel less “ours” if that makes any sense. Because it was our first record I think it’s been easy at times to focus on all the things I wish I/we did better, so I think it’s good to remember that at a certain point, you have to let go. I’m so glad that that people can be moved by what we’re doing and find it musically interesting, and I just hope I’m lucky enough to get to keep doing it for a long time.

FTT: One of the things that a lot of reviews hit on is the diverse set of influences that you draw on in your music.  This seems to invariably lead to the reviewer either labeling it with a genre and adding qualifiers (e.g. Jewish indie punk) or eschewing genre labels all together and declaring it genre-defying.  Do you think that either of these is an appropriate way to look at the music that the Shondes are making?  Do you think that there are genre descriptors that are appropriate to apply to an album like The Red Sea?

EO: Ha! So true. I think at the end of the day I usually just call it Rock music because I think that has a lot of space in it. Which isn’t to say that the qualifiers aren’t helpful because they are, but it can also be counterproductive to focus on trying to find the perfect genre name rather than just listening to and getting something out of the music. I think from the beginning, the way that our various musical influences have showed up in our songs has felt pretty effortless, which is the “genre-defying” part I guess, because it’s not about attempting to create a “Jewish indie punk” sound, but just about working with and cultivating what comes naturally which is why you can hear a lot of different influences depending on what you’re tuned into.

FTT: The past few years have been time of significant change in the music industry.  Indie record sales are up, the internet is opening up the market and making it easier for new bands to be heard, and ever larger numbers of albums and songs are being purchased online.  How have these trends effected your development as a band and your entry into the music industry?  What effect do you think these changes have on bands which, like The Shondes, may not easily fit into any of the more conventional genres?

EO: It certainly is a shifting landscape. In a lot of ways it’s just meant that it’s easier for us and other bands to put our stuff out there, which is great. It’s been my experience that people who love music are always excited about finding new bands that they love and that move them, and while they might have certain tendencies in the kinds of music they like, they’re not necessarily that fixated on genre. People like us who like lots of different music.

FTT: Many people have commented on the band’s political work with groups like Jews Against the Occupation.  What is the role of these political activities in your songwriting process and would you consider politics a major motivation for your music?

EO: I think I’d just say that life is a major motivation for our music and that our politics are about how we live and how we experience the world, so that they’re woven into our songs in a lot of subtle ways, as well as the kinds of musicians we connect with and the kinds of shows we like to play. In addition to that, it feels important to try to use our art to support groups that are doing great work that we believe in, to try to get more people to know about the work they’re doing. It’s important to me to use whatever leverage we have to raise money for groups like JATO or the Sylvia Rivera Law Project who are making positive change happen in the world, and I hope that our music can be a part of people’s lives who care deeply about working for a just world- whether through inspiring, supporting, making you think of new ideas or just getting you through hard times or the day to day.

FTT: On the other side of the coin, how do you see your music fitting into politics and what role can music play in shaping a political issue?

EO: I think music can play a great role! There have been a lot of times where listening to music has changed how I felt about something politically, or just surprised me or shifted something or exposed me to a new way of thinking because I respond to it from a really personal and emotional place, and I’ve witnessed that same thing happen for some people at our shows.

FTT: Of more immediate interest: You have a heavy tour schedule lined up for the Fall with shows all over the country, are you looking forward to the tour?  Are there any shows that you’re particular eager for?

EO: I really love touring and I’m so excited that this is our biggest one to date (about 2 and a half months). There’s just nothing like the feeling of getting to play almost every night and get so tight with each other musically. I’m especially excited for our show in Seattle, where we’ve had a great time in the past, and also for our show in New Orleans, which is a place I adore and we haven’t gotten to play for two years.

FTT: And finally: what comes next after the tour, is there another album in the works, or is it too early to say?

EO: We’re definitely already thinking about and planning the next album and we’re well on our way. We’ll be playing a lot of new songs on the tour, getting a feel for them, solidifying them and trying to figure out how to put together the next record. I think when we come back we’ll probably dive headfirst into some more intensive songwriting and start making decisions about recording.

FTT: Thanks again for your time, and the best of luck to you on your tour. I’ll see you at the Seattle show on the 19th!

Jan 222008

Artist: The Shondes
Album: The Red Sea
Label: N/A (Self-Released)
Release Date: Tuesday, 2008.1.8
Score: 8.5/10

The Red Sea, the debut album from The Shondes was pretty obviously cooked up for the express purpose of making me dance around my room in my boxers at four in the morning. Between its driving, punk-influenced beats; its lilting, exotic violin melodies; and its crying, Dolores O’Riordan-esque lyrics, it’s basically a designer musical drug. And I’ve been doing big, fat lines of it for a week now, and loving every minute of it.

Admittedly, part of the reason I’m so addicted is because it hits a lot of my musical buttons. Punk influences? Check. Slick melodic hooks? Check. Complete disregard for genre boundaries? Check. Wrap all that and more up in a tight, well-presented package and it’s a fair guarantee that I’ll be mainlining it for quite awhile. Unfortunately for the Shondes, not everyone shares my same set of musical cravings, but even without sharing my musical aesthetic, there’s a lot in The Red Sea for any listener.

Songs like “Winter”, for example, with its brooding, jangly guitar lines, soaring vocal lines, and interesting lyrical images is not only a good listen, but warrants coming back for several listens. Similarly, the energetic “At The Water” is a song that begs to be put on repeat, not only for its rollicking energy, but also for the fact that it’s melodically and lyrically rich enough to reward repeat listening. This depth is not limited to a few tunes, but rather is endemic to the album, which features excellent songwriting, catchy melodies, and (with a few exceptions, such as the heavy-handed “What Love Is”) engaging lyrics.

Probably the most interest aspects of the album, however, are not strictly compositional, but rather stylistic. The Shondes have managed to take a diverse set of influences and weave them together into something truly new and unique. On “Don’t Whisper”, for example, exotic, folky violin lines support growling guitars and wailing lyrics to create a song which obviously borrows widely from the musical spectrum, including punk, classic rock, and folk to create something which is intriguing and new. The whole album draws musically from wide enough sources that many individual aspects feel familiar, while the whole is something altogether new and different.
This blending of so many different genres is used to great effect most of the time, though there are times when drawing together so many stylistic threads seems to have gotten in the way. The result is that, while The Red Sea really is a great album, it tends to get a bit confused and muddy at times. “Let’s Go” is a prime example of this. It tries too hard to be too many things at once and winds up sounding a bit like a bar brawl between the Ramones and the Cranberries as reinterpreted by a modern-day Rogers and Hammerstein. That is to say that it’s odd, and quirky, and if it ran with any one of its musical themes, it could be really cool. As it is, it’s random to the point of incoherence.

The Red Sea is a great album from a promising new band, with a unique sound and a hell of a lot of talent. And while it is undoubtedly rough or muddled at times, it’s an impressive first release from a group of great musicians. It’s well worth price ($10 from the band’s MySpace via MySpace’s SnoCap download service) and a sure sign that The Shondes are a band to listen for in the future.