Shapes And Sizes : Split Lips, Winning Hips, A Shiner
Written by: Jermy D. Goodwin
Shapes and Sizes’ Web site features portraits of the band members made up from a few dozen partial images arranged in a pretty but disorienting collage. Likewise, Split Lips, Winning Hips, A Shiner, the band’s second album on Asthmatic Kitty, sounds almost as if a couple other albums exploded and landed in this pile of sonic rubble.
The result is impressive, to be sure, but this Animal Collective-inspired album is sometimes an easier one to respect than to fully enjoy. There is so much to dig into, many adventurous listeners will feel that they’ve struck gold. Unfortunately, the band has a habit of discarding its winning ideas before they are amply expressed, in order to move on promptly to the next cacophonous breakdown.
It’s a difficult album to listen to straight through—unless, one imagines, you’re driving alone at night or on hour six of an acid trip. Appropriately, the band has indicated there is some sort of parallel between the album itself and the band’s recent move from British Columbia to Montreal. Indeed, it specifically recommends one track as a soundtrack to the beginning of a road trip. If this album is a travelogue, the passengers see some disconcerting scenery along the way. Think Dakota badlands, not Cape Cod.
Opener “Alone/Alive” is one of the finest of the bunch, positively thrilling with its rapid-fire-yet-tipsy drums (courtesy of Jon Crellin) and cycling melody delivered by vocalist Caila Thompson-Hannant, who also plays keyboards. You have to skip ahead to the seventh track, “Highlife (I Had Been Duped),” to get anything else like it, and even that dissolves halfway through—the melody leaks away, the drums disappear, the sonic palette is composed solely of assorted shards of guitar feedback, wind-chimes, and the odd backward sample. This one does charge back with a reprise of the circular drum pattern from the beginning of the song, though Thompson-Hannant never fully re-embraces the melody.
The sound here is jittery but very confident, cast in darkness and filled with lots of heavy air; one suspects that Shapes and Sizes recorded exactly the album they set out to record. Guitarist Rory Seidel (who also shares vocal duties) is described in the band’s press materials as having an “R&B background,” but his razor-sharp tone and experimental use of the instrument often sound more like Marc Ribot, circa “Book of Heads.” (The quartet is completed by Nathan Gage on bass.)
Seidel has a lot to do with the spacier segments, with Crellin taking center stage on the more upbeat pieces. Horns prove a welcome guest on several few tracks, particularly “Victory in War” and “The Taste in My Mouth,” contributing prominently to the latter’s delightfully woozy, purposely arhythmic climax.
The different elements find a wonderful balance on “Teller/Seller,” as an acoustic guitar emerges from somewhere, Crellin is content to stay firmly mid-tempo, Seidel delivers an attractive vocal melody and someone is scraping guitars with a fork. (Or so it sounds.) Notably, this track ends after less than two and a half minutes—it expresses an idea and then suddenly sneaks away.
This album is dying to be the subject of a remix project—not by electronic producers but by rock and roll bands. Split Lips, Winning Hips, A Shiner is littered with half-chewed ideas around which a less compositionally ambitious band could build tight, user-friendly-but-still-interesting songs.
By the end of the record, you feel like you’ve indeed been travelling all night, but as you get out of the car and check into a roadside motel you look at the map and realize with a shudder that you’re still in the Badlands.