Shy Boys "Talk Loud (Polyvinyl)"
Do you think you know what Shy Boys sound like?
Each album feels different, and the audience gets the pleasure of listening in while Shy Boys experiment with and master new sounds. On their new album, Talk Loud, our Shy Boys are clearly so in sync with each other that they are able to explore getting out of sync in a way that feels right. The album is fun and scary at the same time. Right when you start to feel comfortable you turn a corner into a different dimension. They pan vocals, take audible breaths. The backing vocals are pure feeling. There’s a comfort to feeling surrounded by the five distinct voices that make up Shy Boys, but once in a while it starts to feel foreboding, too.Touring can be a grind, and it can also feel like summer camp. Bands develop shorthand for communication, get used to tight quarters. You talk to each other and you sit in silence. It magnifies and affects your relationships with your bandmates, with yourself, and what home means to you. With Bell House, the tight-knit Shy Boys spent about a “year-and-a-half cheek-to-cheek in a conversion van touring the country,” recalls lead singer, Collin Rausch. They became friends with artists they’d been fans of… tripped in northern California under the redwoods… played for a couple thousand people and… played for two people. Arriving home from this intense journey together and separating from each other physically aligned with some personal and musical perspective changes. The outcome is an album that grapples with attachment.
“Fraid I Might Die” and “Trash” reference the universal passage of time. On “Fraid I Might Die” the synth sounds are airy and sharp. The accompaniment builds, and then cuts to just keys, the lyrics repeating all throughout, like a chant. “Fraid I might die / With every beat I get older / Fraid I might die / With every beat I get closer.” The more you exist, the closer you are to ceasing to exist; living is dying. The lyrics of “Trash” seem at first to be about daily life: cleaning the house knowing you will just have to clean it “over and again” – the monotony of daily life. But upon a closer listen, it stretches beyond the narrator’s house and into the whole world and the painful overwhelming endless cycle of consumerism. Another standout moment on the album, “View From The Sky,” is undeniable proof that bands can still write hits organically. The song has glossy elements while remaining endearingly human. There’s doo-wop backing vocals paired with laser-show shredding. Every sound is imbued with emotion, every flick of the wrist is meaningful. There’s just no way to listen to this album without tuning into their spiritual well of connectedness. It embeds itself in your body.
Shy Boys are like musical astronauts, with instrumentation from the beyond. Talk Loud has the heart-string-yanking ability of music concocted in a laboratory, but it still feels heavily human. It’s complicated, it’s swirly, it surrounds you and extends itself deep into your brain. There are noticeably more synths (and less guitar) than previous Shy Boys albums. There is a lot of hand percussion sprinkled throughout the record: shaker, wood block, finger cymbal. Drums and bass do a secret handshake. Lyrics about malaise are juxtaposed with joyful sounds. The record is cinematic, sparkly, jumpy, and spooky. At times Talk Loud connotes a children’s TV program or puppet show: haunting and funny become one. In their own words, “Shy Boys is a bubble…to the point that we might just be making music for ourselves.” Their musical perspective and context is limited and insular, which translates into music that feels limitless, experimental, and unlike anything.
Polyvinyl Records "Exquisite Corpse (Polyvinyl)"
2020 has been an intense year by any standard, with the first weeks of the global pandemic giving most of us feelings unlike anything we’d experienced before. Quarantine lockdowns and hovering dread shifted the fabric of time in a way that’s ongoing, but was at its most vivid in those early days when a new reality was sinking in. Before people eventually adapted and started using the newly mandatory downtime to learn new languages and bake bread, hours lurched by as the world sat restlessly indoors. All the shows were slowly cancelled one by one, the tours and recording sessions were scrapped, hangs and practices just stopped happening. Everything was on hold indefinitely, time lost meaning, every day felt unreal.
During the first days of lockdown, Rainer Maria’s Kaia Fischer came up with the concept of Exquisite Corpse by meditating on their perspective of the newly unfolding weirdness they and so many of their creative friends were going through. Obviously a deadly pandemic was wrought with negatives, and those in particular to independent music scenes were especially devastating. But could there be another side to what felt so all-consumingly terrible? “We know what the pandemic isn’t good for,” Fischer said, “but let’s find out what it is good for.”
Searching for silver linings in the earliest days of lockdown wasn’t easy, but one idea led to another. It began with the realization that every Polyvinyl artist now had a completely clear schedule at the same time. They were also mostly sitting around waiting for the storm to pass, in different states of boredom, anxiety, worry and malaise. Logistically speaking, there might not be another time when pretty much everyone was available for a collaborative project and needed something to occupy their frazzled minds. A round of emails went out explaining the project and inviting members of the Polyvinyl roster to participate. Eleven teams of four or five musicians were assembled more or less at random, bringing together artists that had in many cases never met, much less worked on music together. Remotely, each team worked from scratch to create an original song, a reworked sonic adaptation of the game where each player adds to a collaborative drawing.
The scope alone is exciting, with these eleven songs combining the talents of 47 musicians from all corners of the world and all ends of the Polyvinyl family tree. Even the artwork was assembled through remote collaboration, with visual artists from Chicago, Minneapolis, and Seattle collaborating on the design in true Exquisite Corpse fashion. Musically, the results are every bit as exciting and unpredictable as the concept envisioned. New creative chemistries between the different artists and a complete absence of expectations or precedent sounds made for fearless choices in production, genre experimentation and stylistic curveballs. Artists known for sparkling pop worked with more ragged rockers or folks from acoustic-leaning emo bands, and the end results almost always defied the expected sum of their parts. Even though Exquisite Corpse is timestamped with traces of the overwhelming uncertainty that colored the pandemic’s onset, the music is by-and-large joyful, daring, and fun. More than reflecting the hanging gloom of the non-stop news cycle and spiking graphs, artists tapped into expressions of hope and exploration. This moment of universal upheaval cast a shadow on the entire world, but also allowed for a meeting of minds that was truly unprecedented.
William Tyler "New Vanitas (Merge)"
From William Tyler:
The concept of “vanitas” in medieval art refers to the juxtaposition of macabre symbols of death with material ephemera in order to illustrate the impermanence of earthly things. What struck me about this was not the representation of death in a macabre/morbid way, but rather that very sense of ephemerality and impermanence. Reading an article about the history of ephemera in art led me to the concept of vanitas, and I wanted to find a way to pivot that in a more, well, hopeful direction. But these paintings force us to bear witness to the contrasts of life, death, and impermanence, and if 2020 has taught me about anything, it is this concept of “bearing witness” both on a personal and political level.
This year has been an ongoing series of mental health highs and lows while just as an individual I try to reckon on a daily basis with the transformation, pain, growing awareness, and, hopefully, growing empathy we are experiencing. Everyone has encountered loss this year—many have suffered a great deal of loss—but no one who is at least conscious is immune to this time of change. And thus, as a psychiatrist friend put it, we must bear witness. Part of that bearing witness for me on a personal level has been trying to step away from my familiar sense of self—both the parts I might feel good about and definitely the parts I abhor or want to change. I came back to Nashville during the shutdown in March to be close to my parents. And in that space of isolation, I have been trying to get back to some of the sonic building blocks that made me want to start making music in the first place. Listening to a lot of old cassettes, slightly warped records, nature recordings, southern Protestant hymns of childhood, homemade music—sounds that sort of inhabit a kind of “smallness” and intimacy. Sounds that do, in fact, decay—the beautiful saturated analog reality that is alive around us. I spend a lot of evenings listening to AM radio as the static starts to give way to a swirl of radio stations from near and far. The sun retreats, the crickets and cicadas crescendo.
When I was working with Kelly Reichardt on the score for her film First Cow, she challenged me to confront some of my own melodic and compositional tendencies towards, as she put it, sentimentality: “Don’t tell people how to feel with this. Be open to the moment.” I feel like the way Kelly incorporates sound into her films makes her as much a sound artist as a master filmmaker; every sonic decision in her films is deliberate—radio broadcasts, passing noises, hushed dialogue, etc. With these new songs, I really just wanted to create a sort of mood board for where my head and soul have been at the last few months. Part of ephemera to me is in what Kelly told me: “Be open to the moment” because the moment changes. The sound dissolves into another sound, the image into another image. Time passing, transience, change. Although “static” means lacking movement, static sonically is almost the literal opposite: it is transience, noise, change
Bill Callahan "Gold Record (Drag City)"
From Drag City:
You heard it here first — it’s the Gold Record we always knew Bill Callahan had in him! Last summer, he returned from a silence of years — now, he’s raring to go with another new one already. The abiding humanity of latter-day Callahan is highlighted by dark plumes of caustic wit upending standards of our everyday life and the songs that celebrate it: the job, the wife, the TV, the neighbors. Bill slips easily into his characters, whether they’re easy people or not — and the cross-hatch of their light and shadow is unpredictably entertaining in the manner that belongs only one singer in this whole wide world: we’re still talking about Bill Callahan.