This week Shy Boys share their sophomore album, Bell House, on Polyvinyl Records. The quintet from Kansas City bring an gentleness of tone that’s as accomplished in it’s realization as it is unassuming in it’s arrival. Let’s talk about it all for a bit.
Building beyond the success of their 2014 self-titled debut, Bell House draws it’s name from the house that the five band members shared on Bell Street, Kansas City. Stories from the band describe a house with missing floors, six-foot-high weed-jungles in the back yard, and a strange chaotic atmosphere with a primary focus of music. Something of that spirit is conveyed in the complexion of this new album. Meandering stories, irregular shapes, and a variety of metaphorical shelters are offered, all supported by a cohesive core. At the center of this thing is the band’s ability to make good of madness. They may have inhabited a space of chaos, but the refined approach to the pursuit of harmony is rare.
The band’s fondness for layered vocal harmonies has drawn comparison to the Beach Boys. We all know what’s said about the Beach Boys. However, that comparison unfairly short-changes the originality of the band. The atmospheric range of Shy Boys is somehow more democratic, and an unusual thing occurs when they sing. Halfway through this sequence, at track five – “Evil Sin” – the sound hits you. This is not some retro-styled assimilation of apparent heroes. The tone of this band is entirely contemporary. Layered voices are shaped by modern progressions. There’s an edge, depth, and awareness that places Bell House as a significant, and oddly timeless album of these times.
“Evil Sin” is a strong example of what Shy Boys do best. A discussion of dark aspects of the psyche, and the collapse of things; “I gave you money / you were supposed to return with something / but instead you gave me lies.” This stuff is heartbreaking “Don’t ever lie again” is a line that’s repeated more as a plea than an instruction. This could be a relationship in breakdown, or it may well be something bigger – something more political, and yet close to home. The nuance of interpretation is there for you to play with. Vocal harmonies unhinge any idea the narrator may have of being harder than the issue. Shy Boys lay themselves open with the kind of vulnerability that takes bravery to achieve. The softness of touch is refreshing, the double-meanings avoid on-the-nose documentation, and yet directness is sustained.
Closing track, “Champion” shares a clear view of the band’s musicianship. Again, it’s the simplicity of instrumentation, and the cleanliness of production that is the preserve of bigger issues. “It’s not enough to make up for wasted time” – the line is delivered over a bed of strummed guitars, finger clicks, and the kind stuff that adds punctuation as perspective. It’s the space between things that Shy Boys play with. For a band of five there is no evidence of anyone rushing to the front, or demanding more of themselves in the monitor. Of course, with this kind of thing less is more. Accomplishment comes from holding back. We should use the word ‘refined’ again, but not in the sense of being self-consciously pretty or prissy. Perhaps this is the sound of good old-fashioned Mid-Western manners?
Bell House is a sophomore album, but it feels like something new has been arrived at. Is it confidence, is it a renewed commitment from a band of cohabiters? For all the ethereal vocal work, and subtle phrasing across progressions, the take-away feeling of this album is that it deserves many replays. Alternating between currents of brightness, darkness, simplicity and borderline sarcasm, Shy Boys conduct themselves with grace while they address the trickier prospects of modern life. Played in and out of sequence these tracks omit their own variables of magic. Yes, it’s quiet, and profoundly easy to listen to but Bell House is also a monumental record with the ability to outshine the big boys. The rewards of sitting with this album are not small.
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PHOTOGRAPH BY LIBBY ZANDERS