The Difficult Third Act of Shapes and Sizes
It used to be that you had three albums to solidify your standing with whatever label you were signed to. If, by album three, you hadn’t chalked up a hit or critical acclaim, your musical career was more or less over. Of course, these days, it’s more like if you haven’t made it out of the gate within the first 15 minutes of a single being released, you can more or less forget it. Still, third albums make a good arbitrary marker in terms of where an artist or act is going with their career. If you need any further proof, I submit Third/Sister Lovers as evidence. (In the case of Big Star, that album signalled that their career was in the toilet, at least commercially.)
Which brings us to the Canadian indie group Shapes and Sizes, whose latest album, Candle to Your Eyes, is their third attempt to more or less grab the brass ring. It comes via Asthmatic Kitty, which is most famously known for being Christian indie-folkie Sufjan Steven’s label. However, if this LP is an attempt to grab said brass ring, it shows the group reaching for it using solely a raised middle finger. The album is notable for being somewhat morosely discordant, a change of pace from their previous, more raucous affair, 2007’s Split Lips, Winning Hips, A Shiner. The band of Montrealers transplanted from Victoria, British Columbia, is also being brazen with its release dates, too, in that the album drops on the very same day that the eagerly anticipated third album from another band from Montreal lands with a thud in the indie rock landscape. You might know this little band as the Arcade Fire and the album as The Suburbs. Either Shapes and Sizes or Asthmatic Kitty thought Candle to Your Eyes could give the Arcade Fire a run for their money, or the line of thinking was to bury this record and let it slip completely under the radar with the intent of being as unobtrusive as possible.
Well, there’s fodder in Candle to Your Eyes which may make you think that it was the latter approach that was being considered. It is a somewhat grim, somewhat progressive record, without a catchy, bouncy single in sight. It’s not that Shapes and Sizes haven’t tried to reach a larger audience: they’ve opened on the road for bigger-name indie acts that include the National and Castanets. The particularly jaded might even point out that the band moved to Montreal to capitalize on Canada’s most fertile indie scene of the moment. However, this album is so mired in brooding experimentalism that it’s hard to imagine anyone getting really excited about it in the sort of volumes that the Arcade Fire move. It’s as though all of the rough edges of the previous album were smoothed away, and made sadder, somehow.
The opening song, “Tell Your Mum”, even has a passing resemblance to the Arcade Fire’s “Black Mirror”, but would seem even more menacing if the guitar line wasn’t so darn peppy. Co-vocalist/lyricist Caila Thompson-Hannant dabbles in the sinister by penning a line that goes, “Last night I had a dream that the devil had given me a dress to wear under my clothes.” (So much for being on a label with Christian values.) There’s a plaintive plainness to her voice, too, as she sings these words, which makes them seem more real and startling. However, Thompson-Hannant has a soulful side as well, which recalls Romy Madley Croft from the xx. There’s also a touch of another Canadian indie chanteuse, Jane Siberry, in the way that Thompson-Hannant’s voice swoops, hoots and hollers, particularly by the time the third track rolls around, “You Don’t Have to Drink From Here”, which sees her careening at the end of a precipice as the guitars mutedly churn into a void.
In fact, if any images are conjured up by the sonic soundscapes of this album, they are, to a degree, of icy desolation. “I Need an Outlet” would paint a bleak, almost early Cure-esque sense of Gothicness if only the tempo didn’t clip by at a mild trot. “23 and Rising” recalls the Beach Boys; that is, if the brothers Wilson grew up on a grey beach in Alaska where the sun never came out. And remember that comparison I made to the xx just a moment ago? “The Hit Parade” could practically pass as a re-write of “Shelter” right down to the glacial keyboards. “Sing Them Songs” even nicks the closing guitar riff to Neil Young’s “Cinnamon Girl” in its opening section and transforms it into something chilly and barren. If Candle to Your Eyes were a month, it would be squarely rooted in January. It is, indeed, a very Montreal-in-the-dead-of-winter record.
However, the album flags on the lyric sheet, which, aside from the interesting line already pointed out, ranges from hopelessly oblique to patently silly. The most notable offender comes with “The Hit Parade” which tries to be sexually earnest, but comes across as cloying. Thompson-Hannant sings the lines “While all the world watches you dance / I know what’s really going on underneath your pants / you’re a fox down there / you’re quick like a fox” in such a casual, off-the-cuff way that is not only non-sexy, but it makes you wonder if even she’s embarrassed by her own penmanship. Elsewhere, guitarist and co-vocalist Rory Seydel offers on “Sing Them Songs” the following observation: “If North America is the new Third World / Then I don’t want to miss the party.” He practically bludgeons this notion over and over just in case we might have missed it.
As far as third albums go, Candle to Your Eyes is a scattershot affair. The band had three years to come up with new material, but I get the sense that Shapes and Sizes were perhaps unduly influenced by working in the shadows of, again, the Arcade Fire or even Wolf Parade. Maybe they were jaded by their relative lack of success, and struck out to make a difficult album in response to prove themselves. One has to listen to “Alone/Alive” or “Teller/Seller” from their previous LP to get a sense of how they were once more joyous and affirming to listen to. Candle to Your Eyes is a real departure for Shapes and Sizes—they practically feel like a different band. Where they seemed to once be a spiritual cousin to Sufjan Stevens in their playful folksy-ness, they now seem to be mining a particular brand of Northern soul, with bleakness at its core. Yes, this record is altogether poles apart from their previous work, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. However, if it used to be that third albums were the making or breaking point of a band, Candle to Your Eyes would be, and could be, the kind of record that would get them unceremoniously dropped by their label—simply for not playing to their previous, core strengths.
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