Sally Shapiro, or whatever her name really is, defines amateur in the literal and truest sense of the word. No, that’s not a backhanded way of saying that the Shapiro’s cuddly disco-pop is something less than professional grade, but rather a way to describe just what a labor of love making music must be for the camera-shy pseudonymous act. Under a self-imposed witness protection program, Shapiro has always forged a catchy, listener-friendly sound that could stand on its own, since the person behind the performer has eschewed the trappings of the fame game and refused to sacrifice her privacy for the sake of promotion, even at the expense of a bigger public profile and better sales. As Shapiro’s musical collaborator Johan Agebjörn explained in a blog post after the elusive singer went on a short DJ’ing tour in 2008, “We believe that you shouldn’t take opportunities just because they exist, if it’s not what you really want to do. What if you just want to be a normal person with a normal job, record songs in the weekends, and spend the holidays picking blueberries instead of going on tour?”
That said, Shapiro’s career-that’s-not-a-career hasn’t just been about missed opportunities and coulda-shoulda-woulda beens—ironically enough, avoiding the public eye created an aura of mystery around Shapiro that ended up drawing more attention to the 2007 debut Disco Romance, even if the Swedish group ultimately couldn’t sustain the momentum. Certainly, the pair has come up with engaging music from Disco Romance onward: Shapiro’s latest release Somewhere Else is cut from the same cloth as earlier efforts, a charming combination of coy twee-pop themes dressed up in an Italo-disco aesthetic. Perhaps the closest comparison to Somewhere Else in its love-of-pop ethos might be Saint Etienne’s last record Words and Music, though without the ambition and the same level of high-concept experimentation. With more of an emphasis on indie-pop influences, Sally Shapiro’s ability to move between organic sentimentality and synthetic compositions has come to define her musical persona, as she and Agebjörn turn bedroom-pop fare into dance-club productions, or vice versa.
So even if Shapiro’s formula doesn’t make for a lot of variety and Somewhere Else isn’t too much of a departure from previous efforts, the twosome does make the most of the range its music works in. The hits come early and often on Somewhere Else, frontloaded as it is with singles-ready tracks. “I Dream with an Angel Tonight” is warm and cool at the same time, as its catchy vocals and sweet synths float over staticky beats. Since the Sally Shapiro act is all about make believe anyway, the whimsical “This City’s Local Italo Disco DJ Has a Crush on Me” is wish fulfillment in sound and theme, as her thin singing dances over squishy rhythms. An even more compelling production is the bittersweet “All My Life”, which gets close to Saint Etienne’s platonic ideal of dance-pop that’s as much pop as dance. On it, Shapiro’s voice goes from patient autopilot mode on the descriptive verses to ascendant flights of fancy in the chorus, as she details how crossed signals have become mixed feelings, “Was it Love? / Is it love? / Life on my own seems beautiful now”.
But Somewhere Else really peaks in the middle with the back-to-back pop punch of twee-ish “What Can I Do” and the sleek “If It Doesn’t Rain”, both of which fit nicely into the Shapiro template, while also running the gamut of possibilities in the inflection and moods the group’s music can evoke. Sparser and less produced than anything else on Somewhere Else, “What Can I Do” is more winsome and wallflower-y in its internal monologue—“Oh, I don’t know for sure / If I’m in love or not / Who would want me / If you need me / Oh, what can I do?”—turning just dramatic enough with a touch of strings near the end. But then on the neon-soaked romance of “If It Doesn’t Rain”, Shapiro flashes more of a vampy side, as her indecision feels like inner turmoil that’s darker than usual and has more bite to it.
These songs prove that even if Shapiro’s working under an alias, she’s created a musical profile all her own. That’s why the remix-y numbers where Shapiro enlists outside producers like Electric Youth and Le Prix to give the music a makeover don’t have quite the same impact—as odd as it seems to say this about an artist working under an assumed identity, Sally Shapiro doesn’t quite seem like herself when her all-star collaborators can’t quite find the right style and tone to suit her aesthetic. The single “Starman”, made with Drive soundtrack contributor Electric Youth, feels a little too downbeat and never rises enough in pitch to accentuate the innocent joy that Shapiro’s vocal approach gets across. The Anoraak partnership “Don’t Be Afraid” feels sparse and leaves Shapiro’s sometimes awkward phrasing too out there on its own, while the Le Prix joint “Architectured Love” could raise the volume and energy up more, even if hits on the right pace to keep up with the vocals. In turn, Shapiro’s own New Order-like “Lives Together” gets a bit lost in the shuffle caught between the guest spots, even though it’s one of the stronger pieces on the album.
In turn, Somewhere Else can feel like a long EP with a companion remix disc than a complete, cohesive album, boasting some strong singles and filled out with some efforts that are worthwhile enough but can’t quite match up. It all goes to show that even if we don’t know the person behind Sally Shapiro, there’s still quite an identity to live up to and maintain.