Sweeter than you'd expect...but with a stinger in the tail.
With her last album, Ex Hex Mary Timony appeared ready to dive back into the jittery post-punk angularities of her youth, jilting the softer, folkier modalities of early solo albums like The Golden Dove and Mountains. Her fourth post-Helium album, and the first to be credited to the Mary Timony Band rather than just Mary Timony, however, seems to reconsider this move. The rhythms are still staccato and off-kilter, yet there’s a lush sweetness laid over them, an unmistakable turn towards pop.
Timony is backed, as usual, by Devin Ocampo, whose space-filled drumming locks in and around her syncopated guitar lines. Their ideas fit together, not in unison, but in the sense of interconnecting, complementary parts, and you can tell that they’ve been working together for a long time. In two of the denser pieces—“New Song” and “Rockman”—a third player, Chad Molter on bass, thickens and intensifies the sound. Every song here contains a tension between bare, nervous rhythms and sensual, voluminous melody.
Consider, for instance, the opening cut “Sharpshooter,” stuttering to life on Timony’s stinging guitar line, braced by Devin Ocampo’s terse drums. It’s not too far in, though, that the piece turns melodic, dreamy even, on the strength of Timony’s multilayered vocals. “Oh-oh-oh,” she sings, spinning pearlized clouds of buoyancy atop barbed-wire rhythms. Similarly, “Curious Minds” begins with a thicket of palm-muted guitar, an explosive splatter of drums; this never really goes away—in fact it intensifies very nicely in a mid-song instrumental break—yet it is enveloped most of the time in a seductive, very feminine melodic wrapping. The way that the two elements interact, sweet vocals and astringent instrumentations, draws you in but keeps you on edge. You can hardly listen casually to these songs. They demand focus.
Timony’s guitar playing is quite good, tightly coiled and aggressive in some places, downright lyrical in others, sometimes even within the same song. For instance, the hard-strums and slides of “Summer’s Fawn” conjure riot-girl confrontation; yet they morph, mid-song into ravishingly Television-like runs and chords. There’s a lovely, folk blues interval at the beginning of “Rockman” that sounds a bit like Ben Chasney. Later in the song, a guitar solo spirals out of hard syncopated drums, moving in rapid fire abstractions, jumping across intervals and running through scales with post-rock-ish abandon.
Then there are the lyrics, as perceptive and biting as you’d expect from an ex-English major turned socially-aware punk. She veers political on “Pause/Off”, addressing the Supreme Court with the couplets, “Get your laws off my body, Mister/paws off Supreme Court misters/Don’t mess with me and my sisters.” And tongue-in-cheek “Rockman” takes a literate piss at a freak folker, “a hippie man on the cutting edge” who has let someone down.
All of which is to say that there are certainly sharp edges embedded in The Shapes We Make—in the words, in the guitars and in the propulsive rhythms. Yet they’re slathered in melodies so sweet that we gladly swallow them whole. Pretty on the surface, dangerous underneath, it’s an intoxicating combination.