Shapes and Sizes have got to be prepared for the Fiery Furnaces/Architecture in Helsinki comparisons. Like Fiery Furnaces, they write quirky indie rock that stops mid-stream only to go off in a truly different direction. Like Architecture in Helsinki, they have a theatrical indie-pop sensibility that results in songs that completely change character midway-through. Don’t get me wrong, it’s often compelling, and Shapes and Sizes have a good chance of being picked up by the new music-hungry online community as the latest indie-it band with a must-have debut. But for me, these meandering compositions don’t hold together 100% successfully, the way the best songs by those other two bands do. If Shapes and Sizes were writing stories, we’d say they’ve got great ideas, but that they just desperately need an editor.
One of the biggest reasons for this blog-based interest is that Shapes and Sizes recently signed with Asthmatic Kitty, Sufjan Stevens’ record label. An achievement more notable for the name-drop than any real quality litmus, but for a little band from British Columbia still possibly career-changing. The four-piece have a fairly standard set-up—keyboard, guitar, drums, bass—but with three out of the four sharing in the writing process, there is more heterogeneity in creative input than you might expect. It’s really easy to see the influence of these different songwriters, too. If there’s a constant here, it’s the music’s theatricality; it’s reflected in the over-enunciated singing style of female vocalist Caila Thompson-Hannant, in the way it is placed front and center in many of the songs. It’s sometimes thrilling; other times, it misses the mark. “Northern Lights” is a good example: though it winds up in a Beatles-esque marching ballad that is exquisite, the song loses its way in the middle section, skirting its lack of ideas with brash confidence. And though “Wilderness” has made the blog rounds, and its horn slur is at least Radiohead-esque, the prominent, banal vocals almost negate all the music’s innovation.
Shapes and Sizes begins with what feels like this obligation of innovation, switching manically between genres, textures, and male and female vocals, but settles down in the disc’s second half to a more conventional, consistent indie rock sound. Just take as an example the opening song, “Islands Gone Bad”. It begins with twangy, slow arpeggios and handclaps, with a melody that reflects that arpeggio—inexplicably, “I like eating fruit off of trees / When I’m with you, fruit always tastes much sweeter, and air always tastes much cleaner”—with only the sparse accompaniment, putting all the emphasis on Thompson-Hannant’s voice. Midway-through, the melody twists and we get a shouted interjection in the spirit of Modest Mouse or one of those ragged indie bands. And by the end, there’s a crazy saxophone explosion a la Love Is All.
Because the songs run together, on the first few listens you’re not even sure when one song is ending, or if it’s just a middle-of-song change of direction. With repeat listens, though, these packed compositions unravel a little, revealing somewhat more, though not total, coherence. “I Am Cold”, an album highlight, is more slow-build than sudden about-face; to Thompson-Hannant’s initial pure, simple melody a male vocal is added, then brass and a military drum-beat, achieving, overall, a serene beauty in the style of Animal Collective.
But what finally reveals itself about the band, after all the hyperactivity of the first tracks has settled down, is that Shapes and Sizes’ songs reflect the recitative-aria structure of miniature operas. It’s clearest on “Topsy Turvy” and “Rory’s Bleeding”, where the meandering, almost spoken verses most clearly bring recitative to mind (sometimes, they share opera’s inherent lyrical silliness).
Shapes and Sizes certainly get points for innovation. For a debut outing, the album’s not afraid to experiment, and that’s a credit to the songwriters’ adventurous creativity. And the band certainly could grow into a more prominent, more important role in the indie pop constellation in this country; they just need to learn to edit a few of those creative impulses, and perhaps think about their lyrics a tad more. If we rewarded pure potential, this band would surely be up on the podium. For now, how much you like Shapes and Sizes is more likely to be linked to your tolerance for their idiosyncracies.