Over 10 years the Indiana band the Impossible Shapes has crafted six albums of idiosyncratic psych-pop that doesn’t much pander to trends. The members of the band – now Chris Barth, Aaron Deer, and Mark Rice – each participate in a number of other projects such as Magnolia Electric Co., the Coke Dares, John Wilkes Booze, and the solo projects NormanOak (Chris Barth) and Horns of Happiness (Aaron Deer). Jason Groth, the band’s original guitarist, also still remains involved in the recordings. So through all this music-making, these humble guys seem to have found a way to continue sharing their obtuse journeys without becoming a slave to any particularly clamored-for style. Though they’ve been well-received critically, the praise has never tipped them into the category of a “buzz band”.
In this wrapped-up-in-themselves vein the group has named their seventh album with a symbol that’s unpronounceable. You can just call it The Impossible Shapes. The shape they chose is a personal sigil, a symbol associated with magic, and supposedly with some meaning associated with desire. So be it; that impossibility is a fine metaphor for what might be the group’s most fully realized complete album so far. From the driving, upbeat opening songs to the calm and satisfied explorations of the disc’s second half, The Impossible Shapes plays like a textbook of the otherworldly indie music the group’s been making for a decade.
And that’s great. Maybe the immediate appeal of the new album coincides with a less overtly mystical approach to the lyrics of these songs. On the last song, “Please Tie Me Up”, Barth drifts entirely personal: “I want to be loved by everyone / So I sit alone and feel alone”. This open lyrical style is showcased best on “Infinity’s Lips”, which should have been on the soundtrack to Shortbus. It captures that film’s precisely pitched combination of confusion and nostalgia. The song doesn’t rhyme, and without resorting to complex language it still manages to easily capture this particular mood: “Well I’m losing it all tonight… Still the road will wind around / Deep into a brand new day”.
A more sedate track like “Dreamspeak” shows how confident this group has become in its own methods. It’s all dreamy, ghostly overlapping guitar lines, a simple loop of harmonic progression without verse or chorus, relying only on the gradually thickening texture for interest. A similar figure re-emerges later on the disc in another song, and you realize the group has cleverly manipulated textural and melodic tropes to create a coherent, flowing whole.
The opening track “Hey!” might be the Impossible Shapes’ shining pop moment. Exclamatory, reedy vocals (Barth occasionally recalls Colin Meloy in his delivery, or the singer from Figurines) proclaim an infectious refrain over out-of-tune guitars in a neat structure. The link with the Decemberists is strengthened on a song like “I Loved Everyone of Your Daughters”, with its slightly formal phrasing and the familial imagery. But the Impossible Shapes won’t hesitate to interrupt their verses with a screeched guitar, or to forgo a chorus entirely in favor of fuzzy instrumental experimentation. The track ends prematurely with a recapitulation of the single phrase of the title.
If there’s a criticism to be made, it’s that beneath the varied and interesting sounds the band uses, a number of songs rely rather heavily on a fairly traditional structure that uses guitar solos to punctuate and extend a song’s natural length. Nonetheless, The Impossible Shapes is another album worth, at least a little, buzzing about.