Marah are still writing, recording and touring—just look at their recent live DVD. But like any other musicians, a change of pace and a change of taste is always a welcomed change. For Marah singer and songwriter Dave Bielanko, he might have found his side project heaven in The Shimmers. The Shimmers are a five-piece outfit based in Philly, with some of the city’s better singer-songwriters and musicians along for the ride. What makes the band work isn’t so much Bielanko’s beer-stained raspy vocals but singer Eden Daniels, the gal in the band who’s worked in Baby Flamehead (who would name any baby “Flamehead”?) and Gimme. Considering these songs were in the can since 1995 and accidentally found years later by Bielanko, this is a happy accident from which many will benefit.
Bielanko and Daniels seem to complement each other well, one a bit rough around the edges while the other is vocally sugar sweet. Comparisons to Bruce Springsteen and wife Patti might come to mind during the slow, hypnotic and appealing folk pop of “The Letter”. It’s a very tender, engaging song that both artists downplay, Daniels often coming out above Bielanko’s vocals. And just when you might believe the song is going to break out into some Page / Plant folk rocker, they skip by the bridge and stride headlong into the next verse. This tone continues, albeit to a lesser extent, with the poppy, mystical “Sun Goes Down”, which has some fine guitar picking as well as some excellent violin accents courtesy of fellow Shimmers member Jonathan Segel (of Camper Van Beethoven fame). Think of a folksier, Appalachian version of something Natalie Merchant or Leigh Nash might attempt and the song becomes a bit clearer. The only snag with this effort is that it comes off as being half-finished, as if they never even considered adding 30 or 40 seconds of music to fully flesh out the lovely little nugget.
The music is timeless throughout, especially on the gorgeous folk piece “You Want More”, which is led by Daniels with Bielanko and the band supporting her when required with a rather sparse, haunting arrangement. It’s a fine line that the band walks here, not heading down the traditional folk road but trying at all costs to avoid the tired adult contemporary folk-pop realm. It’s this realm into which they seem to jump too quickly during “Small Grey House”, which doesn’t seem to play to any of the strengths shown thus far. A brief bridge seems to change the direction, but it’s not enough to salvage the number.
All is not lost, though, for The Shimmers shine beautifully on the precious cheerful pop ditty “Jesus Is My Friend”. Despite the religious overtones, this isn’t an extremely preachy tune, as Daniels takes the song by the reins and guides it through a gear-changing string of moments. It sounds like a track that would be perfect for Rosanne Cash. Unfortunately, the first real average number is the sullen and somber “My Whole Life”, which resembles the Cowboy Junkies at their finest. There’s a fine line The Shimmers often walk without any problems, but “Here I Stand” tends to fall off the rails, starting off with a slow Americana flavor and steadily layering instruments on top of it. It initially has promise but then seems to get stuck in a rather mediocre rut.
Just when you think all is lost, there is definitely some shimmer, er, light at the end of this tunnel, judging by the extremely pristine “All My Days”. It soars from start to finish, with an unusual feel as the verses steer the chorus along, not the other way around as is so often the case. And they don’t keep it short and sweet but fully flesh out the song the way it should be done. It’s an interesting selection considering that the next song has all the trademarks of a Johnny Cash tune, with its barren, chugging tempo and pace. The name of the song is, of course, “Train Train”.
A bonus song (although there’s only nine here to begin with) wraps things up—called “Coal”, it seems to be the second half of “Train Train”. Nonetheless, The Shimmers shine in some songs while others offer just a glimmer of their collective talents.
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// Notes from the Road
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