[24 September 2013]
Shelly doesn’t exist. Let’s get that out of the way. Named after a neighborhood the Grecian duo grew up in, called Kypseli, Keep Shelly in Athens met through a mutual friend in 2010. Someone thought they were being witty, but the pun seems to have gotten lost in translation. A producer-musician, RΠЯ, needed a female vocalist to sing a handful of songs he had composed, and once they had been introduced, the group was born. I’ve been enamored with the duo’s various mini-albums and EPs, and was eagerly awaiting their upcoming full length effort. I can’t say I’m particularly smitten with the final result. Inconsistent in tone and patchworked together from what appears to be two distinctly different EPs, At Home highlights both a stylistic identity crisis and the limitations of the chosen vocalist.
Having been thrust into the foreground of the production in only one song thus far, “DIY”, off their Our Own Dream EP, the strident, plaintive, baby doll coo of singer Sarah P’s voice was never terribly attractive to me. Only when it remained buried in the mix could I tolerate it. I had gathered their previous EP output into a playlist and found myself consistently pushing the forward button when she arrived front and center on that track. It appears I shall be doing that more frequently now or avoiding their subsequent recordings altogether.
For a singer who cites Nancy Sinatra and Tracey Thorne as two of her main influences, it’s interesting how she sounds absolutely nothing like them. Possessing neither the emotional depth of Thorne or the tongue-in-cheek brassiness of Sinatra, her voice more closely resembles that of former Sneaker Pimps songstress Kelli Ali, Nicola Kuperus of ADULT. or Alison Shaw of the electro band Cranes. In trying to find a comparison, I’m being unkind to Ali and Kuperus and for that I apologize. They both possess a striking instrument and present it in a much more arresting manner. While I’m aware that the appeal or distaste for each artist’s singing voice is a subjective matter, one would think from all the glowing adjectives thrown around and the unanimous online love affair with her voice, I would be in the minority for detesting it. If so, I’m happily content with staying firmly entrenched in the opposition camp.
I’ve enjoyed RΠЯ’s inventive soundscapes in the past, both in his remixes for other artists and in his own creations. The beautiful instrumentals remain, but now there seems to be confusion as to who Keep Shelly In Athens are. The chillwave and dream poppy brightness continue to impress in a handful of songs, but the remaining half sees the group submitting to a much darker sound. Menacing, abrasive, glitchy beats and electric guitars have invaded their once chimerical serenity and it’s as if the previous EP’s were released by a completely different band.
The opening cut “Time Exists Only to Betray Us” announces the arrival of a divergent beast altogether with its menacing, slap-stinging drumbeat and icy cold production. The once prominent vocal samples of previous EPs only appear on a few of the album’s tracks. Wailing male and female voices dominate the first track and the samples return in the Massive Attack-like, claustrophobic number “Higher,” with its skittering beats and indecipherable male vocal sample that wouldn’t seem far removed from a hip hop track.
“Oostende”, “Recollection”, “Flyway”, “Room 14 (I’m Fine)”, “Sails” and “Back to Kresnas Street” carry the torch from their previous EPs. It’s interesting that the first three were chosen to represent the tone of the album, as they are a far cry from the foreboding mood of the other half of the record. I can only chalk it up to false advertising. “Oostende” coats everything in a glacial, balearic, synth-coated glaze. The lyric “Get on the train to shorten the distance” returns a few times and I kept thinking that I’d rather take the circuitous, scenic route instead. It just wasn’t a very interesting train ride. “Recollection” was the first single presented and its early-‘90s throwback beat and electro-pop sheen is delightfully repeat-worthy. Dreamy, funky fourth cut “Flyway”, instantly reminded me of something off Röksopp’s debut albumMelody AM , but without the beguiling vocal delivery of Norwegian singer Anneli Drecker.
“Madmen Love” annoys until Sarah P’s vocals are processed to point where her yelps sound disarmingly similar to those of Karen O’s, but even then the song slinks by without making much of an impression. The remaining tracks are heavy on mood and light on solid songwriting. Only seventh cut “Stay Away”, commanded my attention, with its synth arpeggiations and late night train vibe. If her glottal stroke-smothered vocals were removed, the song would have been near perfect.
“Room 14 (I’m Fine)” sees her rein in the vocal nasality and submit to the sounds around her. “Knife” apes the atmosphere of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” psychedelia, but with muzzled metal guitars and absolutely no arch to the melody whatsoever. “Sails” enters chillwave territory again, yet sounds like a mediocre Asobi Seksu B-side offering. “Hover”, a live track, seems to have been tacked on the end. The crowds claps and I’m just left scratching my head.
Final track “Back to Kresnas Street” ends exactly the way opener “Time Exists Only to Betray Us” did, with an unresolved, ambiguous, dangling question mark. It’s one of the many frustrating aspects of the group’s multiple personality-laden debut. There are two completely different EPs within this album stitched together with a tenuously thin thread. One is dark, one is light and unfortunately the thread does not bind them together as a cohesive musical statement. RΠЯ should find himself a new vocalist and play to his strengths. He’s doing his talent a disservice. File this under ‘promise unfulfilled’.