Shapes and Sizes: Split Lips, Winning Hips, A Shiner

[20 June 2007]

By Joe Tacopino

It may be a complete coincidence that the popularity of cut-and-paste indie pop has a chronological association with the proliferation of ADHD medication (the controlled substances, which are so liberally prescribed to over-imaginative children). A generation of daydreamers, who grew up with ready access to Ritalin, now enjoys the anxiety-inducing sounds of bands like The Fiery Furnaces and Architecture in Helsinki. Their compositions (though utterly poppy and surprisingly intricate) are a veritable grab bag of musical styles. The melodies can stop at the drop of a dime and change directions completely, producing snippets of adorable tunes, which may lack coherence but undoubtedly keep the listener on his or her toes.

The 2006 debut from Shapes and Sizes seemed to fit right in to this burgeoning pseudo-genre; and the album’s opener, “Island’s Gone Bad”, exemplified this style. The song’s sudden transition from hand-clapping indie rock to a spastic guitar/tom-tom combination was only accentuated by the contrasting vocals of lead singers Caila Thompson-Hannant and Rory Seydel. Ultimately the album failed, mainly because its emphasis on diversity seemed to draw away from the strength in its craftsmanship.

As the largesse of this genre wanes, (Matt Friedburger releases a sub-par solo album) Shapes and Sizes produce a second album that not only exemplifies this generational tendency toward lack of coherence but may just have well defined it. Split Lips, Winning Hips, a Shiner pleasantly surprises by reeling in the disparate styles and influences to make a comprehensive pastiche of sound, which can be both jolting and soothing – sometimes even within the same song. 
The shifts are more subtle here than on their previous effort. The frantic nature of “Alone/Alive” and jagged guitars on “Head Moving” are quickly countered by “Geese”, a song which evolves from the pleading whispers of Thompson-Hannant to a spastic guitar riff/organ-fueled romp. On “The Taste in My Mouth”, another wispy ballad, Seydel provides harmony as soft horns wallow under Thompson-Hannant’s pleading lines; “‘What’s that mark under your eye?’” she desperately sings, making an obvious allusion to domestic abuse, “I’ll leave him soon, I’ll leave him soon”. Themes of violence and despondency subsist as an undercurrent to the unsettling nature of these songs. “Time moves through a crowded room, waking sleepers, and generally fucking shit up,” Thompson-Hannant gloomily states on “The Horse’s Mouthy Mouth” which is a far cry from, “I like eating fruit off of trees when I’m with you”.

Even Rory Seydel’s indie-tastic twine is more subdued here, giving songs like “Teller/Seller” a more seasoned appeal. He harmonizes with Thompson-Hannant on “Alone/Alive” and modestly complements her on “The Horse’s Mouthy Mouth” – instead of merely getting in the way.  There is also a lack of the pretension and cuteness that existed in the band’s debut. “One day I may be as crooked as my bottom teeth”, Seydel regretfully explains on “Can’t Stop that (Sinking) Feeling”. These lines are muttered in a way that is utterly authentic and revealing, removing all remnants of twee from the band’s repertoire.

Thompson-Hannant’s voice shines brilliantly in some of the more rambunctious selections. “Highlife (I Had Been Duped)” bounces with a buoyant bass line. “Oh what a damper on my day”, she placidly sighs, before the song crescendos into a shriek-fest of “I-Ieee-I-Ieees”. On The Riff-o-licious “Piggy” Thompson-Hannant sounds almost sensual as she passionately wails about the “most, phony, phallic abstract concept”. There is vigor in this little girl’s voice; and you’ll find it both dominant and pleasantly enticing.

These songs tend to meander rather than stutter step, making Split Lips, Winning Hips, A Shiner appear less schizophrenic than its predecessor. However, there are enough pitfalls to cause a sufficient amount of anxiety. A generation addicted to instant gratification, the 30-second sound byte, and microwave dinners can now add this album to their soundtrack.

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