[10 September 2008]

By Dan Raper

Nick Delffs and his band, the Shaky Hands, put out a well-received debut album last year, so it’s admirable that the group has found the material to follow up so quickly. They’re now a quintet (Delffs’ brother Nathan has joined the group since its debut), and the added player means significantly more room for the Portland band to explore the various textures of indie rock. As on the most thrilling moments on their first disc, melody, though important, is an element to be potentially undermined. In this approach, the Shaky Hands give us a reason to listen harder to what might at first sound fairly straight.

The Shaky Hands’ songs generally start quite simply, asserting riffs or minimal vocal melodies, but, as if the band’s attention has been diverted, they often drift sideways. These shifting song structures don’t really feel indulgent. They’re not proggy diversions, but actually give the Shaky Hands’ songs an unpredictability that’s a needed differentiation for the band.  They’re interested in peripheral sounds—the Pavement-inspired rhythms of “Love All Off”, or the disconnect between the galloping percussion and guitar-wash of “Loosen Up”. In these instances, you don’t really notice the group playing with structure unless you listen closely, and that’s an indication of Delffs’s deft arrangements. Elsewhere, the contrary compositional emphasis manifests as expectation undermined. “No Say” builds up timbre pre-chorus, then bottoms out with no payoff—purposefully. It makes the simple message, “You’re different, it’s OK / Don’t matter, anyway” hit harder.

However, as they mature into a more recognizable indie rock group, the Shaky Hands find themselves in danger of drifting closer towards more well-established tropes—tropes that have the potential to make them a little less interesting than they were on their fresh-faced and appealing self-titled debut. When you’re listening to the new material, you can’t help but think of—mostly—Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. Delffs shares Alec Ounsworth’s nasal delivery, which has been criticized as a gimmick. If you’re not sufficiently engaged while listening to Lunglight, you might come to a similar conclsion. The indie rock language that makes up the Shaky Hands’ musical vocabulary can feel similarly familiar. Though it’s exuberant, “Loosen Up” sounds like an emaciated version of “California Dreamer”. The music’s got a collegiate, appealingly amateur feel, but it can also come across as a little thin occasionally.

That said, the group leaves its best material on Lunglight for the end. A stash of songs in the disc’s final third remind us of the laid-back appeal of the band’s most honest material, content in its solid construction. The country-tinged strum of “Show Me Your Life” seems to project satisfaction. Delffs even drops the vocal affect momentarily. A neat, aquatic percussive figure sounds really familiar, but I can’t quite place it. “Wake the Breathing Light” trades in Vampire Weekend-esque simplicity: a clean bass line, bounding into something more thorny as it veers off track. And “We Are the Young”, an easy disc highlight, is an in-and-out indie rock anthem for the Internet, upbeat and catchy, but with this acute sting.

This isn’t the difficult sophomore album that previous buzz bands have struggled with, and that’s a great sign for those hoping for more groups with a real career ahead of them in music. Delffs and his band are still interested in the edges of poplist melodic indie rock, and this fertile territory will be interesting as long as the group remains exuberant and vivacious. Lunglight‘s a promising continuation of a promising start.

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