The seemingly impossible keeps happening, so maybe the world is coming to an end. Let's assess: For the first time in ages, Oasis has released a new album worth its salt. Top 40 stations are awakening to the notion that guitars can (and should!) be played by bands other than Sugar Ray and Creed. And, to top it all off, two former Verve-ers have reunited to form two-fifths of a bold new band -- one that's only mildly aware that electronica altered rock & roll for good, one that's beyond Radiohead-ish neoprog, and one that takes the current garage rock revival and shoves it.
The Shining, they're called: a quintet from various parts of England, named for the Kubrick flick inspired by King. In addition to ex-Verve members Simon Jones (bass) and Simon Tong (guitar, keyboards), the group is composed of lesser knowns Dan MacBean on lead guitar, drummer Mark Heaney, and 22-year-old lead singer Duncan Baxter. This formula of old-meets-new explains not only their make up, but also their sound: Led Zepplin crossed with the Stone Roses, space rock qua classic rock, a postmodern update to the pre-punk passions of guitar-driven music. If this sounds like an unabashed attempt at a metanarrative "concept", maybe it is. "There's a supernatural element to rock music which rarely gets tapped into these days, I don't know why," Jones has said. "Sometimes when I'm playing, I just find that you hit a spot and you're transported to another place. You close your eyes, and for a minute you're just . . . gone."
Yes, Jones and his mates have every intention of fully whisking us away to music's otherworld, but, in all, True Skies is an unfinished trip into those cosmos. At its best moments -- take electromagnetic opener "Quicksilver" or hair-raising "Show You the Way" -- the debut defies gravity with rocket power. But at other times, on numbers like "I Wonder How" and "I Am the One", the music is nearly void of velocity and lift.
Two problems seem to be the Shining's anchor. First and foremost, Baxter's singing can be unnervingly novice, like a young lad playing at rockstar rather than a card-carrying member of the club. His snarl sometimes turns into a squawk, and his voice is often too thin and nasal to deliver the pomp-worthy lines with convincing bravado. Add this to the occasional awfully bad lyric (he actually wails "It's not easy being green", during "I Wonder How") and the Shining hardly seem like the brainchild of seasoned Britrock veterans. Second, the attempt to revitalize the "supernatural element" of music has a tendency to come off with the thin purposelessness of a practice session -- the sort when nobody has any new ideas and band mates just fiddle on their instruments as an excuse to not go home. "Until the End" toys with this psychogeographic take on music, complete with off-in-the-distant vocals, ominous bass, bald drumming and barely-there guitar; though they build, the effect is a sound that might work live but sounds contrived and unfinished recorded. Sometimes when you're playing, you just find that you hit a spot and you're . . . in the same damn place you were before.
Despite these pitfalls, True Skies has several worthwhile numbers. "Quicksilver" has big-big sound: a headrush of carousing guitars and jamming bass, Baxter's triumphant vocals dreamily cast in a wash of echoing effects. Its successor, "Young Again", is a convincing stab at mid-to-late career Verve, with clean, rootsy melodies and singing that mimics Richard Ashcroft's soul-searching vibrato, intentionally or no. And across the board, they are technically superb, working intricate tricks seamlessly into otherwise undemanding sonic terrains. (Take a listen to the drums and glammy guitar solos in "Find Your Way Home" for a case in point.)
In so many ways, the Shining have done everything right -- kissed off what's trendy and instead put together an album that's full of head, heart, and (Northern) soul. Still, though they are a band with oodles of potential and high expectations, they remain grounded by the inability to fully turn theory into practice. If you're looking for signs that everything musical is reaching apocalyptic renewal, look elsewhere. Rumor has it that Damon Albarn and Thom Yorke might be teaming up for a cover of "I Wanna Be Adored". . . .