It’s hard to believe that it’s been nearly three years since Shapes and Sizes‘ last album, 2007’s woefully underrated Split Lips, Winning Hips, A Shiner. That release, on the super-indie-friendly label Asthmatic Kitty, seemed ready to launch the band to bigger heights. I mean, Sufjan Stevens likes them, so why don’t more people? The Montreal foursome’s music was frenetic, acrobatic, fun, and extremely melodic. So, maybe in hopes of reaching that larger audience, Shapes and Sizes kicked into a different gear, moving from spastic Broken Social Scene territory to a darker, more subdued, elastic sound. Sometimes, even if it ain’t broke, you’ve got to try to fix it.
The slow, smoky burn of opener “Tell Your Mum” is highlighted by Caila Thompson-Hanant’s ecstatic vocals. It’s evident her voice has grown and become more controlled over the years, a big improvement to the group’s sound. The pokey, angular guitars, stuttered drums, and twinkly piano combine into a sort of Olivia Tremor Control gallop. The male vocal counterpoint on “Sing Them Songs” is much more straightforward, the slightly off-putting electro-handclap and Disney musical chorus dangerously close to clashing over the chugging, distorted guitars.
The muted cowbell and far-off, delayed guitar on “You Don’t Have To Drink From Here” work in a Latin groove under a wordless Thompson-Hanant, her controlled quavering sounding all St. Vincent-y when paired with the intricate rhythm-play and spacey sound effects. Her whoops at the three minute mark are spine-tingling, the bass and tumbling out into a spy movie theme. This one would fit in on their last record if it were happier, but this new dark material is strikingly new, yet in the band’s control.
The Deerhoof space-rock of “Too Late For Dancing” ironically kicks things into a mope-dance party, swaying and loping, blue, breezy. It’s damn near sexy, the bluesy bass and drums kicking together underneath dreamy 90’s guitar swirls and moaning vocals. The moments when the guitar and vocals match pitch ache. This might be Thompson-Hanant’s “I’m a great vocalist!” coming out party, her trills and sweeps on note, her register vast. The third bridge guitar scrapes that juxtapose her lush vocals on “Time Has Practically Stopped” chime and clank like out of tune church bells.
“I Need an Outlet” brings the return of male vocals, this time stuttering and anxious in a Spencer Krug manner. Guitars, drums, and clanking toy piano frantically rush forward, strange vocal samples swimming back and forth between the headphones. The beautifully harmonized chorus frees the listener from the tension of the verse just in time to ratchet back to speed. That same fast-slow change is played to a slightly less effect in “23 and Rizing”, a rocking piece that just doesn’t change enough to be as effective as its predecessor.
“The Hit Parade” and “Old Worlds” rap the album up, the former a sort of mock-hip hop beat with big, indie vocals, the latter a spacey tribal rhythm with big, religious themes. Other than the awkwardness of “Sing Them Songs”, this album is good enough to demand a much larger number of ears to turn their way. Thompson-Hanant’s vocals have gotten much better (not that they even needed change anyway), the music has taken a darker, bigger turn, resulting in a wholly new sound composed of the same old parts.