To pull off a side project, a musician must first have a band with a specific sound to branch off from, and that branching off must not sound exactly like the original band. Think The Postal Service from Death Cab for Cutie or Lotus Plaza from Deerhunter. La Luz guitarist Shana Cleveland can now join those ranks, with her long-gestating side project Shana Cleveland and the Sandcastles finally breaking free of the “mostly for house shows” title they’d prescribed themselves over the past six years.
Cleveland’s gentle neo-folk sounds miles away from La Luz’s surf rock. Oh Man, Cover the Ground, the side project’s official debut, is chock full of introspective lyrics and meandering guitar that shows a different side of Cleveland’s talents. After a while, though, the album starts to bleed together, sounding more like a few songs with different movements than a 13-track album.
There’s a nomadic feeling to Oh Man, Cover the Ground, one that Cleveland recognized in a brief interview with Noisey. She likened the song “Golden Days” to “traveling and missing home and meeting people and leaving them over and over and the magic times when everything feels just right and you think, ‘I should just stay here, maybe this could be my life.’” It sounds like Cleveland is building a home in these songs, with comforting riffs and sparse but vital accompaniment from the shifting cast of Sandcastles. Songs like “Golden Days” and “Itching Around” were made for sunny road trips, lulling you into picturing your life if you set up shop wherever was nearest and most welcoming.
On “Holy Rollers”, Cleveland croons about “fields of clover” while fingerpicking her way through the heartland. Her professed focus on “laziness, and lust, and wanting to eat other people’s food when it looks better than mine” is one of the album’s strongest assets, and, along with the master class of folk guitar she puts on, makes for an overwhelmingly pleasant listen.
While pleasant is almost always a good adjective, it can also mean that there isn’t much challenge to the proceedings. Most of these tracks start to sound the same at a certain point: “Change in the Ocean” feels strikingly similar to “Butter & Eggs”, while the piano accompaniment on “Rounding the Block” recalls the album’s title track.
Shana Cleveland joins an ever-expanding roster in the folk resurgence of the past several years alongside artists like Angel Olsen and Sharon Van Etten. But before she can match the most recent works of those two artists, she’ll need to work on differentiating her songs. She has the intangibles; now, it’s time to work out the kinks.
Essential Tracks: “Holy Rollers”, “Golden Days”, and “Itching Around”