On Now I’m Ready, Keep Shelly in Athens (KSiA) create the kind of stylized music that could very well wind up overhead at H&M, crackling through speakers that can’t handle the bass as you seek out a new pair of skinny jeans. Now I’m Ready plays like a collection of tracks that didn’t quite make the cut on the season’s coolest synthpop albums, familiar despite its unfamiliarity, pleasant if not exciting. Its a respectable genre exercise from a band still carving out their identity. To use a a cooking metaphor, KSiA’s sophomore album needs more time on the stove. Like any good stew, the flavors need time to marinate, to evolve into something more than their separate parts.
Keep Shelly in Athens dates back to 2010, when debut EP In Love with Dusk garnered a heaping pile of blog buzz. On that collection, KSiA crafted blissful ambience in the vein of Air France or Saint Etienne. Unfortunately, in 2014 the band lost founding member and singer Sarah P. Her vocals stretched the sonic palette, her dexterity allowing producer/composer RΠЯ to bounce from torch balladry to ’90s house. Now I’m Ready suffers due to the lack of that agility. New vocalist Myrtha, while clearly a strong vocalist, hasn’t yet devised a way to mold and bend her tones into as many shapes. Instead, she veers too closely to a delivery reminiscent of ’80s pop star Tiffany. For a more modern context, her vocals make Lauren Mayberry of CHVRCHES sound as explosive and tumultuous as Bjork.
(Stream: Keep Shelly in Athens’ Now I’m Ready)
“Fractals” jumpstarts the record with pillows of echoed guitar strums, followed by Myrtha’s hushed window-gazing: “Fading distant memory, times that we borrow, to wallow.” The album highlight succeeds in perfectly utilizing the new vocalist’s natural tone. In the end, though, it unfortunately acts as dress rehearsal for eight different, divergent plays. Where they could have stuck to one successful pattern, KSiA instead crafted an album that shuffles between snapshots of their synthy brethren.
“Silent Rain” boils with a gothic beat akin to a John Maus cut, but all the intrigue washes away once the vocals kick in. “Hollow Man” sounds like it was commissioned by a hip hotel to score their happy hour; tribal drumming meshes into a slick groove with a sturdy stand-up bass line, but then gets undercut by synthesized percussion. “Hollow Man” excels when it slows in its waning moments, giving rise to a xylophone-driven jazz breakdown in the mold of Koop. Album closer “Hunter”, meanwhile, finds KSiA aping Portishead. Had Beth Gibbons served as the vocalist, we might be talking about a tune that scored a generation’s conception, but in the hands of Myrtha it’s a middle school dance affair.
The album’s true strengths lie in RΠЯ’s subtle instrumentation choices, guitars and bass flitting through the background and then thrilling as they rise to the fore. The title track follows this winning formula, the balearic pop blooming into a chugging guitar anthem in the vein of the Cranberries. Yes, analyzing Now I’m Ready leads to a lot of references to other bands, but the reference points are so apparent that they cannot be ignored. Some may write off this release as retread innocuousness, but its also full of weightless pleasures. With more seasoning, Myrtha and RΠЯ may develop a more interesting concoction.
Essential Tracks: “Fractals”, “Now I’m Ready