There was a time when you might have been inclined to believe that Portland, Oregon, my old stomping ground, was merely the home of Art Alexakis, the shitsack in charge of Everclear, one of the worst bands ever. But, the fact is – and I believe I’ve mentioned this – there are some kickass bands floating around Portland nowadays. Sure, you’ve got your Decemberists, your Shins, and your M. Wards, but don’t forget Blitzen Trapper, The Thermals, and the All Girl Summer Fun Band. While you’re at it, add to the list The Shaky Hands.
The Shaky Hands are a great band if you like everything R.E.M. did before Green. But they’re also more than mere pastiche – there’s a primal, surging power to The Shaky Hands music and I offer, as primary evidence, their new album Lunglight. Yeah, it’s got a title that makes you think of phlegm, but its one of the best “grower” albums since The National’s Boxer (and those of you who read this site know that I would not make that comparison lightly). On my first trip through Lunglight, I liked the feel, but none of the songs really jumped out (except for “You’re the Light,” which is just… fucking… awesome. But we’ll get to that later). Subsequent trips helped me unearth the melodies underneath the pulsing bass (played by Mayhaw Hoons, the greatest name in the history of bass player names. He’s also one of the only individual band members photographed in the jacket for Lunglight; not surprisingly, he has long read hair and an awesome beard. Mayhaw Hoons, folks – you can’t make up names like this) and jangly guitars. Nicholas Delffs provides the vocals, which might garner some comparisons to that guy from the Strokes, but that does him a real disservice. Delffs quivers and staggers between Murmur-era Michael Stipe, Bob Dylan, and Damon Albarn with a cold.
The album kicks off with “New Parade,” which features the great lyric “to all the peaceful/ please fornicate.” It’s a good track for people who are waiting forever (or until January) for the next Franz Ferdinand record. There’s the twisty, sinister guitar lick, the beating drums, and by the time Delffs is singing “No more man/ wicked man” on the chorus, the song is not the sum of its influences – it’s a Shaky Hands tune. At this point, it seems appropriate to point out that many Shaky Hands songs live up to the band’s name – there’s a certain shakiness to the tunes that lends them a lovely busted-ass quality.
Choruses emerge in the songs of Lunglight; they’re not telegraphed as they are in the music of less artful bands (think Coldplay or Keane – if you can’t spot the chorus in one of their songs, you’re deaf). Instead, Lunglight is full of tunes that function like crazy-ass storms – you may have been in the chorus for a while before you realize that’s what you’re hearing. But nonetheless, you’re probably bopping your head. Lunglight is a pop album for people who hate pop albums – it’s muddy, distorted, dirty, and jittery but it’s got hooks aplenty to reward your diligence.
The hooks are never more evident than on “You’re the Light”, a frantic, propulsive, old-school rocker with just the right touch of sweetness: “You’re the reason why/ I don’t want to lie” is a nice sentiment and Delffs doesn’t oversell it; it’s sung as a matter of fact and Delffs trusts it to stand on its own. This is a lesson that Nathan Willet from Cold War Kids could probably stand to learn.
Lunglight is particularly refreshing because of its relative brevity – only a third of the songs pass the four minute mark, and none of them reach a full five minutes. Among the 4+ minute numbers is the outstanding “Wake the Breathing Light,” which starts off with a stumbling guitar line and evolves into a mid-tempo number that wouldn’t be out of place on Exile on Main Street. The background vocals (“come back up/ just wake up”) are eventually buried under Delffs’ yowling and a pretty ferocious, squalling guitar solo before the song settles down again for its ending.
If you get the sense from this that The Shaky Hands sound like a lot of formerly-awesome bands when they were still awesome, that’s not an entirely incorrect conclusion to reach. These guys clearly have great record collections and every time I stumble through Lunglight, I find more awesome and disparate influences, ranging from Patti Smith to The Band to the afore-mentioned Exile-era Stones and Murmur-era R.E.M. And while I said before that Lunglight is a pop album for people who hate pop, it also manages to be an indie album for people who are leery of many indie bands’ tendency toward pretension and cringe-inducing seriousness. So it’s kind of a record for everyone, or at least for peaceful people to put on while fixing to fornicate.