The Shoes make generic, guitar-based pop music. On one hand, I’ve told you nothing. On the other, you kind of know what I’m talking about anyway.
Generic is another word for “not brilliant” or maybe “good enough”. (I’ll still put that less than one tenth of one percent of pop music that is brilliant up against Rememberence of Things Past any day of the week, though.) And when in a genre you’re not a fan of to begin with, it must be downright annoying. Which is why I wouldn’t have blamed my showtunes-loving daughter if she made a snide remark about it - Really dad? Yet another (two, really) “guitar based pop”album? Exactly how many do you think you'll be needing? I guess. It must have sounded astoundingly dull. And pretty damned generic. It sounded that way to me, too.
But that’s how people react when they hear a genre they’re not crazy about. I do it too. When it’s country, I hear the predictable chord changes, the southern accent and the pedal steel guitar. When it’s hip-hop, I hear a young man boasting and a loud beat. When it’s Broadway, I hear a precisely sung, consciously pretty melody.
But fans of those genres hear so much more than that. They spot those signposts that identify the genre but quickly move on to the details that make that particular example of it, hopefully, unique. The things that non-fans never hear. The non-fan is judging it based on the seeming cliches. The fan, on the variations on those cliches. In truth, they don’t hear cliches at all. Truisms, probably.
Which brings me back to the Shoes. Present Tense/Tongue Twister is a two-fer, not a best of - their second and third albums, depending upon how you count them.
So did I ever get past the recognition of the cliches? Yes and no.
At times, the Shoes sound like an embryonic Fountains of Wayne, just not quite as snide, which may be due to their Midwestern roots. While the singing verges on the wimpy, the beat and the guitars are just hard and fast enough to make up for it and still keep it pop. If they were from New York, they would have gotten a lot of critical support by appearing to be ironic, like Nick Lowe. But they weren’t. (Nor was he.)
Like Big Star before them, they just wrote, played and sang pop songs at a time when it was out of style - after the Beatles but before New Wave. And when it came back, there was Nick Lowe ready to take over for them. So they kind of got lost in the shuffle.
That’s a shame, if not quite a tragedy. They’re really expert technicians of the genre. Each song has at least a couple of things going for it - the rhythm guitar sound, a great hook, etc. When you notice the lyrics they’re actually not bad. And thet more or less maintain that level throughout, occasionally catching you off guard with something REALLY good, like “Every Girl”, ‘Three Times” or “Girls of Today”, all of which have at least three things going for them.
So what we have are two very good - but not great - records. Expertise will only get you so far, and there’s nothing quite weird/brilliant enough on it to rank with Big Star. And so I like and appreciate it, but don’t love it. B+
And their very generic-ness is what keeps them jumping around on my 2013 rankings. One day it all comes together and they’re near the top, the next day, they’re down in the lower third.
So Far This Year:
2. Tame Impala
4. Pink Floyd
6. Shoes-Present Tense
7. Iron & Wine
8. Shoe-Tongue Twister
9. Phil Ochs