By Cait Brennan
Zion, Illinois hardly seems like the kind of place to jumpstart a music revolution. But in the dark days of 1974, this tasty bit of spicy mustard in the middle of a Waukegan/Kenosha sandwich found itself with not one but two seemingly endless power sources. Say what you will about nuclear fission, but the Zion Nuclear Power Plant had nothing on the thousand-megawatt power pop of brothers John and Jeff Murphy and their high school pal Gary Klebe—the creative soul of Shoes. Pioneers of both power pop and DIY home recording, the band made their mark with 1977’s self-released Black Vinyl Shoes, released three gorgeous albums on Elektra from ’79-82, and over the next 30-plus years, blazed a fiercely independent trail with a series of critically-acclaimed albums (1984’s Silhouette, 1990’s Stolen Wishes, ‘94’s Propeller, and a ton of rarities and reissues).
The Zion nuclear plant gave up the ghost in 1998, but the Murphys and Klebe are still kicking out atomic-powered pop gems. Shoes are back with Ignition, their first album of all-new material in 18 years. And time hasn’t laid a glove on ‘em. They’re still as fresh, vital, and engaging as they were when Jimmy Carter was swatting at swamp rabbits.
Powerpop has always married irresistible, joyous hooks to yearning and heartache—and especially on Shoes records, melancholy and melody go hand in hand. Lyrically, Ignition finds Jeff, John, and Gary wrestling with loss, heartbreak, and the inevitable passage of time.
“Head Vs Heart” comes rocking out of the gate with crunchy powerpop guitars and patented Shoes harmonies. “Time is chasin’ me down/somewhere I got turned around,” sings Gary, over angular, dark-sugar guitars, caught up in the tension between logic and longing.
Jeff’s “The Joke’s On You” is a contender for the sweetest-sounding bitter-breakup song ever, with lines like “now you can’t crack a smile/I’m laughing all the while,” contrasting with warm, sunny harmonies and cheerful double-tracked vocals.
“Diminishing Returns” ruminates possible infidelity with palpable anxiety, while “Maybe Now” explores what happens when doing the right thing goes all wrong. “Play by the rules, and life can be so cruel,” sings Jeff, haunted by “the ghost of yesterday, today.” A brisk Left Banke-ish harpsichord (or is that just a really impossibly sprightly guitar?) and a heavy, ominous piano riff set the mood. “Maybe now you’ll come around/You’ll let your defenses down.” I wouldn’t count on it.
Gary’s punchy, catchy “Heaven Help Me” has harmonies that would put Jeff Lynne to shame, and some of the best guitar work on the album. John’s “Wrong Idea” is classic Shoes, with great jangly guitar riffs and longing lyrics. And while the classic pop heartache is never far behind, there’s both rueful regret and midlife wisdom to the band’s lyrics. Gary’s “Sign Of Life” is a song of rebirth that’s entirely fitting for the project, while it’s fair to say John’s “I Thought You Knew” is the dark flipside where everything has “gotten where it’s beyond repair.” “Say It Like You Mean It” is a cry for sincerity in a world where it’s in short supply. And Gary’s “Nobody To Blame” leaves bitterness and regret behind, finding peace and harmony in letting it all go.
Jeff’s awesome, multilayered “Where Will It End” reels you in like a frustrated relationship song but it masks a passionate cry for change, both personal and political. His stripped-down, mostly single-tracked vocal is especially strong here.
You might think your ears are playing tricks on you on track eight, but “Hot Mess” is not a previously-unheard excerpt from Tattoo You. John and Jeff pull off a sweet Jagger/Richards harmony vibe, while Gary lays down guitar riffs that would make Keef green with envy (or is that just oxygen deprivation?) The lyrics border on a full-on Stones spoof, but in any case, Mick and the boys haven’t written anything this fun in 30 years (apologies to the Bridges To Babylon fan in the audience).
The song that kickstarted the project grew out of tragedy. Inspired by the sudden death of a real-life friend, “Out Of Round” began as Jeff’s stark, sorrowful story of his friend’s grief-stricken wife. Gary and John helped to bring the song to life with a rich, full arrangement that perfectly captures a world frantically spinning out of balance. It may be the best song on the album.
John’s “In On You” tells it as only time and perspective can. “We tend to overlook the mounting cost of all that we’ve wagered and what we’ve lost,” he sings, over a sea of guitar sounds and a melancholy muted organ riff. Gary’s “Only We Remain” closes out the set, advising “let go of everything we know, just like there is no end/we are what we pretend.”
Ignition happily coincides with the release of a new book on the band, Boys Don’t Lie: A History Of Shoes by Mary E. Donnelly, managing editor of PurePopPress.com. The book follows the band from its embryonic days recording in the Murphys’ living room through their critically lauded Elektra output to their resurgence as a completely independent, self-contained creative powerhouse.
Speaking of which, I don’t know what kind of gear Gary Klebe laid in at his new home studio, but with all due respect to their great earlier efforts, Ignition surely has to be the best-sounding Shoes record ever. The vocal harmonies are richer and sweeter; the layered guitars are warm, crunchy, ringing out strong; and the crisp, tight rhythm section packs a punch. You’re going to want to put headphones on for this one. Special compliments to ever-versatile drummer John Richardson (Tommy Keene, Badfinger, Gin Blossoms) for his fine work throughout. Richardson’s balance of finesse with precision and power gives Ignition a rock-solid groove that adds a dynamite kick to already-great tunes.
On top of their pioneering efforts (then and now) in home recording, and everything they’ve done for power pop and beyond, it’s worth noting that Shoes were video pioneers as well. MTV played not one, not two, but four different Shoes videos the first day the channel existed, and they were in steady rotation for much of MTV’s early history. Videos for Ignition are said to be in the works.
Here’s another important piece of news: In September, the Numero Group is re-releasing the earliest Shoes albums (One In Versailles, Bazooka, Black Vinyl Shoes, and the demos for Present Tense) in deluxe remastered 150-gram vinyl editions with lyric sheets, photos, even iron-on transfers.
Ignition is a welcome return from a band that hasn’t lost a step. Make another one, guys, and do me a favor: next time, please don’t stay away so long.
Ignition is out today and is available to purchase from the band’s website.