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Author: Unknown (Epinions.com)
Shiner?s 1997 Lula Divina ranks a one of the great releases of the past decade. Alternative had died, squashing groundbreaking bands like Jawbox in the process, with pop music dancing all over their graves and kids and teenagers partying in ignorance, as though nothing revolutionary had happened. And just behind this entire laughable backlash, in the middle of the country -- in Kansas City, of all places! -- a band was whipping up its letter of refusal, its official record of denial. And its combination of virtuoso playing, snappy song structure, and heartfelt vocals screamed in my ear that rock was not dead, far from it. It would live underground, again, and thrive for those interested in more than pomp and circumstance. Check out my review of that release, one of the first few reviews I did, then check out the release itself.
It was inevitable Shiner would be unable to top Lula, and the truth of that has come to pass. As good a release as 2000's Starless is, it?s so obviously a transitional record, filled with both moments of glory and of frustration.
Jason Gerken replaces Tim Dow on drums -- well, I shouldn?t even use the word ?replace,? for no one could replace Dow. Tim recreated rock drumming on his two recordings with Shiner, shattering convention into dust and tossing it to the wind, forging rhythms from scratch that powered the songs like voltage. Gerken does the smart thing here and doesn?t even attempt to match Dow?s ingenuity; problem is, he goes in the opposite direction, scaling the drumming down to its basics. He?s solid and competent, but more often than not Gerken seems to take the easy route, the easy rhythm, the easy fill, never quite pushing himself, and never quite pushing the songs.
Paul Malinowski, so masterful and out-there on Lula, also scales back his bass lines and hangs closer to the guitar, in essence dropping a dimension from the songs. This is possibly a result of their addition of a second guitarist, Josh Newton. Adding Josh allows them to split the guitar into two layers, but if you listen to Lula you?ll know that there never really was a need for a second guitarist. Malinowski and Epley created an expansive sound that defied the input. Here, despite the second guitarist, the sound actually seems smaller, more compact and immediate. But their general approach is intact. What you don?t get with Shiner are lots of power chords; though they employ plenty of distortion, they composed riffs from individual notes, series of seemingly unrelated pluckings that merge into surprising new arrangements.
Epley?s voice is somewhat of a paradox, a combination of one voice weathered and smoke-battered, another silken and powerfully melodic. The dichotomy makes for some great singing, for Epley can do everything from soft ballads to punkish howling.
Shiner love to play with time signatures, always breaking up 4/4 measures into odd little fragments that magically flow and never lose the rhythm yet critically deepen the songs. The lead track, ?Spinning,? is a great example, taking measures of 6/4, 3/4, and 5/4 and stacking them against each other in vital new ways. ?Kevin is Gone? and ?Glass Jaw Test? do the same thing, reinventing the concept of rhythm.
Most tracks contain at least five movements, usually a verse and chorus splintered among breaks and bridges and other odds and ends -- the point is that Shiner pack a lot into one song, much more so than most bands. Even within that structure, each passage is usually intricate in construction -- not just from the odd time signatures but also from the interplay of the various elements, for example how the voice fits within the twin guitars. Things are rarely as expected here.
The chorus of ?Spinning? is genius, with its simple, even vocal ? ?my son, my traitor; my son, my failure? ? set atop a tangle of drum fills and twisted guitar, after which the guitars climb as though rocketing off into space. ?Kevin Is Gone? is a neat fusion of punk mayhem and prog-rock precision. ?Unglued? mimics Radiohead with its shuffling rhythm, otherworldly guitar, and soft vocals before detonating in a spray of guitar. ?Semper Fi? kicks in like a new Chavez song with its squawking guitars and growling bass, then it bursts forth like any good Shiner song does, ripping through movements after movement before circling back. ?Lazy Eye? is a rarity, a ballad that rocks massively despite its slowed tempo, thanks to its inventive guitar work and Epley?s power vocals.
A few tracks fall flat, which is the reason for the loss of a star from this otherwise 5-star outing. The simple ?Giant?s Chair? could have been thought up by dozens of top-forty contemporaries. The same goes for ?The Arrangement,? a shockingly gentle ballad. ?Too Much of Not Enough? also starts too softly, and too simplistically, and tries to ramp the energy later, but it?s too little and too late. In general, too, Gerken?s drumming fails to fill these occasional voids as Dow would have done.
Starless is clearly a transitional release for Shiner, as they get used to their second guitarist and a new drummer. They?ll be back. This is probably just a brief interlude before the real show begins.
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