There's a Springman Records sampler with what I can only assume is an earlier version of Shinobu's song "Not Gonna Happen" (which can also be found on their MySpace page). That song is amazing: simple to the point of absurdity and catchier than anything you've heard all year. I bought it off iTunes to stave off my craving for more of their stuff as I waited for their new album, Worstward, Ho!, to arrive in the mail, listening to the song about ten times in a row. To anyone who loves the Weakerthans' Fallow or Jawbreaker's 24 Hour Revenge Therapy, find it.
Then, Worstward, Ho! showed up in my mailbox (approximately two days after I ordered it and well before the release date, thanks to the amazing folks at Asian Man Records). I won't lie. I was disappointed. Everything I'd heard from these guys before, from "Not Gonna Happen" to the songs on their MySpace was awesome. It was fast, catchy, poppy and simple. I was expecting it to be one of the best albums of the year.
This album is not what I expected. The first track is just some guitar noise leading into the second track, which is abrasive at best. "Hail, Hail the Executioner" comes on next, and doesn't leave for almost seven minutes. Every part of it is good (the obvious Piebald and Smoking Popes influences for example), but it's long in the tooth as a whole.
"Regular Love Triangle" is easily the highest point on the album. From the minimalist opening riff to the vocals, which fall directly between John K. Samson and Josh Caterer and then start screaming, to the "woo-oo"s in the background, this song is Shinobu at their most captivating. The lyrics are sarcastic and poignant, coming back after a false ending with, "I'm like a speck of sand on the beach. Oh my God, that is so deep! That is so deep! You should read my livejournal."
One of the best ways to describe the problem I have with this album is the track "Not Gonna Happen." They recorded it slower, adding 17 seconds to the running time, and it's all the worse for it. The song lost all of its immediacy and vigor. Now, it just plods along, much like the rest of the album. Much of the album feels like it could have been all the more interesting had it been recorded better (which some parts show the band clearly had the capabilities to do) or sung cleaner or sped up.
But here's the intriguing thing: the band seems to have done this on purpose, or at least they acknowledge it. They describe themselves as "kind of obnoxious and loud." They list as many indie rock bands as influences as punk bands, and it seems that, this time around, they're leaning much heavier on the indie rock. It's not my thing, but there is a real sense of Shinobu's capability as a unit permeating this album. If it's irritating, they want you to be irritated. If it goes on too long, well, they're not playing for you anymore. And that brings up a good point: many points on Worstward, Ho! feel like the band is having fun at the listener's expense; the last few minutes of "Hail, Hail the Executioner" are filled with false stops and fade-outs that fade back in, making it a prime example.
One last quirk to mention before I go is the acoustic tracks. Other than the lyrics ("I'm trying so hard to be that man that I want to see in the mirror, but I'll settle for some guy who I wouldn't terribly mind meeting"), they don't do a whole lot for me, but fans of Neutral Milk Hotel may be interested.
All in all, I could neither recommend this album nor discount it. It's not a fantastic album by any means, but it shows a band fully capable of doing exactly what they want and illustrating huge amounts of promise.