Something that has always impressed me is how a television show can have multiple writers yet still maintain a relatively consistent characterization. Maybe that isn't such a feat since I'm easily impressed by the likes of chocolate bread and pretty smiles. Either way, Shinobu's latest full-length, Strange Spring Air is like a wacky sitcom in that way because rather than having a single songwriter, all the band members contributed to the writing process (even while residing in different cities) and in the end it all flows together really well. It is also like a wacky sitcom in that it is wacky and provides its audience with a highly enjoyable activity for about half an hour.
The appropriately titled "Introduction" gets things kicking and is essentially a minute-long trombone solo act. The trombone doesn't seem to get a lot of play outside ska and jazz circles, but Shinobu use it well as a calm but slightly strange segue into the album proper. A number of these little interludes are sprinkled throughout the album and a few of them keep with this jazzy feel, like the bassline in "Colonial Kissing Booth" or the ragtime ba-"da ba-da-ba ba-da ba-da" of "Nach Dem Truthahn / Instrumental." These distorted and vague hints of jazz help evoke the Strange Spring Air title of the album, or at least that Abba song "Fernando." There really isn't much of a jazz influence to their proper songs, though, unless you count "Sometimes I Wish I Were a Cat," whose cute shouted lyrics and frenzied guitars recall Cap'n Jazz. Although, the image of cats might make you think of a certain group of frostbacks. In fact, the band cites them as an influence; however, I venture to say Shinobu are a slightly more eclectic bunch of feline friends, or at least that's the impression this particular album gives.
While the words indie rock and eclectic might stir up frightening images of mewling pale people in scarves strumming on an acoustic guitar and bashing a toaster for percussion, that isn't the kind of game these guys play. Shinobu harkens back to a time when indie rock actually, you know…rocked. "Teachers Get Tired" is built around alt-country guitars, but lacking a certain twang it effectively comes off more like a disenchanted urban cowboy than a back-porch hoedown. That is to say nothing of the stupidly catchy hook of "there are too many songs about love." Thankfully, those songs seem in short supply here because hearing a thousand songs about how Tommy touches your magic spot can get a little tiring. The bass-driven "Antarctic Stare" mostly relies on a groove to keep it going but when squealing guitar and feedback take focus it allows you to appreciate the understated toe-tapping/hip-shaking flow of the rest of the song, and you will want to try and do both at the same time. Even when there isn't any music at all on "1995 Store Champion," the band is able create meaning through the "recorded in a tin can" quality of the vocals combined with the lyrics of "from under the streetlight I saw a thousand drunks walk home / and under the street light I found myself among the drunks as I stumbled home / failed chessmaster / I was born a bastard and nothing's gonna change tonight / nothing's gonna change tonight" give the listener a sensation of emotional and physical drowning. The only time the band takes a leap and completely misses is on the interlude "The Heralding of the Moustache King," with its synthesizers and programmed drums that really just function to grate on the nerves.
Whether telling a story or simply just getting weird, Shinobu's Strange Spring Air runs a gamut of sounds as well as emotions. But like a compass, the album's centre is firmly cemented, so it always feels like a whole rather than random parts thrown together. The only completely negative thing I can really say about this is it appears that the band's future is uncertain and we might not get any more entertaining and interesting albums like this -- at least for a while.
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