Shapes and Sizes Candle To Your Eye

[Asthmatic Kitty; 2010]

Rating: 3/5

Styles: post-pop, NAIR
Others: Julee Cruise, Dirty Projectors, The Police

Last November, Solange Knowles posted a cover of Dirty Projectors’ “Stillness Is The Move” to her Twitter account. Her adaptation was superior to the original in almost every conceivable way: Knowles’ vocals were less studied and more limber than Angel and Amber’s from Dirty Projectors, and the cover version sampled “Bumpy’s Lament” (the same song utilized by Dr. Dre and Erykah Badu on “XXplosive” and “Bag Lady,” respectively), linking it to a long-running R&B tradition. Whereas Dirty Projectors aimed to bridge the cultural and musical gaps between indie rock and R&B, Solange actually succeeded, thanks in part to this clever bit of re-appropriation. In the time since that Twitter update, there have been uncounted instances of cross-pollination between the indie and urban (to use a terribly connoted term) realms, from Kid Cudi jumping on LCD Soundsystem tracks, to Vampire Weekend using Auto-Tune on their sophomore record, to B.O.B. retrofitting Vampire Weekend into pop-rap. And now another example of this burgeoning trend can be added to the tally: Candles To Your Eye, the newest album from British Columbia’s Shapes and Sizes, is positively teeming with nods to rhythm and blues. The willingness to experiment is a characteristic common to the Asthmatic Kitty roster, but I don’t think anyone was anticipating this particular stylistic shift.

Despite the egregious influences, Candle To Your Eye is an incredibly white-sounding album. Only a deaf person would confuse Caila Thompson-Hannant, Shapes and Sizes’ de facto lead singer, for Whitney Houston. Although she lacks the fluid dynamics of Houston, Mariah Carey, or any other R&B virtuosas, her limitations never prevent her from straining to match their inflections, vocal acrobatics, and melismatic variations. These efforts are equal parts awkward and endearing. When her attempts succeed, as on sultry standout “Too Late For Dancing,” they satisfy unanticipated appetites; in the less successful — and, at times, distasteful — hybridized moments, the embedded racial politics of these vocal choices prove somewhat troubling. At the end of “Old World” — one of Candle To Your Eye’s strongest songs — Shapes and Sizes break, unexpectedly, into a faux-spiritual. “If I die/ And my soul go down,” Thompson-Hannant repeats seven times, her voice reaching increasingly higher, until she breaks into an impressive gospel melody. “Bind us/ Break us,” she portends, right as the song and the album conclude. Shapes and Sizes have bound together two disparate genres, fusing them together more successfully than many groups that came before them. But this fusion carries a heavy historical weight, one that has strained the legacies of Elvis, Page and Plant, and many other Caucasian cultural borrowers.

“Old World” isn’t the only song marred by unfortunate associations. “The Hit Parade” — a spare, terse slow jam whose minimalist groove brings Thank Me Later and 808s and Heartbreak to mind — never takes off, largely due to the awkward lyrics at the song’s forefront. Thompson-Hannant coos her come-ons, mumbling about “What’s really going on underneath your pants/ You’re a fox down there.” Her admirably direct lyrics and their delivery — far too mannered to work in this context — are reminiscent of enjoyably clunky rap metaphors, but lacking rap’s thrilling linguistic inventions. (Now, you might be thinking that I’m stretching here, making apologies for the shortcomings of hip-hop while searching for impertinent criticisms of Shapes and Sizes. You might also be thinking that this is nothing more than P.C. concern-trolling. If you’re thinking this, you wouldn’t be entirely wrong.)

Still, Candle To Your Eye is easily Shapes and Sizes strongest album yet, and its flaws make it no less appealing. Although they share the same affinity for jerky, halting time signatures as Dirty Projectors, Shapes and Sizes feel more committed and genuine in their stylistic experiments. And when the songs are less affected, they find clever ways to bump and grind against their influences. The aforementioned “Too Late For Dancing” sounds like Julee Cruise performing a musical adaptation of a Jim Thompson novel; it’s dingy, dirty, and noir, rather than connotatively black. The dub rhythms that bubble into Nathan Gage’s basslines on “Tell Your Mum,” “Time Has Practically Stopped,” and “I Need an Outlet” keep those songs grounded, even when Shapes and Sizes’ other members are busy fucking around.

Ultimately, the issue here isn’t the blurring of genre lines; those attempts are at the very least respectable, if not always commendable. Momentary lack of sensitivity is hardly a crime and only faintly, if at all, distasteful. But the occasional awkwardness and the weakness of the lyrical content are the greatest problems on Candle To Your Eye. It’s an interesting and enjoyable record, but it also isn’t a very compelling one. The day will come where these particular genre divisions no longer exist, when objections to racial misappropriation seem quaint and unnecessary. But, until then, good on Shapes and Sizes for stretching their range, for risking embarrassment and trying something different.

Links: Shapes and Sizes - Asthmatic Kitty

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