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Shapes and Sizes: Shapes and Sizes

Asthmatic Kitty, 2006

Rating: 3.3


Posted: August 4, 2006

By Peter Landwehr

Shapes and Sizes might deny it, but all the band members are dyslexic. They don't satisfy themselves with simply transitioning between different tempos and rhythms within each song on their self-titled Asthmatic Kitty debut, instead jumping between genres. This kind of problem isn't rare: The Fiery Furnaces, Of Montreal, Deerhoof and others have already defined their own spazzy pop neuroses, and Shapes and Sizes’ own condition is a natural descendant. In this case, it's fueled by the contrasting vocals of Caila Thompson-Hannant -- a born belter -- and her softer-spoken male counterpart Rory Seydel.

Consider the opener "Island's Gone Bad": Over a sparse guitar, ukulele and strings combo, Seydel laments being sadly confined on an island, when suddenly the track starts to chug forward, powered by drums. It twists with a confession that instead of this being personal sadness, "that's what she said," hesitates, and then suddenly switches to solo drums and Thompson-Hannant's joyful cries that she "likes eating fruit from the trees when [she's] with you," paired with a sax, guitar spazzes and chanted choruses. For all the mood and style changes, it's a pretty song: easily-sympathized-with emotions, cute phrases and interesting instrumentation.

That track is Shapes and Sizes at their best, a best they also reach through the art-noise and pop rock of "Goldenhead," the whistling sweetly over fuzzy guitars of "Wilderness" and at different moments throughout each track. The problem with this is simple: While Shapes and Sizes try many experiments that often succeed, they also fail, and such a collapse ruins both the music and the lyrics. The problems feed off each other. "Topsy Turvy" goes awry lyrically as soon as Hannant moans that she's a "hurly burly piece of meat," and is only complemented by a corresponding painful dissonance in the instruments. The beautiful pairing of Hannant and Seydel's icy song on "I Am Cold" with the slow, graceful march of the instruments is given a painful mirror when Seydel repeatedly declaims that "killing Peter may save Paul" over painful dissonances.

While these might be combined failures, the burden is on the lyrics. The band specializes in over-emotion, over-affectedness, and this works excellently when the lyric is simple. Consider "Golden Head"'s repeated joyous chant of “golden head upon my shoulder" -- paired with oohs and an accelerating tempo, such strong desire is easy to buy. But complex semi-stories that feature a sincerely delivered line like "another wire linked up to my heart" or the aforementioned bit from "Topsy Turvy" can't be taken without a grain of salt, and music that refuses to acknowledge that grates.

When the band keeps it simple, its inventiveness is easy to see and some of the best around; there are plenty of reasons that "Weekends at a Time" has circulated the mp3 blogs. Once Shapes and Sizes put less emphasis on their lyrics and shifting vocals down in the mix, and constrain their most complex, overwrought verses, it will be possible to talk. At present, they've released a debut that showcases their best and their worst, and we should be glad that the former outweighs the latter.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A classic
 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
 1.1-1.9: Pretty bad
 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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