File under, um …
Keeping it simple gets complicated for Folsom foursome Brown Shoe
Just when Brown Shoe had seemed to take full ownership of the moody indie-pop atmospherics and the comparisons to My Morning Jacket and Red House Painters, somebody went and said the local quartet sounded a little bit prog.
Hang on. Really? Prog? Meaning what, exactly? Music for the verse-chorus-verse averse, rendered not in songs so much as tonal experiments and weirdo time signatures? Music made not for thrashing around in piss-stinking dive bars after midnight but rather for afternoon examination via turntables mounted on plywood and cinder blocks in the wood-paneled basements of yesteryear? Hey, they’re not Emerson, Lake & Palmer, for Chrissakes.
And no, the three Baggaley brothers—lyricist and front-man Ryan, 28; Aaron, 27, on guitar and keyboards; and bassist Bryson, 20—plus drummer Jim Mikesell, 27, aren’t exactly eggheads, either. They have day jobs as landscapers. (“We dig ditches,” Ryan says flatly but with a grin.) They write songs about, among other things, sex and death. None of them looks like he has any trouble getting dates.
On the other hand, orchestrations in Brown Shoe’s studio recordings have broadened steadily since the band’s 2006 debut CD, The Wheat Patch, going so far as to include smashing file cabinets with hunks of PVC pipe. “We just keep acquiring more and more gear,” says Aaron, to which Mikesell adds, “It gets interesting fitting us on the stage.” The intent has more to do with textures than theatrics: The new-ish disc, Vanity, enlarges the band’s confidence and further indulges its musical curiosities, with songs that can seem at once utterly stoned and hyper-alert. Rhythms shift around as if to make themselves more comfortable. Melodies soar like signal flares fired off to suggest ways through all the shimmering, unhurried, open-voiced changes. The music draws life from its own sincerity. “No one’s passive,” Ryan says of the foursome’s collaborative creative process. “If someone has an idea, we try it. If you don’t like it, fine, just don’t do it half-assed. You try to blow your own mind. Your ear is training itself.”
Yeah, OK, so maybe they are a little prog. And maybe that’s fine. But it’s not what got them so much college-radio play and sub-mainstream press in the first place. So, what did?
You know that sometimes annoying yet perennially endearing buddy who got dumped and spent that one whole summer in the corner slouched over his guitar, locked in rhetorical arguments with his own inspirations and looking straight through you whenever you tried to get his attention? Well, imagine that he actually got his act together, and got a band together, and played out enough to learn how to work a crowd, and put out a couple of CDs, and actually got really tight. Yeah, Brown Shoe is kinda like that, too. Not literally, though. Or maybe literally.
At their best, and most urgent, they seem like fugitives from the categories to which their describers would so hastily assign them. “Ethereal rock” is what they call their own music, and that seems right—but only really means something after you’ve heard the music.
So: Hear it. A California winter could be the perfect setting for expansive, gauzy, downcast, shoulder-hunched, hands-in-pockets indie tunage. Of course, who knows if that’s what the quartet actually will bring to its Marilyn’s outing next week, let alone the later shows in Hollywood, Long Beach, Fresno and finally Folsom, the Brown Shoe home base.
In some ways, the band’s chameleonic versatility has been compulsory. Each performance venue—be it concert hall or coffee shop—makes its own demands. There are those in which, as Bryson puts it, “everyone wants to grab your ass,” and those in which, as Aaron puts it, “half the people there just want to study.” Accordingly, it’s become a point of pride for Brown Shoe to thwart (and presumably exceed) audience expectations. For instance, a crowd might get treated to an evening of furious rock and, as Ryan puts it, “they’re like, ‘What the fuck? I thought these guys were shoegazers!’”
Hang on. Really? Shoegaze? Meaning what, exactly?