Album review: The Shacks – Haze (Big Crown Records)

The Shacks - Haze

The Shacks came onto my radar last year when a record store owner recommended El Michels Affair, a band whose cheesy kung-fu artwork on Return to the 37th Chamber was enough to make it an essential listen. That album features the song Tearz that puts Shannon Wise’s breathy vocals front and centre of a great piece of New York retro pop. The Shacks are Shannon Wise on vocals and bass with Max Schrager on guitar and production, a pair with an average age of 20, as they say on University Challenge. This is their debut album but it follows seven singles and EPs, one a cover of Ray Davies’ The Strange Effect that was used for an iPhone commercial, so you might have heard them already.

Haze was produced by Shrager and Leon (El) Michels, who has worked with Lana Del Ray among others, and was recorded in the guitarist’s basement and Michels’ Diamond Mine Studios. They have gone for a lo-fi sound that owes something to the sixties in its lack of polish but has enough of a contemporary feel to let you know these are fresh goods. The arrangements feature drums from Homer Steinweiss (Amy Winehouse, Mark Ronson etc), cheesy organ and clonky piano alongside less clearcut sounds that contribute to the undoubtedly hazy feel of Wise’s voice, which carries all but one of the 13 tracks. The exception is the Orbison inspired Cryin’ where Shrager provides a change of tone albeit one that remains entirely in keeping with the overall vibe of this likely to be cult album.

That vibe is clearly influenced by RnB/soul crossover acts, there are shades of Phil Spector produced girl groups like the Shangri Las and ‘British Invasion’ bands of the same era. The title track sounds like a love song albeit with no explicit expression thereof, just a simple beat, slightly distorted electric guitar and Wise’s undoubtedly charmed vocals that are the key to the Shacks’ appeal. Birds has a great bass sound with a hint of funk alternating against a lilting melody and a very hooky ending that could have gone on a lot longer. Texas has some fabulous keyboards from Michels and a perfect riff built by this and the drums, with a spacey effect brought in to add colour to the last verse. It’s a shifting soundscape that’s easy on the ear and very groovy.

The character of sound is to an extent a result of simple drum recording, there’s no added impact or apparent emphasis whatsoever, the track My Name Is being an exception. As a result Haze lacks depth plumbing bass or sparkly highs but it’s also untroubled by the processing and effects found on many modern releases, there’s no thickening of bass and no obvious limiting, which make for an open and fresh sound. The multiple voice tracks are probably what makes Haze sound new, Wise’s voice is dusky and smoky but it’s not very strong so this aspect of the production is a necessity but by no means an evil one.

Haze is a quirky album that couldn’t be hipper if it tried, it’s old meets new recipe works on a number of levels thanks to the emphasis on melody rather than beats and the fact that while it emulates many classic acts it is very much of the moment.

Jason Kennedy

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