The brilliant quintessence of American power pop hails from Zion, Illinois and began by recording at home on a 4-track, which resulted in a self-released LP that attracted national attention and (eventually) a major-label contract. Bassist John Murphy, guitarists Jeff Murphy and Gary Klebe and drummer Skip Meyer blend electric guitar — loud, distorted and multi-tracked, yet sweet — with breathy, winsome vocals to create melodic rock made most impressive by the strength of three equally talented singer/songwriters.
Made long before software drastically eased the virtual studio process, the intricately layered guitars and vocals of Black Vinyl Shoes make it hard to believe that it was recorded in a living room. The songs, telling tender tales of failed romance, are catchy and instantly likable. The band also put the record in an impressive package and distributed it as a vinyl demo; in fact, it’s one of the finest home-brewed releases ever, and is a much more valid piece of music than many productions by well-known bands with far greater technical resources. After the small initial pressing sold out, the album was licensed to PVC and reissued with wholly different artwork.
Black Vinyl was not Shoes’ first album. A prior longplayer was recorded by the Murphy brothers with a previous drummer and privately issued in a minute pressing. Charming but a bit rough, Un Dans Versailles (occasioned and titled by Klebe’s educational sojourn in France) sounds like a less-developed attempt at what was to come. In 1976, Shoes also recorded — but never released — an album’s worth of excellent tunes under the working title Bazooka.
After signing to Elektra, Shoes made Present Tense in a full-scale English 24-track studio with a professional producer, but ended up sounding pretty much the same as before, only with much greater audio fidelity. Given the chance to experiment and open up their sound, Shoes opted to hold fast to what they knew — lots of vocals, lots of melody, lots of fuzzed-out guitars. Another triumphant LP that probably could have been made at home without losing any appreciable amount of charm or appeal — it’s Shoes’ talent, not studio technology, that matters here.
Tongue Twister successfully maintains the quality level of Present Tense, but Shoes are at a creative standstill. Their style is honed as far as it’s going to go, and they’re sticking with it. Boomerang, recorded near the band’s home base without a strong outside producer, suffers from inconsistent song quality and an overanxious feeling, no doubt brought on by the band’s failure to catch on commercially. (Early pressings of Boomerang included a 12-inch EP, Shoes on Ice, recorded live at the Zion Ice Arena in 1981, offering six of the band’s best tunes as proof of their ability to play them in public.)
Parting company with Elektra and saying farewell to Meyer, the remaining Shoes set up shop in a studio they had built in Illinois (nominally re-creating the notion of home-made music, only in a fully equipped facility which became a focal point of Midwest poppitry) and continued writing and recording. Murphy, Murphy and Klebe made Silhouette, released only in Europe via various licensing arrangements. The sound (incorporating more keyboards and subtler dabs of guitar) is typically exquisite, and the songs — four by each man — are fine examples of the band’s seemingly effortless pop suss. A fine, relaxed return that reasserts Shoes’ considerable talent.
Acquiring the rights to their three Elektra albums, the group issued Shoes Best, a 22-song non-chronological retrospective of album tracks that includes one live cut from On Ice and one new tune. (Disclosure: I wrote the liner notes.) Continuing the reissue program, Present Tense and Tongue Twister were joined on a single CD, while the entire Shoes on Ice was appended to Boomerang.
Stolen Wishes, Shoes’ first new album in five years (and the inspiration for an unprecedented bi-coastal tour in mid-’90), has all the band’s hallmarks plus keyboards, including synthesizer dressing on several of the enormously catchy tunes. Ric Menck of Velvet Crush is the album’s drummer, although the rigid, strident clatter on “Feel the Way That I Do” is surely electronic. (Ironically, mock horns add a handsome texture to the glorious guitar pop of “Let It Go,” and imitation strings quietly shade in “Love Does.”) The introduction of new elements into the group’s sound — whose intrinsically retro styling makes it anachronistic to begin with — is overdue, but Shoes’ warm songs are better served by real instruments than by obviously fake simulations.
Another half-decade passed before another Shoes album appeared, but as consistency is both the band’s blessing and curse, precious few marks of stylistic change disturb the winsome Britpop familiarity of Propeller (at least not after the stuttering ZZ Top chug of Klebe’s memorable “Animal Attraction,” which gets the record off on a novel foot). With far less of the keyboard technology that characterized Stolen Wishes (but a weaker set of tunes), Propeller turns more easily, spinning out the usual romantic ups and downs with the typical mix of comely melodicism and muted aggression. Menck drums on half the songs; highlights include John Murphy’s gauzy “Don’t Do This to Me” and grabby “Tore a Hole,” Jeff Murphy’s riff-driven “Silence Is Deadly” and Klebe’s “Never Ending.” An equivocal placeholder.
The subsequent EP bridges Propeller and the live Fret Buzz with both studio and concert versions of “Tore a Hole” and two otherwise unreleased tracks from the same December 1994 Chicago club gig that produced Fret Buzz. With drummer John Richardson laying down the beat, the rocking set draws mainly from Propeller and Stolen Wishes but digs all the way back to 1979 for Present Tense‘s “I Don’t Wanna Hear It” and includes the previously unalbumized “In Harm’s Way,” recorded at a soundcheck. Energetically played and for the most part well-sung (without benefit of studio reverb or overdubs), Fret Buzz doesn’t do much more than prove what these concert-shy studio hounds can do live — but that’s enough.
Murphy’s solo album ranges a little further afield than Shoes’ music, cutting the old twee breathlessness with a tougher bottom, modest sonic experimentation and what can only be called maturity. Beyond the autonomy of writing, playing and recording eleven songs unassisted, Murphy brings a vague but tangible sense of purpose to the endeavor. If “It Happens All the Time,” the dynamic “Won’t Take Yes for an Answer” and the Rubber Soul-y “Never Let You Go” hearken back happily to aspects of Shoes’ past sound, other tracks go off in different directions: “She Don’t Drive” cranks up a vintage sound with banjo, and “Some Day Soon” is a stately waltz with more acoustic strings than electric guitar.
Double Exposure is a 30-track collection (on two CDs) of the late-’70s home demos recorded in preparation for the first two Elektra albums. As Is is a limited-edition fan-dream rarities set, combining one disc of outtakes, demos and other ephemera with the entirety of Bazooka and Un Dans Versailles on the other.