Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The latest from the Handshake camp


Sleeping, Snarling

* * * * 1/2


Let’s just get it out of the way: Sleeping, Snarling is a fucking awful name for an album, violating the law that no album should have a name that describes what its detractors might do while listening to it. But Handshake have never been about surface. They win battles of the bands without taking their shirts off or making douchey shout-outs; they joke about their awkwardness awkwardly enough that you might believe it; and even their panty-melting vocal harmonies sound a little goofy in the “oh wow, that actually sounded really good” sense. Their most evocative and poetic lyrics still sound like they’re being sung by down-to-earth guys who have girl problems and buy cat food. That is but one of the many traits that make Handshake so likable--their music is the sound of the subconscious poetry in the head of that guy who fell asleep next to you on the N Judah the other day.

Sleeping, Snarling, their full-length debut, embodies this aesthetic, in addition to delivering on every iota of promise the group has shown through three years of gigs and demo singles. Despite these songs’ elaborate arrangements and displays of technical skill, they feel warm and mammalian--nothing is robotic, everything is organic, and the production is soft but does not dull the band’s syncopated, funk-inspired grooves. This is essentially a funk record, in the same way an early James Blake EP might be considered a dance record: it’s not always easy to free your ass to, but it packs a lot of the same thrills of good funk music, from its steady grooves and slow builds to its unforced sexiness. The latter is a key part of Handshake’s appeal, and most of these songs are about love or sex. The vocal interplay between Evan Greenwald’s earthy rasp and Devin Clary’s syllabic cry fuels this, with Greenwald handling the come-ons and leaving Clary to sing the blues after the breakup.

One of the most remarkable things about Sleeping, Snarling is how many good songs it has. The album is completely devoid of filler, and every song, aside from the short instrumental “Solemn,” could be a listener’s favorite with equal probability. Standout “Other Eye,” which the band selected out of seven viable candidates to be the lead single, would probably get the most votes as favorite (including mine, if I absolutely had to choose one)--it has a great riff, a memorable hook, and one the best guitar solos by anyone not named Annie Clark I’ve heard in the last year. It’s also the first track, and it does its duty to set the mood. But then there’s the dusty, blues-flavored “Parched Dry”; the delightfully sleazy “Time” (originally called “Pussy Whip”); the subtle dissonance of “Lemon,” the soaring “Siamese”; and the ending duo of “Phone Company” and “Red Balloon,” which are among the weaker tracks on the album but end the album on a modest note.

Good songs, good riffs, great melodies, awesome guitar solos, tasty grooves, attractive harmonies--Sleeping, Snarling covers all the bases of a great album, and in that, it’s refreshing. This is an album that can only be listened to in its own right, free of any trivia or concept or affiliation with a current trend. But if anything, Sleeping, Snarling is a fine example of how an abundance of great melodic ideas and well-crafted songs can be just as effective as high concepts and dark twisted fantasies in the creation of an outstanding record.


An Infinity Of Furs EP

* * * 1/2

This collection of lo-fi recordings was made by Handshake member Evan Greenwald in his dorm room at Sarah Lawrence College. Recorded primarily on GarageBand, An Infinity Of Furs consists of noise-pop songs are built for their noise, much like the best Nineties lo-fi rock and unlike many bands that sacrifice noise for pop or vice-versa. Built around grimy MIDI drums and guitars that jump into the red zone but are not earsplitting, the music on An Infinity Of Furs could only be described as modest. Greenwald’s lyrics are the reverse, employing joyfully odd metaphors like “my hands are garbage disposal blades,” and while these surreal poetics and the album’s unpretentious background are both great, they don’t always blend together seamlessly.

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