Shoes, the guitar-pop combo from Zion, Ill. — who in the 1970s prefigured the home-recording DIY boom of the ’90s and beyond — will release Ignition, their first album of new material since 1994 on Aug. 14.
Ignition contains 15 tracks from Shoes’ three founding members and songwriters: bassist-vocalist John Murphy, guitarist-vocalist Jeff Murphy, and guitarist-vocalist Gary Klebe, plus longtime stage drummer John Richardson.
Self-produced and released on the band’s own Black Vinyl Records, Ignition not only carries on Shoes’ cult-heroic tradition of edibly tuneful, harmony-honeycombed guitar pop; it ventures intriguingly beyond those comfortable (though undeniably rewarding) borders as well.
Altogether the work of seasoned, mature musicians whose singular trajectory as 100 percent self-taught, self-created recording artists has been outside-the-box since it began, Ignition showcases Shoes at their technical and artistic peak.
The album’s release coincides with that of a new book, definitive band chronicle Boys Don’t Lie: A History of Shoes by Mary E. Donnelly (New York college professor and managing editor of PurePopPress.com) with Moira McCormick.
It recounts the critically-lionized group’s evolution from rudimentary mid-’70s experiments in cutting their own records at home, through a three-album 1980s tenure at major label Elektra Records, on to a ’90s incarnation as self-sufficient indie artists operating their own full-service label and studio businesses, before coming full-circle back to home recording in the new, post-digital-revolution millennium.
It was Gary Klebe’s state-of-the-art home studio, in fact, that helped spark Ignition into existence in 2010. Unbeknownst to his cohorts, the singer-guitarist had transformed his unfinished concrete basement into a sophisticated digital-analog hybrid recording facility; he unveiled it to his bandmates in October, shortly after singer-guitarist Jeff Murphy presented them with a new song he’d written, seeking his fellow Shoes’ feedback.
But his brother John, along with Klebe, didn’t merely critique Jeff’s stark, stripped-down rumination, “Out of Round”; employing Gary’s new studio gear, they transformed it from a straightforward ballad to a strikingly off-kilter rock track. Written for a friend who’d died suddenly of an infectious brain disease — but from the perspective of his grief-stricken wife — “Out of Round” is driven by a measured, minor-key piano figure evoking a barely-getting-by atmosphere of loss, which alternates with guardedly hopeful bursts of the double-time-drummed chorus. “Out of Round” is like nothing else in Shoes’ canon.
And the song’s three-way collaboration process (which hadn’t occurred in quite some years) juiced the Murphy brothers and Klebe into recording more new material, now intended for a group album — Shoes’ first such project since ’94’s self-released Propeller.
Gary brought in a lilting ode to hard-won wisdom called “Nobody to Blame,” along with the sharp-tongued romantic orison “Heaven Help Me” (“What’s not to hate about love?” he inquires pithily.) John, who’d been shaping up a song fragment of his own, found himself stranded at Jeff’s during a Christmas snowstorm; naturally, both Murphys began working on it together, using Jeff’s home studio to demo John’s tune, a cautionary yet supportive offering to an erstwhile love interest titled “In on You” (“You’ll finally see when you put your trust in me/But you made it harder than it had to be”).
When John Richardson flew in the following week, on January 1 (following his New Year’s Eve gig keeping time for the Gin Blossoms), Ignition shifted into high gear. Richardson laid down drum tracks for Shoes’ so-far modest cache of new material, and returned at regular intervals to Zion from his home base of northern Wisconsin as the collection grew.
Shoes’ three singer-songwriters worked regularly through 2011 on their new endeavor, meeting several nights a week in Klebe’s basement studio — periodically noting the home-cooked similarities between this recording project and the one that became Black Vinyl Shoes, the groundbreaking 1977 LP they recorded in Jeff Murphy’s living room. That critically-laurelled platter garnered Shoes the major-label attention that culminated in their getting signed, resulting in the band’s trio of lustrous Elektra Records albums, Present Tense (1979), Tongue Twister (1981), and Boomerang (1982).
Ignition is Shoes’ fourth self-released album of all-new music since parting ways with Elektra, a series that began with 1984’s Silhouette, continued in 1990 with Stolen Wishes, and halted (temporarily) four years later with its 1994 follow-up, Propeller. The ensuing 18 years’ output has included a live CD, reissues, rarities compilations, a two-CD set of early demos (2007’s limited-edition Double Exposure), film-soundtrack and tribute-album contributions, Jeff Murphy’s ’07 solo release, Cantilever — and now, Ignition.
Its 15 tracks are divided, per Shoes’ longstanding democratic custom, among the band’s three writers, including two group compositions. One, “Hot Mess,” arrives with a swaggering salvo of Keith Richards-style, open-G-tuned guitar, playing its Stones role to the hilt lyrically as well: “She’s been payin’ her dues/With her skanky tattoos/And her sensible shoes/She’s a hot mess” Like the completely different “Out of Round,” “Hot Mess” displays still another of Shoes’ multiple facets.
But as noted above, the band has hardly abandoned the lovelorn lyrical cant wrapped in luminous melodicism that has been its trademark for decades. Card-carrying Shoes devotees will find a plethora of purest pop in Ignition, from Gary Klebe’s instantly infectious album opener “Head vs. Heart” to John Murphy’s suave and mellifluous “Wrong Idea” to the buoyant, group-penned “Say It Like You Mean It” to Jeff Murphy’s lenticular “Where Will It End?” (Viewed from one angle it’s a fed-up-with-love song; from another, the singer is fed up with Tea Party conservatism: “I still believe in hope and change/But simple minds get in the way.”)
This new album from Shoes ends with Klebe’s “Only We Remain,” whose understatedly urgent folk-rock jangle is reminiscent of early, Chronic Town-era R.E.M. Here, too, is a song that’s nominally about the vicissitudes of romance, but its final verse could double as Shoes’ mission statement, after nearly four decades of carrying the power-pop torch: “Do what we wanna do/We’ll do it anyway/Do what we wanna do/Livin’ for today/Only we remain.”