Lowdown and Dirty: Shame Offers No Easy Answers on Debut LP
“This is how it starts...”
Some band names are compromised of such fundamentally meaningful words that before you even hear the music, you just hope the band can measure up to the moniker. Think of Ride, or Why?, or Death - each of these acts either embracing a sense of irony about a word with vast meaning, or eschewing irony altogether to show that they have Big Ideas. Living up to these names can mean that the band embodies them in some sense, proving beyond the shadow of a doubt that the name is warranted, or it can mean that they manifest some sense of purpose and self-awareness that equals more than 4 blokes with guitars. The quality of the work is somehow secondary in this purely quantitative analysis: whether the tunes are already good or the group is still working things out, is this band bringing something that is profound enough to at least live up to the hype suggested by a name that already has substantial history and meaning? Through that murky lens, "Shame" could be a great band name…or it could be one that becomes an unforgiving albatross around the neck very quickly.
Shame comes face-to-face with this predicament upon the recent release of Songs of Praise. They then proceed to grab it by the hair, kick it in the teeth, and calmly go back to what they were doing. From the crunchy opening licks and bruising chants of “Dust on Trial”, it is clear that the brash young Londoners are unconcerned with living up (or down?) to their name in the eyes of anyone else, thank you very much. The punk mentality inherent in that approach allows them to tackle awkward subject matter with a smirk, the overall effect of the album becoming that of a band recreating what they love and brandishing it as a weapon where artists before them used it as a guiding light. Call it the rebranding of fire, changing it from a helpful tool that led the way toward knowledge to the explosive force behind war and insurrection.
The band’s bona fides largely hearken back to the 1970’s: the guttural, up-to-no-good stomp of the Stranglers at their rottenest; the swagger of the Mancunian Factory scene; Johnny Lydon’s trademark snarling delivery. But sprinkled in are some newer influences and a few seeming instances of parallel evolution that allow things to coalesce into something more substantial than the casually diminutive label of “post-punk” might suggest. "Tasteless" and "Angie" both carry the rollicking smoothness of Definitely Maybe-era Oasis – the combination of the Gallaghers’ oblivious rock star strut and Shame’s use of tried-and-true post-punk elements works to bring a sense of balance to a record that at times skirts into territory where formalism becomes a crutch; the sound has the added benefit of showing us a snippet of the alternate universe where Noel and Liam grew up idolizing Gang of Four instead of the Fab Four. Meanwhile, the largely spoken-word “The Lick” amps up to eleven with ominous imagery, propelled by a bassline very close to that of “Natural One” by Folk Implosion – another bit of 90’s verisimilitude that bends to the band's creative utilization: Folk Implosion's track is all laid-back grooves and heavy sighs, but “The Lick” is straight-ahead mood hijacking, all angular guitar tones propped up on the rhythm section and crashing toward a climax where the narrator begs to be sanctified ("bathe me in blood / and call it a christening").
The sense of a parallel evolution comes through the strongest but is also the most difficult to explain and define. Throughout much of the album’s first half, I find myself reminded of Sub Pop Aussie band Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, even though Rolling Blackouts is a much more mid-paced indie-rock affair – I can’t point to anything specific about the playing, the songs, the lyrics, or the vocals that emphatically sounds like RBCF, but I also can’t shake the comparison no matter how many times I listen. Something about the alchemy of how all the pieces fit together comes through in a similar way with both bands. In no way is this a bad thing, as I have found Rolling Blackouts to be a thoroughly entertaining band over the course of their last two releases.
Any album with heavy doses of screaming and social nihilism is one that inherently carries the risk of wearing out its welcome. In "Gold Hole" we're introduced to a victimized girl who is so enamored of her kept lifestyle that she probably doesn't know she's a victim. "One Rizla" begs to correct your mistake: "if you think I love you / you've got the wrong idea." Shame's narrators give no help to their fellow human and easy answers are few and far between - evidenced perfectly when the question "do you want to help the helpless?" is asked for reasons that seem overwhelmingly more sociopathic than philosophical. Luckily, Songs of Praise's back half offers several moments of respite from the HARD+FAST+LOUD formula to keep intact the listener's sense of goodwill. "Friction" bumps along with dreamy, surf-inspired guitar work and some of the LP's more mellow vocals. Meanwhile, closer “Angie” sends the album out on a monotonously-delivered high note with 7 minutes of solidly lovelorn power pop.
In 2018 it has become harder than ever before to make sounds that no one has ever heard, to wrestle with the Muses and to pry from them ideas that haven’t already been copied a thousand times over. Shame knows this, they seem to even call attention to it: "what's the point of talkin' / when all the words have been said?". On their debut LP, they have come to grips with that truth and barreled forward anyway, trusting in high energy levels, crisp production, and a not-insignificant amount of charisma to make songs that are merely "good" on their face into statement songs for a generation with an as-yet-undefined statement to make. An album that should by all rights feel the crushing weight of a studied paint-by-numbers approach instead staggers drunkenly outside and screams into the overcast sky, at once immune to and defiant toward attempts at interpretation. If there is any “praise” in these songs, it is the Old Testament stuff of shock and awe: aloofness, violence, punishment.
In the end, Shame lives up to the lofty expectations of their name and then some. And they do it, in part, by having no shame.