Bill Owens - Shady Shadows
Shady Shadows is the latest album by Bill Owens of Tucson, Arizona, who records under the band names Blunt Objects and DID NOT!
Owens states that his young world was rocked by The Beatles on Ed Sullivan, when he was shocked to realize that “my musical horizons were not limited to the popular artists favored by my parents.” He calls his own music “vibrant multi genre” and has many influences, starting with the British Invasion bands and moving toward the iconic American groups (Velvets, Beach Boys, Doors, Love) before getting a dose of ’70s glam rock via Bowie, Iggy, Roxy Music, Mott, etc. The ’90s and beyond saw detours into Arcade Fire along with Stephen Merritt and Magnetic Fields.
Owens further describes his sound as being built from elements he values: “melody, harmony, dissonance, noise; whimsy, fun, informality, slightly out of tune, slightly off-rhythm and an abiding love for the music of sound. My writing these days is based more on self-reflection, aging and observing the current state of things.” This collection was mixed and mastered by Jim Waters at Waterworks West Studio in Tucson.
The very first sound we hear on the album is an eerie distant train horn, which always warms my heart. “My Best Friend” blasts in suddenly, and it’s one of those songs with more beats than musical notes. Like a glam musical box created by overdriven robots, Owen creates a jumpy, percolating background for his laconic, matter-of-fact vocals in the Thomas Dolby or Gary Numan tradition. What’s really interesting is that I can imagine taking the vocals here and laying them against folky acoustic guitars and they’d work in either idiom just fine. I love the subtle Beatles callout in the line “I took a sad song today, tried to make it better / But things don't always work that way.” The song’s idea that you could once have a best friend and can’t remember their name is very funny but weirdly moving. The middle section has something like a harpsichord break, though the tonalities are so thick it’s hard to tell.
“I’m Going to Hell” fades in with another cyclical arrangement for all manner of synths and beats. Based on the idea of “the road to Hell is paved with good intentions,” Owens has a lot of fun with the old saw about selling your soul to Satan: “There was so much I intended that just never came to pass / When logic and reason failed me / The devil, himself, stood ready to lend a hand.” Musically I can hear traces of German oompah music, strange though that sounds! A shorter track but lots of fun.
“Uphill Climb” has a bit of a sharper tonality, while retaining those propulsive steam engine beats (hey, remember the train at the beginning?). Here’s another song that, with a different arrangement, could easily be a folk rock hit from the late ’70s, maybe sung by Neil Diamond, though Owens sounds more like froggy Paul Williams here. The analog synth riffs are thrilling to hear for this retro-futuristic fan. “Picturesque Decay” is the first track that reminded me of David Bowie, in his Berlin phase: Fripp style electric guitar, Eno-like beats and synths and finally an understated Bowie-esque vocal. I noticed that at its core, this song is very close to pop, despite being delivered by otherworldly sounds and extraordinarily busy beats.
For “Time” (the same title as a Bowie song!) Owens brings his vocals right up front, the better to deliver his sobering message about the passage of time: “I’m not waiting anymore / I’ve had so much time / And now there’s none to waste.” The backing track is built on what sounds like a drum roll loop with jangly minor-key guitar riffs and mournful keyboards. On “She’s Going Away” Owens dares to tackle a fairly straightforward rock beat. To flog a dead horse: if you removed some of the spacey ornamentation, this song ain’t that far from the Fabs on Sullivan! The thick wall of angelic vocals recall 10cc. Continuing the Fabs theme, “Where Do You Go?” owes a little something to the psychedelic, Magical Mystery Beatles (as many of Owens’ favorite groups do). The drum loops and machines are a bit more stark in the mix, which is an interesting change for the Blunt Objects sound. In fact he continues this style for the finale “Falling Apart,” where the different elements are mostly given their own space within the stereo field. Though Owens has nowhere near a Phil Collins falsetto, this track and a couple others do remind me of early Genesis right after Gabriel left. In an alternate universe this song is the closest to a hit single, a very distant cousin to “Follow You Follow Me.”
If you’re looking for electronic music that feels familiar while also containing many surprises along the way, Shady Shadows will not disappoint!
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