A choir, handclaps and banjo are ubiquitous on an indie folk record. Buttery smooth vocals vaguely reminiscent of Paul Simon are not.
Andy Shauf, please take one step forward from the pack.
Hailing from the great white north affectionately referred to as Canada, Shauf grew up a preacher’s kid in Saskatchewan. Instead of lighting bags of fecal matter on deacons’ and elders’ doorsteps, Shauf was writing songs from the age of fourteen. He just didn’t tell anyone about it. “I hid my songs,” Shauf says. “I didn’t share my musical side with my friends until the twelfth grade. I was just kind of embarrassed.” And so it went. For years, demos stacked up as documents of time, feelings, and moments, never existing outside that creative space built for himself.
It’s hard to imagine a teenager hiding his musical talent like this. In your average high school, at lunch, a sea of guitars appear in hands as if it were some sort of appropriate measurement of virility. Strains of Death Cab for Cutie and John Mayer waft about. Blonde and brunette coiffed girls gather, giggling and secretly hating each other for cutting the odds that each will be asked to the prom; they stand by any one of the boys who has a disproportionate flock surrounding him to his relative charm, wit, and handsomeness.
Andy Shauf lacks this narcissistic tendency. Hedged bets and ear-to-the-Pitchfork musical manipulations don’t exist on Darker Days, his debut album. Those years of singing alone in his bedroom have produced an uncommon voice that doesn’t have to fumble for tricks such as whispering or singing off key in the current fashion. Darker Days neither tries to hide the flourishes of pop sewn through nearly every song and verse; yet the instrumentation remains sparse to give Shauf’s voice its proper place.
At twenty-one, the singer isn’t removed from those teenage demos, and in fact, Darker Days represents a hand picked crop of those demos rerecorded. When Shauf sings of his cold feet (“I never got too far from hoping for your heart”), imagining the pains of declaring young love can transport even the crotchetiest old raisin to memories of sweaty palms and dry mouth. Such simple and unencumbered tales of relationship have to come without pretense. Shauf fits the bill. On “You Remind Me”, Shauf swings into notes with hints of vibrato here and there and understatement, thus confirming the Paul Simon comparison (see: “Under African Skies”). One-two, one-two picking, a simple bass line, and occasional banjo accompany.
Songs on relationship wear thin on some listeners. One on love? Fine. A whole album? Arms start to fold and lethargy ensues, and large numbers head for the punk section of iTunes. That’s the give and take of love songs. Andy Shauf plays with fire by stuffing them into Darker Days. Shauf’s stories are never complex though not always completely clear. He tends towards “Will they? Won’t they?” relationships teetering on the brink of break-up. Eye rolling and sighs may be a side effect for the more jaded listeners once the fourth or fifth of these rolls around. Folks on the other side of the fence, those who revel in heartbreak or redemption via a significant other, will eat the songs up.
Looking down the road, however, it’s not hard to place bets on other ponies besides Shauf. Wading in the waters of folk in 2009 is not unlike drinking from Stanley Spadowski’s fire hose. There are other flashier, shinier folk records out there, and your next door neighbor has a folk record he’s peddling at a garage sale too. These are the days of hype and glitz and also bedroom demos as blogs; listen to self-produced thoughts from common people that should never see the light of day beside record label backed…thoughts from common people that should never see the light of day. Most of us aren’t clever or talented, but with just the right PR team talent isn’t necessary.
In the closing song, “Give Me Words”, Shauf beseeches the rain to, “give [him] words to sing”. If that was his muse, thank the stormy days, the darker days, because they delivered. Let’s hope that muse also delivers the listening ear of the record going public to Darker Days.