As fate would have it, Andy Shauf wrote his pandemic album in 2018. Allow me to explain: Artists high and low around the globe were making their sheltering in place, stuck in 2020 isolation communique, watching a record-buying public purchase everything they could get sent to them the next day by Amazon. Shauf, whose critically acclaimed tour in support of The Neon Skyline, got cut Covid-short, figured it out early on. All he had to do is dig into his vaults.
Way back in 2018 Andy Shauf was writing songs, playing with arrangements, moving pieces of tracks around. About 50 or so, into a tiny tape recorder. He wasn’t sure if the tales that would eventually become The Neon Skyline, his 2020 soft rock warm blanket, that helped shut out all the noise that year brought, was the way to go. He had pieces of these other ideas. Judy, the ex who keeps blowing up the tiny unfocused world of our ill-fated protagonist, had a side story outside of that one night in the bar. Once again, in the end, Judy winds up pulling the football back on our Charlie Brown-esque protagonist, as he stares at the blue sky above, with his back talking fiercely to his brain, and autumn leaves moving wistfully over his body. You can almost see him crack a well-earned smile as an Andy Shauf melody swirls in his pea-brain head.
Wilds, the new release from the Bienfait, Saskatchewan raised, Toronto-based singer songwriter, is a bit of an in-betweener. On one hand, it is a product to sell while he embarks on his 2021 North American tour. But it’s also a peek at a contemporary singer-songwriter coming into his own. Picked from those numerous workouts Shauf was playing with in 2018, these fleshed-out sketches, delivered in raw basement tape form, get us even closer to the addictive warbled yarn magic that makes Shauf’s flawed characters even more human.
On “Spanish on the Beach” he crafts a funny story of a couple’s time on an all-inclusive resort vacation, using the idea of a language barrier as a metaphor for the beginning stages of communication breakdown. It ends with the narrator, our buddy who can’t get out of his way, envisioning an imagined scenario in which he proposes to-bursting into song, musical theater-style, with the resort’s house band-you guessed it, Judy. The Neon Skyline‘s plot advancer. “It’s the same theme as the story ended up being at the Skyline but the narrator’s life is a little bit booze-fueled,” says Shauf on the song. “And this vacation is kind of like the first stop on the way to destruction.”
Wilds—whose cover art is even an incomplete sketch of sorts—arrives with Magic Andy playing all the instruments, making no-look adjustments in the moment, recording all the impulses into a little tape machine, keeping that trademark Saskatchewan thick brogue upfront, blind-sighted and unapologetic. Just like we need it.
These aren’t subpar arrangements, not by a long shot. Nine vignettes in 27 minutes, presented in their humble “press play and hit it” fashion, we get treated to the results of those endless workouts. First looks at those reedy woodwinds, simple drumming, weird meter, and jazzy turns. Hearing his songs pared back to the sparest of parts reveals not only how engaging a songwriter Shauf is, but these asides also operate as tiny set pieces you’d find on a stage, at the top of a Wes Anderson film. “Jaywalker,” a tale of walking through life without looking ahead, packed with magic melodies, hooky lyrics, and earworm atmospherics—the sharpest track in the bunch—cuts with wispy atmospherics.
Like basketball players who stay in the stinky gym and just ball or run games to 21 on a hardscrabble outdoor court in 12-hour spans, practicing moves, talking shit to the competition, and coming up with in-the-moment advances, Wilds allows us to peek behind the curtain, and sit in awe of Shauf’s restrained magic.
John-Paul Shiver has been contributing to Treble since 2018. His work as an experienced music journalist and pop culture commentator has appeared in The Wire, 48 Hills, Resident Advisor, SF Weekly, Bandcamp Daily, PulpLab, AFROPUNK and Drowned In Sound.