Does it seem slightly odd or ironic to anyone else that there is a label based in Indiana that publishes music from bands that cross-pollinate frequently like the Arts & Crafts / Broken Social Scene family, and calls itself Secretly Canadian? OK, Arts & Crafts was created a few years after Secretly Canadian, but one could easily transpose the names as SC has that folk-crafty vibe going on with artists like Jason Molina and Alisdair Roberts. And, of course, the BSS crew would probably change the name to `Blatantly’ or `Proudly’ Canadian, but I digress. The Impossible Shapes are the experimental group with family tree offshoots all over the indie map. The group shares members with Coke Dares, John Wilkes Booze, Magnolia Electric Co., and its two main songwriters have solo efforts under the names NormanOak and Horns of Happiness. Their latest effort was originally an internet-only LP, limited only to 300 copies, but is now available on CD for the masses.
Whereas BSS fold, spindle and mutilate contributions from its various members into one pretty mess, the Impossible Shapes’ latest album acts like a sieve or centrifuge, delicately separating out the different sounds into easily handled bite size morsels of varying styles. One recurrent theme, which starts with the opening instrumental track, “Ra in the Rising,” a hearkening back to their previous Egyptian god laden album, Horus, is dotted throughout the affair, returning in “Kephra” and “Hathor,” slightly changed each time, the first a staccato piano and strings affair, then a spare guitar and bass march, and finally a droning electronic noise piece with Beatlesque backwards loops. These three `themes’ don’t exactly separate the album into pieces so much as provide much needed attention grabbers, just to let you know that yes, you’re still listening to the Impossible Shapes.
The reason we might need a reminder is due to the varied sounds the Shapes create on Tum. The second track, at a modest three minutes and ten seconds, is actually the longest on the album, and one of the most straightforward and accessible pop songs in this 17-track arsenal. Guitars jangle like Johnny Marr’s, even though Chris Barth’s voice is nowhere near the Mozzer’s throaty delivery. Instead, Barth’s vocals recall those sunny and folky days of the ’60s, with bands like the Byrds and the Small Faces. “The Working Vessel” and “Fulgent Fields” go further in exploring that side of the band, while “Pixie Pride,” another standout track, returns to the pop / folk amalgamation. “Late Summer Sky,” on the other hand, gets a little closer to Barth’s NormanOak persona, heavy on the banjo and nature themes, echoing some of the members of the currently popular `freak-folk’ movement.
“Hornbeam” hits you like an acid flashback, a combination of the San Francisco hippie scene with several British Invasion bands. The harmonies of “Pan-Ther” remind me of Animal Collective, changing pitch drastically within lines and trailing off at the end of lines such as “Woke up in love…” “Our Love Lives” is the last of the guitar pop found in early tracks, but is not the end of great material. “Willow Willow Yew” and the title track are two hidden gems, tucked away towards the end of the CD where short commuters and ADD sufferers dare not tread. The first is a true ’60s British pastiche, managing to sound as if it could easily be shoehorned into the Kinks’ Village Green Preservation Society, while the second is an acoustic number, likely to appeal to fans of Jason Molina and Sam Beam.
Just over a year ago, my brother asked what an `impossible shape’ really is, wondering about the possibility of a squombus. If Tum is any guide, an impossible shape is an album that contains 17 tracks, at least more than three distinct styles, and lasts less than 31 minutes. Tum, which I’m assuming is not named after my ex-girlfriend’s cutesifying name for her stomach, is somewhat of a physical anomaly, like the house with a larger inside than outside in Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves. While the outer package deceives with its length, there is a whole lot to take in. Like The Simpsons versus “insert sitcom name here,” the half-hour that the Impossible Shapes provide fits much much more than your average album. Plus, it comes in a squombus shaped package. (Not really).