Captain Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce once said that the one book he took to the Korean War MASH unit was the dictionary, because every other book was inside. Then, of course, there’s the old adage about the million monkeys at a million typewriters story, and how eventually, though it might take millions of years, one of those monkeys would randomly write or reproduce the great American novel. Further still, you have the idea that there are only a limited number of notes on a scale or chords that one can play, and so, imitation and repetition are inevitable. Though all of these sound like clever and thought provoking comments, they all discount one particularly strong concept, that of creativity. Sure, the dictionary has every word that’s in Moby Dick, but not in the creative order and challenging concepts that Melville thought in which to put them. A monkey could randomly hit keys, but would it understand the sheer beauty of “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”? And sure, “America” and “God Save the Queen” are basically the same tune, but how can one listen to a band like Shapes & Sizes and not consider the strength of the creative process?
Vancouver’s Shapes and Sizes definitely sound as if they belong on Sufjan Stevens’ Asthmatic Kitty label. One of the signature features of the band is their penchant for skronky horn arrangements, something that Sufjan used to have, with his Michigan Militia sounding just out of high school marching band, but they have since improved. Combine those horns with sometimes delicate and sometimes-dissonant guitars a la Frog Eyes and the singular amorphous voice of Caila Thompson-Hannant, sounding somewhat like Eleanor Friedberger from the Fiery Furnaces and you end up seeing and hearing how size up Shapes & Sizes. The album starts with the two-part song “Island’s Gone Bad,” beginning with guitarist Rory Seydel singing about scavenging for food before the more compelling second half and the debut of Caila’s unique voice. In later songs, Thompson-Hannant’s vocals are a little easier to handle so don’t be dissuaded too soon. Although her changes in pitch and phrasing can alter mid-word in “Island’s,” there are other times when her vocals are strong and steady.
Shapes & Sizes generally save the best songs for the middle of the album. “Wilderness” is the first single, currently the subject of a remix contest on Asthamtic Kitty’s website (Sufjan should really name his backing band the Asthmatic Kitties, though I’m not sure what that would sound like) and one of the more interesting songs on the record. “Wilderness” is another song that comes in distinctly different parts, opening like a Miles Davis meditation, and then going on to arpeggio guitars, vibraphones and dual vocals. The follow-up, “Goldenhead” is another worthy listen, featuring some of Caila’s best vocals on the album, going between Pat Benatar drama and Neko Case-like yearning. “Topsy Turvy” at first sounds like a tense version of U2’s “Stay (Faraway So Close)” with surf guitars, but then takes completely different dramatic turns. “Oh No, Oh Boy” is one of the more straightforward tracks on the self-titled debut, with melodies going exactly where you might expect them to, rather than the uncharted places most of the other songs seem to tread.
By the end of the album, with the great songs “Rory’s Bleeding” and “Boy, You Shouldn’t Have,” you have no choice but to become a huge fan of Shapes & Sizes. It’s as if they want to challenge each listener with their least accessible work up front, and then ease them into the good stuff later in the CD. Whereas the first few songs might resemble the weirdness of countrymen pals Frog Eyes, the middle songs are more along the lines of still weird but slightly more accessible bands like Destroyer and Fiery Furnaces, and the last few songs delve into more traditional rock territory such as the Band-like “Boy, You Shouldn’t Have.” Yes, bands do come in all shapes and sizes, but not always just like Shapes & Sizes. Huh? Either way, it’s an incredibly diverse debut album from a band that Sufjan is happy to call labelmate.