Sail Away Sweet Sailor Boyfriend: Shapes And Colors Review
Till now, I’ve been reviewing albums that I really have no business of covering. A strong opponent to Ska-punk and a metal dilettante, it’s about time I beat my eardrums with some familiar noise. It’s 2019, current year, and New Wave (apparently) is making a comeback. I’d consider myself fairly acquainted with some of the seminal artists to this formative synth-saturated genre: I get down to early Eno, I’ve flirted with Talking Heads, I bump to "Heart of Glass" on the daily (don’t judge!). Occupying the same NYC sonic space as punk and aesthetic foil no-wave, New Wave embodies the stylistic decisions of a very particular era in music history; formed by innovations in studio recording and a thriving synthesizer market, it’s tough to say whether a digital album produced in the 21st Century’s infancy should really be categorized as a genre who’s style has become standard within the ethos of popular music. Regardless, Jersey City’s not-so-teenage heartthrobs Sailor Boyfriend have decided to tackle that classic question of “What if Bowie blew up on the other side of the Hudson”?
Sailor Boyfriend is a wave breaking synth-pop yacht, steered by Captain Andy Waldron and Chief Mate Alex Mercuri, with a course set on spreading dance-pop nostalgia across the internet seaway. Their second album Shapes and Colors, made available by Make Believe Records, sees our nautical philanderers embrace the more conceptual angle of their loose mythos. With each track presenting a bare-bones persona, conveyed through either first- or third-person lyrical perspectives, the duo take a stab at peeling back the layers of media manipulation and social paranoia that rattle the minds of most phone addicted millennials. While the boys set out for the high seas, they end up sailing shallow waters with an album that treads lightly along the surface of fancified cultural issues and rocky production.
“I Can See Them Too” opens the album with an erupting silver-age film overture that fizzles into twangy guitar noodling and crisp sputtering brass, surrounded by a brief scene of sci-fi lasers that merge smoothly into milky synth leads. Rolling drums lock us into a steady beat as Andy’s unassertive voice toils over the toxic advert images that have infiltrated “our” worried minds. Vocals tremor with coy restraint; his delivery is evocative of a shy and slightly geeky high schooler who smiles at passing strangers, averting their eyes when a crush walks by, and shouting along to their favorite songs when the folks aren’t home. The song breaks into a brief solo section, giving Alex room to flex some crunchy licks. This leads to an instrumentally packed final verse, complete with back-up harmonies and a return of sampled brass, with additional synth work. While the structure is grand, and rising momentum is present in the track’s arrangement, its plain production is underwhelming, fizzing out what could have been a heart racing New Wave anthem.
We’re then introduced to “Tracey” with a brief taste of amp feedback that’s interrupted by a jaunty guitar lead and dry kick-hi-hat combo. Bright synth bass picks up and phases from left to right channels as Andy paints the character of an agro-socialist femme-warrior drawn to confrontation. “Tracey” is tense with strained textures as buzzing synths and bleating bells swallow the leading melody. The song eases up towards the end, as Andy waxes poetic over a muffled kick and small arrangement of sampled chimes and rhythmic synths. While the arrangement packs a stronger punch than most tracks on this album, Andy’s singsong-syncopated delivery lacks the presence needed to push the track’s energy over the edge.
Fast funk strumming appears and vanishes into a sea of under-produced synths in “The Battle of Sugar Hill”. The track’s bland mixing unwittingly reflects the superficial imagery presented in its lyrics; “crimson shoes” and “velvet pews” float in an ether of flat reverb and messy arrangements. While the narrative attempts to portray a spectacular battle, the song’s structure is monotonous; this track would be better suited as a B-side than as the album’s featured track (as it is on Bandcamp at the time of me writing this review). “Tape Measure” suffers from the same lack of charisma, as Andy wails his woes over a dull march of dry drums and quiet synths. Alex’s guitar playing on this track is particularly fiery and would provide some much-needed grit if it wasn’t buried at the bottom of the mix. The song picks up with a dance-centric latter half, but the clash of undefined instrumentation and strained vocals is messy in a way that isn’t conducive to the song’s energy.
“Kick the Can” is probably my favorite track off the album, since Andy and Company play to their strengths with soft, almost whispered, vocal deliveries nestled in a strong lo-fi dream-pop aesthetic, appropriate for their compositional abilities. Mellow and childlike, the track touts some serious rumbling synths that offer some compelling contrast to the song’s lucid production. Krissanthemum’s slightly off-key vocals imbue a child-like quality to the track, appropriate for its puerile theme. While Sailor Boyfriend present themselves as a billboard of New Wave inspired art-rock, their most dynamic and earnest track can be more aptly defined as a simple yet versatile electronic bedroom-pop ballad.
“Bugchild” charges in with fanfare consisting of more basic synth work and over-dramatized vocals. From the perspective of a wounded speaker allusions are made to “America the Beautiful” and Native American chieftains. The speaker is absorbed by their dramatization of Americana imagery, taking off into the next track, “Jeff Leaves the Planet”. A slow burner, minimal blips and distorted vocals carry lyrics burdened with resentment, heartbreak, and questionable aphorisms (“politics make strange bedfellows, eh?”) With the final stanza swallowed by a storm of sound, the album plays out with its title track “Shapes and Colors”. Synth-wavey and akin to disco, it goes above and beyond to embody 80’s dance-funk motifs; this leads me to believe that the track would have succeeded as a would-be novelty song (hell, there’s even a sax bridge). Once again Alex’s determined solos are stomped out in the mix.
While this album tries to touch upon social concerns of contemporary youth culture, intermixed with some minor introspection and lamentation over lost love, Shapes and Colors holds a peculiar place in my mind when assessing nostalgia themed media. Despite having lyrics that reiterate motifs of reflection and mirror imagery, intended to criticize the deteriorative effects of American cultural conventions, the irony seems to be lost that their whole aesthetic completely abides by the vacuous and nullifying effects “nostalgia culture” have on the progression of artistic thought. From the faux “MTV Astronaut” on the album’s cover to the Let’s Dance like foot outlines that boarder their Bandcamp page, these allusions to New Wave media aesthetics do little to communicate any conceptual message or distinct thematic cohesion. Even the name “Sailor Boyfriend”, as satisfying as it is to say, doesn’t seem to mean anything or provoke anything iconic (maybe it’s a reference to Sailor Moon?) What we’re given is a slightly off-beat piece of New Wave tribute content that depends on the listener’s expectation for 80’s dance music to entertain. Instead of breaking the mold, they’ve settled into an off-brand cast of comfort commodity intended to lure the listener away from cultural conflict, and towards the cozy dreams of a past and present that don’t exist (there’s already more than enough of this type of escapism). The album’s approach towards commenting on culture norms is passive at best, and its overall tone is noncommittal.
In fairness, I doubt the band cares about having a conceptual mission beyond making a fun dance/novelty record. In that regard, the album’s good for a spin or two. Overall, I give it a round peg in a square hole.