Independent Spotlight is a continuing series on Stewart’s blog. The series revolves around independent artists and bands sending their music to Brett to review. No band is promised a positive review, and all music is reviewed honestly in an effort to better independent music.
In this morning’s edition of the Independent Spotlight, we shine our gaze on Seashaped, an act that consists of Pete Gustard and Alison Riley. In May of 2015, I reviewed their sophomore studio endeavor here on the Spotlight, a record I lauded for being “an intelligent and creative offering of music that remains consistently interesting throughout.” Now, it’s time to revisit this compelling duo! They’ve got a new record out called ‘A Story Of Trouble & Love.’ Does it stack up to its predecessor? Let’s find out.
‘A Story Of Trouble & Love’ starts off with an introduction called ‘A Story Of Trouble And Love.’ It’s a very brief soundscape of a radio shifting through dramatically different channels: music, Spanish language, public news announcement, etc. Small sections like this as a recurring theme on ‘A Story Of Trouble & Love,’ and they offer an interesting narrative structure to the album.
The first real song, ‘Tom Loves Rock,’ is a tune meant to blow the house down. It’s exactly what I loved about Seashaped last year: it’s raw, but well-written and performed. “There’s something going on over there, but I just don’t care” Gustard croons in an apathetic, yet suave manner. The tune is the like the opposite of Buffalo Springfield’s ‘For What It’s Worth.’ It’s distorted, fuzzy, and Seashaped are observing ‘something going on,’ but they really couldn’t care less.
‘Something Going On,’ the first interlude on the album, is similar to the introductory track. It’s very short, and incorporates a radio-esque theme. The transmission choice is an interesting one as well: CBS reporting on the Pearl Harbor bombing in 1941. It’s a fascinating inclusion, even if its purpose isn’t made abundantly clear. (At this point the album, anyway.)
Riley takes over the vocal reins on ‘Alice’s Reflection,’ an atmospheric jaunt through more folksy songwriting. It’s quite a melancholy tune, in truth, and it’s also one of Riley’s more tactful vocal performances on either of the two albums I’ve reviewed from Seashaped. Not only does she hit each note, but she does so over a massive vocal spectrum.
‘No One Went Home,’ the second album interlude, aurally depicts a very interesting emotional dichotomy. Gustard is playing a twangy acoustic guitar in what sounds like a bar - the recording is very rudimentary. The short tune he’s singing, where he repeats, “I’m not going home” in each line, is a song that a disillusioned soldier may sing. The sample on top of that recording is a recording of the Aircraft Warning Service, again, circa WWII.
‘Alice’s Plea (Don’t Leave)’ establishes one of the album's central characters, Alice, a bit better than ‘Alice’s Reflection.’ (This is mostly due to while ‘Reflection’ is a beautiful track, much of Riley’s vocals on it are incomprehensible.) On ‘Alice’s Plea,’ Riley sings in a lower key, reminiscent of a Lucinda Williams style performance or the like. Alice seems to be a character distraught by a soldier leaving for war, presumably WWII, and ‘Alice’s Plea’ is her heartbroken plea for him to stay and not go to war. The final moments of the track are particularly beautiful with the symphony of echoes and cascading strings.
‘Looking Back On You And I’ is another interlude song seemingly written from the perspective of a soldier watching the war around him and thinking about his love back at home. ‘War Thoughts,’ a mostly instrumental track, follows with one of the most experimental and intriguing compositions on the album. There’s a sense of urgency to the track, especially as the “war thoughts” escalate into a cacophony of intensity.
‘Total Victory,’ the fourth and final interlude, is a sample centered around a segment of FDR’s 1945 State of the Union address. At that point, the United States was at the height of its involvement in WWII and Roosevelt was assuring the nation that while the cost of the war would be high, the importance of the United States’ involvement could not be understated. Historically, he wasn’t wrong. The American forces put a decisive end to WWII in its final year.
‘Tom Came Home (Repatriation),’ is exactly what it sounds like it would be: frustratingly depressing. Tom, presumably, is coming home from the war, hence his repatriation. He’s no longer as assured of himself as he once was, though, and his internal strife after being in the war overcomes him. It’s another heartbreaking affair, especially since Tom acknowledges the strain and loss of his relationship with his lover due to the war.
There are a few ways to interpret this album, but I’ll do my best to assess what I think it means:
Gustard plays Tom and Riley places Alice, two young Americans in love in the 1940s. ‘Tom Loves Rock,’ our introduction to Tom, is lighthearted and apathetic - like Tom. He eventually leaves home to fight in the war, though, much to Alice’s dismay.
Alice, heartbroken over Tom leaving to fight in WWII, pines for him in songs like ‘Alice’s Plea.’ While at war, Tom’s character shifts dramatically - he looks back on his life back at home and it can never be the same again after the horrors of war. Even in victory, his repatriation is a hollow affair, one that doesn’t involve rekindling his relationship with Alice.
This, of course, is certainly a commentary on how many young men left to fight in WWII without fully realizing what they were signing up for. When and if they returned, they were broken men, and their personal lives suffered as a result of that. ‘A Story Of Trouble & Love’ is a somber, but realistic concept album that centers itself in a microcosm of a 1940s relationship. The world is exploding outside of that relationship, though, and the dynamic between Tom and Alice reflects a broader struggle during the era that many people faced.
As expected, Seashaped has delivered with their new effort. It’s even better than their last. Check it out, especially if you have a penchant for excellent storytelling and concept albums.