Shy Boys strip indie pop to its core

The eponymous record from Kansas City’s Shy Boys is not new—it was released on High Dive Records in 2014—but it and the band are new to me (and by extension, you). The three-piece consisting of brothers Collin and Kyle Rausch, as well as Konnor Ervin, caught my attention a couple Sundays back playing a set at the Ship. Specifically, the delicate vocals and spare arrangements of vaguely classic sounding pop songs drew me in. The effect of their restrained (dare I say slightly shy?) presentation was to draw the crowd into the music—forcing a level of attention not normally given to acts who play to the cheap seats, as it were. It was a very good show and—spoiler alert—the record is a very good record. So let me tell you how.

The opening track, “Is This Who You Are,” provides a solid mission statement, as opening tracks often do. Simple and insistent chords on the guitar are joined by tastefully workman-like bass and drums for a little introduction, before the guitar drops out and an almost apologetic falsetto ekes out a two-line micro verse. This is followed (unsurprisingly) by a strong chorus hook of “Is this who you are?” repeated 4 times (of course) and underpinned with a catchy melody on the guitar. Another quick verse, a double-chorus, a falsetto vocal of the guitar melody, an instrumental jam out on the chorus chords, and bam, there’s your 3 minute pop song.  I bore you with a structure walk-through only to highlight how downright formulaic it is.

Before you mistake fact for disdain, dear reader, let me assure that this bit of predictability is quite alright, if not downright commendable. Shy Boys will not bowl you over with feats of technical prowess. Nor will they blow your mind wide open with sonic territories hitherto unexplored.  Nope. Rather than work to expand your musical horizons, Shy Boys seek to center you.  The songs on this album serve to remind us of that magical moment we fell in love with popular music.

To make a few comparisons without insinuating any derivative maneuvers on the part of Shy Boys, I give you the following parallels:

  1. “Notion,” the third song on the album, treats the listener to a tasty bit of Brian Wilson (or other Beach Boy, if you will) stepping us up lyrical and melodic stairs to falsetto bliss.
  2.  “Bully Fight,” the fourth track channels the arpeggiated guitar work and dancing rhythms of early R.E.M.
  3. “And I am Nervous” is driven by bass that makes me think of the first record by The Cure.
  4. “Heart is Mine,” at the sixth spot in the rotation, brings to mind the swagger of ’60s takes on ’50s ballads. “The Time of the Season” by the Zombies comes to mind here, just remove some organ and add harmonies in the verses.
  5.  I hope you will notice that my references to R.E.M. and the Cure are from the first years of their respective careers. This is entirely on purpose, because as you may remember the former outfit developed an unhealthy obsession with the mandolin as the latter was slowly drowned in reverb and string pads.

The alchemy of Shy Boys’ impressive record is a matter of distillation. They boil moments of pop genius from the ’60s through the ’80s down to their pure essence.  Or, to switch metaphors on an unwitting audience, let me give you this bit of wisdom from the closing song of Shy Boys’ eponymous album. “Slow down/Keep your head down…./Keep your focus and trim.”

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