I’ve mentioned London artist, David Shah, a few times before on this blog; first, in my post on his enchanting project The Melting Ice Caps, and second, in my post of singles, which featured the split single for both The Melting Ice Caps and Shah’s other project The Soft Close-Ups. Additionally, I featured The Melting Ice Caps’ Selfish Bachelor in my Breakthru Radio setlist. Shah also happened to be in one of my favourite, but all too brief, bands, Luxembourg. A few weeks ago, I received a six-track disc of Soft Close-Ups songs from Shah and his collaborator, Aug Stone, a disc which features some more distinctive artwork from Sina Shamsavari, whose artwork has previously graced singles by The Melting Ice Caps. There’s no doubt Shah is a highly talented songwriter and lyricist with a Jarvis Cocker-like sense of satire and vocals that are alternately passionate and aloof, but his partnership with Stone moves away from the ornate chamber pop that I most associate with him, and adds a synthpop flair to the erudite lyrics. The tongue-in-cheek name of the band, ostensibly mocking b-movie tactics of emotional appeal, sets up the mocking pose and continues the intelligent art-pop that Shah has been pursuing since the days of Luxembourg.
The introductory track, Ditch the Theory, is a brilliant lambaste of academia that I can completely appreciate. It begins with a Pulp-like pumping synth line and deadpan rapping of the Pet Shop Boys sort. Shah’s smooth vocals then soar in a Morrissey fashion over a bubbling electropop riff and drum machine, and the combination works surprisingly wonderfully. While Shah mocks those who barricade themselves in the ivory tower, his easy patter of De Beauvoir, Lacan, Foucault, Derrida, hybridity and the third space, and simulacra belies this criticism; this liminal position of being both highly educated and educated enough to realize the ludicrous impracticality of it all is something I can identify with wholly. It’s the perfect song for those who are muddling through a thesis or dissertation and have suddenly found themselves sharing a bedroom with theorists (at one time last year, I had Umberto Eco sitting rather jolly in the corner of my room next to Marshall McLuhan in a tie-dye shirt and George Farquhar, who had a persistent TB-induced cough). The second track, Some Sick Day, is a gentle, haunting acoustic ballad that takes me back to one of my favourite Luxembourg songs, Single. The self-aware melancholy is dealt with in Shah’s unique turn-of-phrase, and features such lines as “when the pain was just metaphor,” “now the painkillers are a little too real,” and “any other drugs are for folk who lack imagination.”
I still love Birthmark, which I first heard as part of the third split single with The Melting Ice Caps and which is on this compilation. It bemoans relationships and thwarted life plans while maintaining an arch humour and features a chorus with the lyric, “let’s not fear the birthmark that’s all across your face.” Fireworks returns to synths, evoking the calm depths of a sea cave, and relating a bittersweet narrative of inevitable loss. The following song, The Way I Don’t Kiss, returns to a more chamber pop feel with Bacharach-like piano alongside the synths as Shah laconically sings, “Don’t kiss the way that I don’t/To spare you the sight, please.” It’s a brilliant rendering of what you would love to say to your “lover” if you had back pockets bulging with bon mots and had an autistic sense of honesty. The record closes with At the End of a Good Day, which sparkles and effervesces with synthesizers and relates another page from my life in its narrative of working life. Shah sings the couplet “every boss I’ve ever had has eventually treated me badly, every colleague I’ve ever had has eventually been treated badly” and “I was paid for being bored.” It’s the perfect companion piece to Frankly, Mr. Shankly.
The Soft Close-Ups are offering all six tracks for free download from their Last.fm page, and I recommend you grab all of them. However, I would be more than willing to pay for these songs and any more that they end up releasing. Shah and Stone are serious about not being serious, studious while criticizing studiousness. As much as cynicism and melancholy dominate these tracks, there is also a latent humour that parallels the gentle pop melodies of the music; in a soft-focus close shot who’s to say whether your tears are sadness or laughter. Oh, the exquisite pains and joys of being a flâneur on an uneven sidewalk.
The Soft Close-Ups MySpace: http://www.myspace.com/thesoftcloseups