IAN SWEET is a Brooklyn-based trio comprised of drummer Tim Cheney, bassist Damien Scalise, and frontwoman/guitarist Jilian Medford (a Berklee College of Music alumna). They came together in 2014, with a re-release of Medford’s originally soloEP, which makes Shapeshifter their first full-length release. It showcases two primary things: their great melodic and rhythmic instrumental senses and their hit-and-miss ability to keep a song captivating.
The album begins with signs of promise, as the start of “Slime Time Live” finds each instrument possessing a great funky line. While the chorus (where we are “jumping in”) passes by without sticking each time, the Minus the Bear-level balance of complexity with catchiness is enough to excite any listener enough to hear the rest of the album. The subsequent “#23” treats us to a ceiling fan-gazing riff like Weezer’s classic “Undone” — or maybe something from the Good News… or Lonesome Crowded West era of Modest Mouse — and you could very easily imagine Rivers Cuomo or Isaac Brock leading the track throughout its first half. Though that stretch from ~0:48 to 1:24 is one of the album’s sweetest moments, the track’s whole second half removes itself from the earlier concoction. After the great spot for a climax at ~2:28, the rest feels unnecessary (especially when its rocking ending would have made sense if included at the tail end of the last track).
The album’s weak midpoint is surrounded by a pair of its most brilliant tracks, strangely balancing the album somewhat. The first, “2soft2chew”, uses some more sedate instrumentation than the previous tracks (in fact, that opening section could be a layer in a Pinback song), yet pulls it off without a hitch. Medford’s lyrics match the tone, too, describing the anxiety of wanting someone while beating yourself up (mentally and/or physically) and then not being good enough to be with them when they give you a chance. Take the following lyrics for example: “I get so nervous and I grit my teeth / They get so loose and fall out, now I don’t have any / When you finally want me / My mouth is too bloody.” It keeps us hypnotized for its five minutes, unlike the following (and lengthier) “Cactus Couch”.
For the most part, “Cactus Couch” sounds like an easygoing re-hash of “Slime Time Live”. Although this one does have an intriguing little rockabilly-sounding mid-section, it suffers the same problem of “#23”: the final two minutes feel like a trudge. After its furious storm-out comes the title track, “Shapeshifter”. It’s got a mega-flange effect throughout that provides a gnarly aura, but the seemingly cool pitch-shifting sound on the guitar just becomes too distracting once you’ve gotten into the song. Though it fits with the unshapeable, shapeshifting theme, we’re left waiting for a peak that doesn’t come.
Perhaps we’re kept salivating for the album’s gem “All Skaters Go to Heaven”, which comes to the rescue as the track that’s easiest to feel this band’s magic. It seems to represent the pleasurable afternoon leisure of skateboarding to contrast the aforementioned Weezer-esque going-to-work-on-your-surfboard rush on “Surf Wax America”. This one makes us swoon and sway like many of Best Coast’s sun-soaked lullaby, yet they found a way to fit in a moment of Deftones-level heaviness at ~2:07. They tap into that same band’s opposite broody, atmospheric style on the following song, “Knife Knowing You”. It begins with tri-tone beauty of just Jilian’s pretty voice and fuzzy, real guitar strumming, and [what sounds like] bowed guitar to accent. The next phase is signaled by the powerful line: “You even sip water like it’s a weapon”, which is paired with a delayed guitar pattern. The band should stay and dive deeper into this effect-ed sea for the rest of the song, but instead they once again make that mistake of stretching out the duration with a build-up that leads only to two more verses.
This feeling continues when negatively capitalized by the last full track (and arguably the album’s weakest), “Quietly Streaming”. After we’ve heard the rest of the album, it seems as if the band needed another song and just tried to model one from pieces of the rest of the selections they had. While sound in theory, it’s easily the least memorable entry on the album, bringing the main section of the work to a stale close. When Medford sings, “This could go on… forever”, you start to believe it. However, the band has consistently shown that even the worst tracks have some great facet in them; in this case, it’s that moment after she sings, “This could be all in my head” the second time, as it’s followed by a filter effect that brings the drums down to a low-end rumble that sounds as if it’s emanating through the bones of her skull as she records her vocals. It’s very cool.
The haunting “Pink Marker” ghost returns from the record opening (this second version impressing much more than its first) to now seal it closed and signal that this mind-unspooling session is done. While Shapeshifter phases in and out of being great, the musical connection between Medford, Cheney, and Scalise is undeniably present & strong throughout (likely a result of their friendship, which she calls “intuitive [and] telepathic”). They’ve got their musicianship down pat—and on their first album!—so now all that should remain is a little more time for them to learn how to hone their compositions to be as good as the great tracks they have already. IAN SWEET is definitely a band to keep on your watch list, and Shapeshifter is a release worth a few listens.