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Seana Carmody - Struts & Shocks



Is there a renaissance going on? Have all of us shoegazer kids from the early nineties seen the light of day and made the conscious decision to revive the energy of that seemingly forgotten and mis-named subgenre? No. There is no such renaissance, but musicians who played a part in defining those heady days have matured. Now they seem to be returning to the fold to illustrate how they've grown, and to demonstrate what they've learned since a Fender Jazzmaster and a wall of feedback were an indie-rocker's best friend. Seana Carmody, formerly of seminal East Coast punters Swirlies and founder of the short-lived Syrup USA, reappears after four years of silence with this solo debut, and takes the first step towards the top of the indie-rock pile in this post-shoegazer world.

While other critics have noted that the sounds on Struts & Shocks seem to erase the output of the talented but misguided Syrup USA outfit formed briefly in 1997, the album is very much a hybrid of Carmody's previous sonic pursuits -- the layered dimensions of the Swirlies' sound fitted within the intelligent songwriting she refined while helming the prog-pop group that occupied her free time in the late nineties. Sweeping guitars, fitted with the prerequisite distortion and flange effects, propel each track forward, although it must be said that Struts & Shocks' dynamism is characterized by any number of shifting tempos and varying intensities of volume. The Breeders-meets-Helium aesthetic of "Mighty Bull" and "Tornadoes" is probably the most easily identifiable parallel with Carmody's contemporaries, and best describes her sound -- the edginess of the Deal sisters balanced by Timony-esque, half-whispered vocal delivery. To that end, it is Carmody's vocals that stand as the centerpiece of the majority of these compositions, their sweetness often masking the darkly romantic lyrical content and operating as a counterpoint to many of the decidedly aggressive, guitar-heavy passages. "Deirdre" marks the most obvious parallel with the Syrup sound, although it carries a maturity and focus that was seemingly lacking from much of Syrup's work.

In the end, though, it seems that the quiet type is always the best type. "Smoking In The Dark" is a Patsy Cline-styled ballad that meanders like the broken-hearted, silently going about its business with all the nonchalance of a sheepish school girl. It's Carmody's least complex arrangement, but the album's most touching and affecting track ("Wake up and tell me we're all right now that it's dark / Desperate night / Drive me crazy until tomorrow / Tomorrow is here / Tomorrow is today"). My obvious love for all things Swirlies notwithstanding -- and likewise my not-so-obvious disinterest in the Syrup years -- Struts & Shocks is the brilliant re-emergence of an artist whose contribution to the North American independent music scene has been grossly under estimated. Now that her extended break is behind her, let's hope that Carmody is prepared to take the next step in her hike to the top. -- Mike Baker


Ink 19

Seana Carmody fronted Boston shoegazin' wonders The Swirlies for a while, fronted the proggish Syrup USA for a while, and then nothing for four years before this solo debut album, which is shoegazin' proggish singer/songwriter pop with guts and heart and a great bad attitude. Backed only by drummer/keyboardist Orrin Anderson and bassist/guitarist Adam Brilla (okay, Victory At Sea's Mona Elliott does backing vox on two songs), Carmody reveals herself once again to be a completely kick-ass songwriter and singer and guitar player and keyboardist, and a convincing solo artist to boot. "Tailgate" is convincing neo-grunge with a great fuzzy guitar riff and a vocal sneer from punk heaven; "Smoking in the Dark" sounds like an updated Phil Spector girl-group tune for lonely indie-rock women everywhere, as she sings a great song to her cigarette: "We're all right / Now that it's dark / Desperate nights / Drive me crazy / Until tomorrow / Tomorrow is here." And the final track, "Stay Awake," is 8:19 of heaven -- it's like an acid-fueled jam session between Lush and Stereolab, with guitar noises and little Farfisa touches gracing the tense and plodding drumbeats. A wonderful short little record that lingers long after it's over... so play it often. --Matt Cibula



Three words? Dances on Pavement.

Sometimes you don't know the perfect kind of music until it hits you between the eyes. Seana Carmody's debut album on Kimchee is pop-rock with a citrus tang, guitar hooks and noisy stabs left open to the air - light, bright and smart. With a voice like a dipped cone, Carmody skips through ten songs with the quirky zip, zap and zoom of Pavement, loosing bubblegum pops amid multitracked vocals, feedback squall and unpredictable melodic bursts. It's summery without being obvious, clear-eyed and singing in the smog.

Songwriters are so often concerned with their own voices or their own words - everything on an album revolving round subtle turns of phrase or the final, predictable melisma. Frontmen release solo albums that yell "Look at me!", and keep yelling, long after we get the picture. Sometimes it's a "Don't I sound fuckin' weird?" moment, stylistic shifts dragged to the middle of the soundstage, with christmas lights and giant neon signs proclaiming "WEIRD, HUH?!". Yeah, David Usher, you used an aria in the middle of a pop-song. Neat. Okay, Stephen Malkmus, that was a pretty witty turn of phrase. Oh, you're going to sing it again? Okay. One more time? Sure.

Carmody, however, has simply launched herself into songs. The lyrics roll off of the sing-along tongue, never cringe-worthy... but they also never call attention to themselves. Struts & Shocks has a sonic scope as wide as a playground - from the slow-burn "don't fuck with me" vibe of "I Can Troll" to the surf "chooba-doo wop wop" of "Rocket Out of Time", to the crash of "Tornadoes", like the slap of a tsunami that glues you to your bed - but again it's unassuming. Each song speaks for itself, it need make no excuses, and these thirty-five minutes fall together like a motley-but-sympathetic crew of old friends. "Rocket Out of Time" is a fine opening: smooth and understated singing filled out with the monster-yawn of guitars and then the sudden burst of confetti (pop!) that nuzzles against that core melody, painting over the drab tones with yellows and scarlets. "Mighty Bull" throws a girlish swagger over latenight bass and the eventual surge of indie-rock guitars. On "Tailgate", Carmody is angrier still - "Tailgate my love, you won't be far behind," she half-growls; Sleater-Kinney applauds from the wings.

And then there's she's the cute girl with the bob haircut who hangs outside the DQ. She whispers wet into your ear: "Give me a secret, from your mouth to mine," then backs away, all coquette, "ooh-ooh-ooh"ing as she pulls out some old Helium and Mirah records. There's actually a lot of Elephant 6 floating around here - old Olivia Tremor Control arrangements bundled together with indie-girl pep. Synth swirls leave "Deirdre" off-kilter, like an old folk song reinterpreted by Helium. "Smoking in the Dark" is simple and sad, guitar strums bolstering words of regret, electronic shivers like sunlight passing over a window.

Struts & Shocks is an album that it's dead-easy to like; it's affectionate without trying, the killer arrangements shimmying up to you with hooks aplenty, Carmody's charm as unforced as the wrinkles in her clothes, the shine in her eye. Far better than, say, Ben Folds or Stephen Malkmus' solo work, this is a talent whose skills are transparent and fine, whose music is ardent, clever, and simple as a picnic. -- Sean


All Music Guide

After detouring into hobbit rock territory with the short-lived Syrup USA, Seana Carmody returns to the dreamy noise-pop of her Swirlies years on her excellent solo debut Struts and Shocks - at times, in fact, the disc's fondness for dense, churning guitars and celestial atmospherics seems to suggest the past decade never happened, and the shoegazer sound never went away. Carmody's fragile, sleepytime voice is put to far better use here than it ever was in the Swirlies, however, and her ingratiatingly melodic songs are models of economy, with all but the epic closer, "Stay Awake," hovering around the three-minute mark. --Jason Ankeny



She changed a part of rock when she sang in a band called The Swirlies in the early '90s and even developed a cult following when she formed Syrup USA in the mid-90s. Seana Carmody took a break of sorts after Syrup USA separated in '98, but she's back now with a noise-pop versatility called Struts and Shocks.

The lazy sway of songs like "Sidewalk" and "Lazy Island" brush and lull you like a summer breeze on Cape Cod, while songs like "I Can Troll" enchants with the power of harmony and the subtle building of guitar strumming. Helping Carmody on this album is Orrin Anderson (ex-Syrup USA) on drums and keyboards and Adam Brilla (Lockgroove) on bass and a little space guitar. Coincidentally the two rockers on the album, "Tailgate" and "Tornadoes," feature guest vocals by Mona Elliott (Victory at Sea). That's when the drums start poppin' and the guitar screams for mercy.

Separately Carmody's and Elliott's voices are stunning, so you have to realize that putting the two together is hardcore. Throughout Struts and Shocks Carmody sings with a seductive mellowness and confidence that might have something to do with her ten+ years experience. She knows when to purr and isn't overabundant. Her vocals are given more room to shine on the quiet and comforting "Smoking in the Dark," which tucks you in so that the album closer "Stay Awake" can take you away. --Rob Heater


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