The band Shoes made do-it-yourself records in the '70s before "DIY" became an indie music-business catchphrase; it was indie when that phrase still implied, "too marginal to be signed to a major label." Shoes — two brothers plus two friends — formed in 1974 in Zion, Ill., as self-taught musicians who wanted to do something besides get a 9-to-5 after high school. They may have ended up having to join the day-job workforce, but for nearly 40 years, the members of Shoes have cobbled together albums like stubborn craftsmen who know that their trade is at once outmoded and valuable. At this point, its members are so aware of this that they can risk self-criticism by titling a new song "Diminishing Returns," which comes from Ignition, the band's first new album in 18 years.
Like so many four-piece bands that emerged in the wake of the Beatles, Shoes' members believed that they were making potential hit singles, and managed to convince one major label of the same thing, and to sign them for three albums: Elektra Records, home of bands such as The Doors, Metallica and — more to the point — the Cars. But there was no swagger to Shoes' music, no "new wave" gloss. America, unlike Britain, has rarely fallen in love with Beatles-influenced pop-music makers. And so Shoes has gone its sometimes lonely way, swapping out drummers regularly, even as brothers Jeff and John Murphy and guitarist-singer Gary Klebe continued to write and release albums with increasing infrequency. By now, they've become philosophical, as in the Klebe song that leads off the album, "Head Versus Heart," which can be heard as an argument for going with what you love versus what you think might sell better.
Decades ago, Shoes could fill harmonies and multi-tracked vocals with syllables about pining for love or being jilted. Words and ideas were never a big impetus to make music; lyrics were excuses to make sounds of muted yearning or muted joy. Now made by middle-aged men for whom puppy love would be an unseemly song subject, Shoes' music has become even more abstract — and, significantly, its song lengths longer. The band is taking pleasure in extending riffs rather than hewing to power-pop brevity. Sometimes the songs on Ignition flame out before they end; it's an uneven album. But it's also an ambitious one.
"Out of Round" is about a premature death, sung from the point of view of a devastated spouse. By itself, addressing such subject matter isn't a guarantee of a successfully rendered song. But hearing Jeff Murphy's keening vocal set against a more languid yet still surging melody, with an atypical production sound that drapes the guitars around the lyric like a shroud — it's impressive. Now in its fifth decade, sitting in its Illinois home studio, the band is making do-it-yourself music sound not like an obsession or compulsive habit, but like taking endless pleasure in the fact that hard work and passion can combine to yield sparks.