DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
"Ignition" is the first new album in 18 years by the Zion, Illinois band Shoes. The three original members, brothers Jeff and John Murphy and guitarist Gary Klebe, wrote and recorded the album in a home studio. Rock critic Ken Tucker says Shoes have retained the pop rock rigor the band has demonstrated since it first started releasing records in the 1970s.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE JOKE'S ON YOU")
SHOES: (Singing) You might find another noble cause to hang upon your wall and fill your hallowed halls but in time your words will seal your fate. So I'm picking up the pace and laughing in your face. 'Cause the joke's on you.
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: They made do-it-yourself records in the '70s before DIY became an indie music biz catchphrase. They 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, Illinois, 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 Shoes have cobbled together albums like stubborn craftsmen who know their trade is at once outmoded and valuable. At this point they're so aware of this that they can risk self-criticism by titling a new song "Diminishing Returns."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIMINISHING RETURNS")
SHOES: (Singing) Giving her the kinds of things just to get her through. But you don't remember when you knew what to do. It's been on your mind but you're afraid of what you might find behind. Diminishing returns. You might find something. Diminishing returns. You might find behind. Diminishing returns. You might find something. Diminishing returns. You might find behind.
TUCKER: Like so many four-piece bands that emerged in the wake of the Beatles, Shoes 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 Beatle-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.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEAD VERSUS HEART")
SHOES: (Singing) Time is chasing me down. Somewhere I got turned around. You can try if you will. You'll be the death of me still. Till the end I won't breathe easy again. Trouble from the start. Don't go where you want to go. Head versus heart. Go where you want to go.
TUCKER: Decades ago, Shoes could fill their 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 middle-aged men for whom puppy love would be an unseemly song subject, Shoes' music has become even more abstract, and significantly, their song lengths longer. They're taking their pleasure in extending riffs rather than hew 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.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OUT OF ROUND")
JEFF MURPHY: (Singing) Since you went away there is sadness every day in my heart. Your message on our phone, leave your number, we're not home, still remains. So I can hear your voice. Life goes on but the world seems out of round to me. People say you'll get over it one day but for now it's so hard to see.
TUCKER: That song, called "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 their fifth decade, sitting in their Illinois home studio, Shoes are making do-it-yourself music sound not like an obsession or compulsive habit, but more like endless pleasure, that hard work and passion can combine to yield sparks.
DAVIES: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed "Ignition," the new album from the band Shoes. You can view the video of their song "In On You" at our website freshair.npr.org, where you can also download podcasts of our show.