The Shoes Still Fit
By Aaron Kupferberg
Some say that the 1980’s were a “lost decade” for power pop, with the decline of Badfinger, Big Star and The Raspberries, there was yet to be a band that could pick up the mantle for the genre. The influences of punk and new wave were just starting to take hold of the public’s attention in 1977. It’s into this that Shoes emerged with “Black Vinyl Shoes,” a homemade demo album that generated such critical praise it started the next wave of melodic guitar-driven pop, eager to leave disco behind. A trio of great new albums followed, and Shoes became the new vanguard of the movement.
And the mainstream took notice, signed to Elektra from 1979-82 and then the band went DIY and made “Silhouette”(1984). But Black Vinyl Records (the band’s indie label) really came into its own with the compilation “Shoes Best”(1987). As the decade drew to a close, the Zion, IL combo of Jeff Murphy, John Murphy, Gary Klebe did what they could in terms of output. In their home studio, they pioneered the DIY spirit of rock bands that could sound great without major label backing. It worked for a while, fell apart in the mid-90s, when independent distribution went national rather than regional. But still the band soldiered on and they influenced many power pop bands in the following years including The Posies, Material Issue, Velvet Crush, and The Rooks. As one of the most influential and respected power pop bands, it’s with great joy that we greet the latest album in over in over 18 years, “Ignition.”
“Ignition” proves Shoes still embrace and fly the banner of melodic guitar-driven pop. “Head Vs. Heart” starts us off with the sweeping chords and harmonies — it’s pitch perfect Shoes power pop. The mid-tempo jangle comes next on “The Joke’s On You” with its clean layers of guitars in the verses up to the chorus. The Shoes sound is very distinctive and the musicianship here is perfection.
The band manages to scale back the synths and mix up the formula as “Heaven Help” talks about the stifling uncertainty of love and it’s chorus reminds me of the Travelling Wilburys. The band also has some fun with “Hot Mess,” imitating the Stones with strutting Keith Richards-styled rhythms. Jeff Murphy’s political views come forth in “Where Will It End” and most impressive is the minor key masterpiece “Out of Round” written about a departed friend. Each of the 15 tracks manage to fly by and encourage repeat listens. The final track “Only We Remain” is a bit dragged out, but states the band’s purpose succinctly “Do what we wanna do. Livin’ for today.” Like the cover implies, Ignition is sure to lift your spirits.
The album’s release coincides with that of a new book, definitive band chronicle Boys Don’t Lie: A History of Shoes by Mary E. Donnelly (New York college professor and managing editor of PurePopPress.com with Moira McCormick. It recounts the critically-lionized group’s evolution from rudimentary mid-’70s experiments in cutting their own records at home, through a three-album 1980s tenure at major label Elektra Records, on to a ’90s incarnation as self-sufficient indie artists operating their own full-service label and studio businesses, before coming full-circle back to home recording in the new, post-digital-revolution millennium.