Kansas City indie pop trio Shy Boys' self-titled debut is a triumph of ramshackle aesthetics and homespun hooks. Instrumentally, Shy Boys is far from dazzling, but that doesn't seem to hold the group back.
Forget that Malcolm Gladwell "10,000 hours" rap for a second—sometimes, you're better off going in cold. Take, for instance, Kansas City trio Shy Boys. Brothers Collin and Kyle Rausch and roommate Konnor Ervin formed the band before they'd ever picked up their instruments, and from the ramshackle sound of their self-titled debut, they haven't lost much sleep staying up late to work on their scales. Unabashed amateurishness can cut both ways; certain groups cut through the rough patches with enough youthful exuberance or ingrained pop sensibility, but for others, the incompetency's more than the songs can bear. Instrumentally, Shy Boys is far from dazzling: tentative one minute, roughshod the next. But these limitations don't seem to be holding Shy Boys' songcraft back. From these rickety arrangements, they've carved out the kind of sly, spiny, instinctive hooks any seasoned band would be lucky to stumble upon.
The Shy Boys have dubbed their jangly indie-pop "landlocked surf music," which, as self-styled descriptors go, isn't half-bad. Rumbling staccato riffs and candied Beach Boys harmonies form the foundation of many of these songs, and there's a late-afternoon haze hanging over even the least sunstroked numbers. There's no shortage of turn-of-the-60s pop in the DNA of these songs, from doo-wop to teen-heartthrob crooner-types; the syrupy, slightly unsettling "Heart is Mine" is Frankie Avalon by way of the first Smith Westerns LP, while the late-LP twofer "Fireworks" and "Trim" are one spiked punchbowl away from closing out a Sadie Hawkins dance. But, while certain touchstones echo throughout these songs, their unschooled approach to songcraft mostly keeps mere imitation at bay. Shy Boys is a short album—ten songs in barely 24 minutes—and songs don't waste a lot of time getting to the point. Hooks are shoved front-and-center, pesky things like bridges fall by the wayside, and instrumental flourishes are few and far between. It's a risk, but it pays off; by eliminating the distance between you and these homespun hooks, they burrow their way into your head that much quicker.
Though singer/guitarist Collin Rausch's lyrics all-too-often get swept up in a sea of reverb, he's in sweet, tender voice throughout Shy Boys, singing with a delicacy that carries his message through the thick coating of Vaseline. The swirling, Shins-gone-surf "Bully Fight"—inspired by YouTube-infamous meanie Richard Gale—finds Rausch throwing his charmingly thin voice around like a guy with some experience with getting picked on, while the jittery "And I Am Nervous" pretty much reviews itself. That nervous energy's a big reason for Shy Boys' success; getting through these songs in one piece lends these songs an urgency that leaves slowpoke ballad "Submarine" feeling woozy, waterlogged. From a structural standpoint, these songs never seem more than a couple bum notes from falling apart. But, between that verge-of-collapse sound and unforced, plucked-from-the-air hooks, Shy Boys operates with a kind of spluttering grace. These unforced, unfussy, unshakably catchy songs are awfully easy to like, and their precarious presentation's just gauzy and peculiar enough to hold together after the dozenth listen.
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