Brown Shoe – Jackalope

Brown Shoe

When your band has a knack for writing anthemic pop tunes of a disarmingly honest nature, there is little reason to believe the musical mainstream won’t embrace you. The formula worked for arena-rock staples like Coldplay, and nearly 30 years later, it continues to work for U2. But when your signature sound is also heavily adapted from the playbook of acts like Sigur Rós, R.E.M., and My Morning Jacket, you also run the risk of being passed off as just another trite example of pop music that, while altogether melodic and tuneful, is almost entirely devoid of new ideas and originality. And let’s face it: if your trademark sound is a hackneyed combination of chiming guitars, swirling keyboard atmospherics, and lyrics that waver between the ambiguity of Michael Stipe and the sincerity of Bono, you’re going to be hard pressed to find a critic who doesn’t see the band in question being woefully honest about its influences. Such is the case with the Folsom, CA foursome known as Brown Shoe and their third full-length, entitled Jackalope.

The band, buoyed by drummer Jim Mikesell and led by the multi-instrumentalist gaggle of Ryan, Aaron, and Bryson Baggaley, must be given their due credit for refusing to shy away from creating some of the most intense, sincere, and uplifting music in indie pop. Singing your songs without a hint of irony is no easy task in this world of Cold War Kids and Black Kids.

The album begins interestingly enough with “Take This Paper And Burn It,” where the gentle timbre of a hammered dulcimer gives way to an incoming tidal wave of ambient noise. But before the first 30 seconds have passed, the band launches into its first U2/Coldplay homage: the guitars echo and ring in a church bell rhythm, contrasting the melodic flourishes of the keyboard while vocalist Ryan Baggaley delivers his first of several maddeningly vague thoughts: “The worlds all duress cause of the lions laying claim to the glory of the kill.” There’s a pretty clear recovery from this lyrical ambiguity by the time the chorus rolls around, as Ryan sings the song’s title in a cocksure tone that not only demands an audience sing-a-long, but also suggests that he’s ready to move on to better things. If only this were true.

“Aquarium,” a fan favorite at Brown Shoe gigs, features Jim Mikesell pounding out a drumbeat nearly identical to that of the opening track. The lead vocals, which juxtapose the tried and true mix of angelic falsettos and gritty yelps of passion, climax with a defiant fist-pumper backed up by some four to the floor bass drumming: “If it’s all over, then let it be over, cause I can’t say it again.” The sincerity is so unrestrained that you can’t help but wish that it’s all just a joke.

That’s not to say that Jackalope is without any finer moments. “Uh Oh” is a scathing rant against a former lover that finds the dulcet tones of Aaron’s piano taking prominence in the verses before giving way to Ryan’s Edge-like guitar work in the chorus. “Cellar” finds Brown Shoe in a far more creative zone than the rest of the album would have you believe. The overworked combination of reverb-drenched keyboard and guitar is temporarily cast aside to make room for some tastefully produced accordion and banjo playing. Both instruments, so typically maligned in self-conscious rock music, are played with a dignity that are most likely the album’s most sublime four minutes of music. “Late” continues to hint at Brown Shoe’s burgeoning creativity, never fully realized. Stripping down to the bare essentials with only acoustic guitar and timpani to back Ryan’s vocals, the lament is satisfyingly transparent compared to other tracks.

It is obvious why Brown Shoe are frequently namedropped alongside groups like Sigur Rós and My Morning Jacket. What is unclear, and what will be intriguing to follow in the coming years, is whether or not the band can tap deeper into the inherent talent only hinted at on Jackalope and create music that puts them in a league all their own.