Singapore is a peculiar place. It’s a post-colonial state in the barest sense of that term, since everything from street names, laws and spelling conventions continues bearing the colonial imprint, right down to the attribution of the country’s founding to the British. Yet, so much of what shapes popular culture in Singapore today is clearly American – just have a look at what’s on local TV and the radio and you’ll get the idea.
Listening to the new self-titled debut by Singapore band Shelves provides an inkling of that strange paradox, something the band cheekily alludes to in one of their many attempts at describing their sound (consider, for instance, the clumsy but hilariously apt “If Teenage Fanclub played in Pavement to songs written by Weezer“). By their own admission and as evident on record, Shelves wear their influences proudly on their sleeves, with those roots drawn largely from 90s Britpop and American indie rock. And it hits you at the get-go with album opener “Against a Wall”, the fuzzy, garage-tuned college-rocker that lets the guitar distortion drip all over the hook-laden melodies, and its follow-up “(She Wakes Up To) The Beat”, which reverses the order of things by letting all the pop take centre stage.
Yet, the band finds no problem at all in handling these polarities. In “Alien Invasion”, vocalist Noel Yeo drags his lines like only the Brits do even whilst declaring himself to be “through and through American blue“; meanwhile, a guitar riff goes on that sounds somewhere between Blur’s “Parklife” and R.E.M.’s “Departure”. At other moments, the Brit influence rings truer, especially when “Superstar” saunters like a Liam Gallagher ballad, and the chorus of “Star Alright” stretches out into the laziest of Bobby Gillespie drawls, which remains most striking despite their strongest efforts at a Strokes-like finale.
Could it be that nothing’s changed? To pigeonhole the band on the sole basis of influences neglects their own contribution to Singapore rock, which each band member has been a part of for some time. In that sense, Shelves captures the essence of the local scene in the 90s when being played on John Peel’s show (and quite a few made it!) meant so much more than a slot on MTV (“Does she know there’s so much more?” they ask, of the budding MTV temptress). Still, they’ve built upon that spirit with a pristine production that maintains both the raw energy of that period with the shiniest treatment that befits their modern pop sensibilities.
This time we’ll go further. In the end, it’s really all about the songs, with the band’s classy songwriting, irresistible hooks and balls-out delivery on each track providing the formidible structure around which the most memorable characters – be it Julie, unaware of her “killer concern“, or that sussed out boy who’s “so far gone” – are weaved into an unforgettable 40 minute excursion. What a clever, triumphant effort, and an utterly enjoyable one at that. – Dan.