Brian Shapiro has so many sides, he’s round. There’s the committed art-rock auteur laying down songs with unexpected turns and perspectives. Another side is the aging punk rocker, his intellect refined by the passage of time and added experience, but his spirit as fierce as ever. You hear the singer/songwriter, as well, cracking open his artistic façade and assessing his life with unvarnished and poetic honesty.
Shapiro and his bandmates, drummer and arranger Ben Kutner-Duff, guitarist/bassist Rory Flynn, and bassist/guitarist Ed Moman, are still riding the crest of a wave generated from the band’s first full-length effort All That We See. It’s Amazing, the band’s second album, shares many characteristics with their debut, but the Philadelphia-based four-piece isn’t content with solidifying the showing of their first album.
“Ambitigeddon” serves notice they intend to go even further. This angular yet shrewdly traditional rock track doesn’t lean on well-worn and histrionic power chords, but it bristles with attitude from the outset. Shapiro and company spare no prisoners with this song siding against ambition run amok and its consequences – a subject with, unfortunately, universal personal and global resonance. It gives no quarter to listeners and asks for none.
Shapiro suggests the personal with the album’s third song “Am Now” and even begins the cut in a surprisingly straightforward fashion. He can’t resist taking an idiosyncratic turn, however, but the arrangement keeps its feet tethered to earth. The succinct and elliptical quality of his lyrics may take some getting used to for some listeners but persisting with them pays off handsomely in the end.
He knows how to make sparing yet effective use of dark humor in his songs. “Go To” will produce a knowing chuckle once the title becomes clear and the accompanying music for the track is another creative confection courtesy of Shapiro and Kutner-Duff. Many listeners will relate to this one. “More Memories” is one of the canniest examples of songwriting you’ll hear in recent years. There have been countless songs penned about money over the years, but none of them are quite like this.
There are a few songs included on the album qualifying as social criticism and “LALA” is one of its better examples. It’s another example of his laser-focused powers of observation, but perhaps low-hanging fruit, as Shapiro dissects the stereotypical denizen of Los Angeles’ supposedly sun-kissed streets. The guitars and Kutner-Duff’s drums have a woozy swing that puts a semi-humorous spin on an otherwise venomous lyric. “All the Time” is one of a handful of It’s Amazing songs featuring guest musicians and Ben Gillece’s vibraphone gives a melancholy touch to this slice of scathing self-reflection.
The insistently declamatory style of Shapiro’s vocals may weary some listeners after a while, very little of his delivery is what you call “traditional”, but others will revel in his individuality, especially on tracks such as this. It’s a wild and wooly release certainly not to everyone’s taste. Shapiro, however, wouldn’t have it any other way and those who enjoy It’s Amazing will likely prove to be repeat customers.