|When The Shondes released The Garden (Exotic Fever 2013), frontwoman Louisa Solomon said it was “an album about growing up,” and she had no idea how right she was.Rolling Stone’s 4-star review dubbed it “Riot-grrrl furor, arena bombast and klezmer stomp,” while The Washington Post said: “Every time I’ve seen The Shondes, a hurricane has touched down. Violinist Elijah Oberman rocks his instrument like the world is ending. Louisa Solomon sings like her soul is leaping out of her mouth. Every time I wondered when the band would break big.” With this game-changing wave of critical praise, followed by a national tour with punk legends Against Me!, the scrappy, heart-on-their-sleeves New Yorkers were truly coming into their own, and they set right to work on their follow-up, Brighton (Exotic Fever 2016).
On this record we find the band delivering their signature power hooks, charming group harmonies, and clap-along breakdowns with a new ease and sophistication. It feels lighter, more confident, less forced; where they once fought for hope, willed anthems into being, they now sound effortlessly alive. This is in no small part due to the founding pair (best friends Oberman and Solomon) alighting on the right lineup. Drummer Alex Smith and guitarist Courtney Robbins were both recruited in 2015, with Robbins relocating from Tucson. There is an unmissable and even magical cohesion among the four, as though with this level of musicianship, a burden has lifted and the music can finally bloom into the satisfying, spirited pop-rock it always wanted to be. They have been described as “Bruce Springsteen-meets-Bikini Kill,” and on Brighton they add serious pop appeal to the formula that will have you punching your fist in the air despite yourself.
With Smith’s cracking snare rousing any listener to full attention, her rock-solid drumming anchors the absolute powerhouse that is Robbins’s guitar. Un-ironically revelling in a wailing solo on one track and creating a tapestry of delicate, twinkling overlays on the next, it dramatically amplifies each song’s emotional pay-off. Springsteen biographer Peter Ames Carlin said Solomon has “better-stand-back vocals…one of the biggest voices in pop,” and she has been compared to the likes of Chrissie Hynde and Corin Tucker, but on Brighton the band provides a foundation for both her signature belt and a gentler head voice rarely utilized on past records. Oberman’s alternatingly keening and raucous violin is its perfect complement, shining in solos and skillful counterpoint. The overall effect is a more dynamic version of a beloved rock band; losing none of their anthemic power, they have crafted eminently joyful, emotionally complex rock songs.
In 2015 Solomon married poet Miller Oberman (yes, much to fans’ delight, he is violinist Elijah’s brother), and many of these songs are in some sense “love songs,” though the most consistent theme of the record is transformation, steering it away from the pitfalls of pop cliché, and toward something much more interesting. The Shondes have always prided themselves on their ability to get a cynic singing along, and they’ve never been in finer form than on this collection in which love, neglect, survival, despair, and hope are inescapably bound. Brighton is a record about turning toward possibility and building beautiful things out of wreckage, and it offers a much-needed soundtrack for the broken and broken-hearted among us who are trying to do just that.