Soft, so soft: No help here for ho-hum tunes

Shape of Shade
South Street Brewery
Wednesday, April 2, 2003

I first heard the name Shape of Shade while having coffee with a friend. He recently worked with the group to record a short album over at Charlottesville's newest recording mecca, Crystalphonic studios.

"You know who you gotta hear? This group Shape of Shade," he said while sipping a triple latte. "They have some real players."

Usually I can't remember band names that well, but a throw-back jetset name like Shape of Shade imprinted itself in my gray matter pretty permanently.

Thus, when I saw that the group was playing at South Street, my curiosity was piqued. South Street is a pretty decent place to see music. The one drawback is the room's high ceiling, which gives most drums and vocals an awkward echo.

Nevertheless, it's comfortable and cozy. Definitely a place where one could ponder philosophical questions like what exactly is the shape of shade?

It was apparent by the third or fourth song that the band has a very precise composing formula. The combination of heavy jazz drumming and mathematical guitar playing on top of ambient textures creates a sound somewhere between Donald Byrd and a soft place.

When the band played without the lead singer, I couldn't help but imagine myself in a lounge somewhere in New York or L.A. in the late '70s/early '80s, living the good life. But the inclusion of the lead female's vocals quickly snapped me out of visions of coke caf├ęs and martini dreams to the realm of something more... how should I say... average.

The acoustics in the room didn't help her delicate tones. My biggest beef wasn't with her voice, though. I couldn't help but think that her singing could be more daring. The band was already locked into a formula which made each song feel very similar to all the others.

It's the job of the vocalist to help make obvious distinctions– be it through melody, arrangement, or intensity. By no means was that happening Wednesday night. On a positive note, what she lacked in bold songwriting, the singer made up for in energy and passion.

I stayed for the entire show, if for no other reason than I enjoyed the music and the ambience it created. I look forward to hearing what Shape of Shade's album sounds like. Until then, my shape of shade might just have to look like a late night Barbarella and a bottle of bubbly.