March 1, 2009: Sholi

While the majority of the indie-rock-centric world is just starting to hear about them, those of us who are clued in to the Bay Area music scene have known about Sholi for nigh on three years. I for one have been eagerly awaiting this, their self-titled debut, for just about as long; they’ve been one of the precious few local bands who I thought really deserved wider exposure, and I’m thrilled that Touch & Go/Quarterstick thought so too. So be warned that my expectations are a lot higher than most other people, which means that I will be veering straight through drooling-fanboy territory and into overly-nitpicky-fanboy territory. Like so: Sholi have made an album that ought to rank among the best releases of 2009— and what’s more, it could have been even better.

I’ve been tempted to describe Sholi’s sound as some sort of ongoing conflict of personalities— their dark romantic Blonde Redhead art-rock side as represented by singer/guitarist Payam Bavafa and bassist Eric Ruud, and their muscley Burning Airlines/Faraquet math-rock side as represented by drummer Jon Bafus— and indeed, album opener “All That We Can See” would seem to bear this out, with its elegant minor-key guitar chimes and plaintive vocals sprinkled across a roiling landscape of broken drum equipment. But more often than not, these two sides tend to complement and blur into each other rather than contrast. I’ve compared Jon’s drumming to that of Hella’s Zach Hill before, but honestly, that’s a lazy comparison based more on vague geographic similarities and general ability/willingness to spray percussive shrapnel in all directions. Actually I think Jon is a much more graceful and varied drummer than Hill, taking a more jazz-like approach to kit dismemberment and exhibiting a surprising grasp of the dark art of dynamics— his impressionistic performance on “Spy in the House of Memories” as a good example of such.

Jon’s flashiness tends to overshadow the contributions of the melodic instruments, especially in a live setting; I hope it doesn’t come off as diminishing when I say that Payam and Eric play the straight men in the band. It’s just that their playing styles tend towards the economical, getting a lot of mileage out of ringing arpeggios and snarling drones, and on an emotional level they would seem to be a bit more restrained and deadpan. But by no means does economical imply “simple”, nor should deadpan imply “flat”; Payam’s songs are complex without being flashy, and he and Eric do pull off some pretty great vocal harmonies. And when they do cut loose, they can match Jon flourish for flourish, as on the dizzying, terrifying “Dance For Hours”.

Ah, “Dance For Hours”. It’s the only song on this record that completely crushes, and accurately captures the power of their live show. I’ve been present for performances of “Tourniquet” and “November Through June” where I was convinced that the world was about to end, and while the recorded versions probably sound amazing to virgin ears, I am all too aware of how much better those songs have sounded. To compound my terminal case of Too Much Information Syndrome, I know how long the band spent recording and mixing this album, and I have the nagging feeling that they may have overthought things, overtweaked bits, possibly second-guessed some stuff, and overall might have leached a bit of vitality out of the end product. But please, if you’re hearing Sholi for the first time, don’t take any of this negativity to heart. Instead, look at it this way: if you think the album is good, just wait until you see them live.