The Shy Boys have proved themselves able to leave the titular house, but not able to stray from it for very long.
Bell House is the second LP from Kansas City indie pop band Shy Boys, a band self-described as two brothers and three best friends. Their sound is proudly homespun, but it leans more toward the gentle bedroom rock of Petal than the electronic-infused lo-fi of Clairo. The band presents itself as a simple ensemble, with its members speaking candidly about their transitions through adult life and family.
While the band’s sonic elements align it with psych-tinged ‘60s pop, the structure of the songs and the interviews with the band on home life, simple stories and emotional connection string it closer to alternative-rock balladists of the ‘90s and 2000s. These artists achieved recognition through underground magazines and basement record labels, and Shy Boys is a product of the contemporary analog of these exchanges.
Bandcamp and internet ordering are allowing indie labels to have a wider reach than their physical locales. Polyvinyl Records, on which this record was released, was founded as a zine to celebrate the Midwest DIY scene and started by releasing emotional indie-rock records by bands such as Braid. The label grew to include more pop sounds and more electronic sounds but has come full circle, recently establishing itself as an outlet for LPs and cassette tapes distributed through Bandcamp.
On this most recent Polyvinyl-produced album, the instrumentals are dreamy. Translucent, fuzzy guitar and bass parts form the bulk of the melody, with angular, acoustic or twinkly lines. In “Evil Sin,” this even includes something like a harpsichord. There are harmonies — so many harmonies. Harmonies for choruses, verses and oh-so-many “ooooh-oooh” accompaniments.
Is the band pushing boundaries? Not really. But this is undeniably enjoyable music. It’s hard to find fault in the lack of technical complexity when Shy Boys’ hooks and ooh-aah harmonies are so sticky and cozy.
The vocal performances are understated, nasal and reserved, and they let the instruments step in front. The band doesn’t really waste a lot of time getting things perfect — the songs have a one-take charm, with little inconsistencies and a brevity that makes them seem not too planned out. This isn’t a hardcore-punk outpouring of energy or a dramatic onslaught of emotion. It’s an unrushed, unhurried sound.
A great example of this is “Champion.” The handclaps and snaps on the track are so sincere, and their heartfelt simplicity echoes the lyrics about the simple comforts of a trusting friendship. It has a simple, staggering hook that barely holds together but adds to the charm.
The songwriting takes a narrative, heavily reflective angle — the band members reconciling with the shock of robbery, finding a mistreated dog or the strange transitions of getting married, and then moving back home. This is explored candidly on “Basement,” which pairs a galloping acoustic with the contrasting lyric, “I read a story on the internet / I’m hanging with my brother for an evening in / Got a wife and a dog and I’m living in my parents’ basement.” The lyrics feel bewildered in the simple but incompatibile nature of the statements listed off.
In an essay written by folk musician Kevin Morby about the record, lead songwriter Collin Rausch confesses: “To keep the band alive, I have to write songs. To be able to travel with my buddies, there has to be a new record.” The band members seem to be trying to weave themselves a homesick mythology, an appreciation for the lack of excitement in their home of the Midwest. The utility of the record peeks out in the form of the plainness of the lyrics, but the passion and the interplay of the band members are there. Though rough around the edges, the record ultimately holds up as a collection of happy and sad outbursts, perfect for summer nights and fall evenings.