Originally out of Zion, Ill., Jeff and John Murphy and Gary Klebe were at the forefront of the home-recording revolution in the ‘70s, self-releasing albums without benefit of major-label budgets or studios. Their early recordings (to be documented on a forthcoming series of releases by the Chicago-based Numero Group label) remain prized possessions among power-pop aficionados.
“Ignition” (Black Vinyl) marks the trio’s first studio album in 18 years, and it’s a cool-breeze reaffirmation of Shoes’ enduring strengths. The group has come full circle back to their ‘70s do-it-yourself foundation, once again working at their home studio (now in Wisconsin) and self-releasing the music. Time has eroded some of the boyishness from the singers’ voices, but the three-part harmonies still exert a hypnotic pull. Klebe and the Murphy brothers trade off the lead vocals, and there are subtle differences in each. But mostly the songs strike a plaintive or melancholy tone – a sense of “diminishing returns” (in the words of John Murphy’s song of the same name) as relationships age and innocence fades. Inevitably, the music transcends all maladies.
The 15 tracks refine a sound that the band has prized from the beginning, with vocals and guitars creating a rich weave of melody over John Richardson’s steady-as-she-goes drumming. But it’s not like the band is standing still. Klebe’s “Sign of Life” provides redemption, with a soaring chorus against a counterpoint guitar line. “Hot Mess” arrives at a critical point, midway through the album, providing some kick-out-the-jams release with John Murphy doing a Mick Jagger-like snarl, a rare instance when the Shoes veer more toward Stones than Beatles. And Jeff Murphy throws a heck of a curve on the devastating piano ballad “Out of Round.”