I'm always intending to post about new artists that are grabbing my attention, but the best laid plans... Anyway, today events and inspiration conspire to let me post briefly about SHEL, an acoustic quartet from Fort Collins, CO that releases its debut full length album toady. They were in Nashville yesterday evening and put on a wonderful early-evening show to a full house at The Basement. On display: astonishingly precise and complex vocal harmonies and nuanced ensemble playing that picks up on and advances the chamber-grass point of view of Nickel Creek and Strength in Numbers. Readers of this blog will know that I'm particularly excited by musicians who make pop music with background in classical or jazz. And SHEL proves that formal training can be a huge boon and no hindrance at all. This is some remarkably fresh and wondrous stuff. I showed their new "Freckles" video to my daughter last night, and she really liked it too.
For more, I was fortunate to write a bio for SHEL, and it's published after the jump...
The high-altitude town of Fort Collins, Colorado is abundant in bicycles, awash in craft beer and rich in arts of all kinds. Understanding its unique cultural brew begins (but only begins) to explain the novel sound of SHEL. Four sisters, raised in an atmosphere of creative freedom and diligent study, have honed their musical skills surgically sharp and blended their personalities and visions into a unified whole. They are a vocal group with outstanding instrumental capabilities and an instrumental group with a thrilling vocal attack. From their fetching, unpredictable songs to their whimsical, hand-made top-hats, SHEL makes a profound impression, something they are doing to growing crowds and critical acclaim.
Sisters Sarah, Hannah, Eva and Liza were born within five years of each other. Raised and home-schooled by a professional songwriter father and an artist mother, they dove into music young. Hannah was first to take classical lessons on piano. Then it was Sarah on violin, Liza on harp and Eva on mandolin. Liza switched to the drums upon discovery of her passion for polyrhythm. Then in the early 2000s, they started working up and performing songs with their father. Over time, Eva stepped forward as the lead vocalist. Andrew Holbrook with SHEL became SHEL with Andrew Holbrook -- and then just SHEL.
A friend of the family made a connection with Nashville producer Brent Maher, an old-school artist development guru with a long track record of hit singles and artistic breakthroughs. Over three years of unhurried coaching and recording, SHEL completed several EPs and grew immeasurably. Now, their most complete and thought-out work to date is here in the form of a self-titled, debut album.
Nestled within SHEL’s enveloping sound, wisps of folk revival, vaudeville, renaissance fairs and steampunk esthetic blur around one another. Allusions abound to their core influences – The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Harry Nilsson and acoustic super-group Strength In Numbers – but you’ve never heard this before. Tracks such as “Tuscany” borrow liberally from their classical training, yet there’s nothing ponderous or unapproachable about them. “The Wise Old Owl” showcases their daring, fanciful vocal arrangements. They revel in strong dynamics, so a single song like “Stained” can grow from airy lace to a driving, white-water rush. They are richly feminine, but they don’t shy from covering Led Zeppelin (“The Battle of Evermore”). Above all, expect variety and creativity. Pure acoustic tone is best when it’s best, but if an electric violin or special effect is called for, they let the song dictate the production.
In recent years, SHEL has achieved many benchmarks that point to a full and fruitful career ahead. They’ve played public radio’s eTown, South by Southwest, Nashville’s Music City Roots, Lilith Fair, the Four Corners Folk Festival and the International Folk Alliance Conference, among other distinguished stages. And they composed original music for a national television ad campaign. One does not have to be floating on the updraft of their blended voices to predict a bright future for SHEL.