Shoes

TrackAlbum
Tomorrow NightPresent Tense
Too LatePresent Tense
Now And ThenPresent Tense
The Things You DoTongue Twister
Burned Out LoveTongue Twister
CuriosityBoomerang
I Can't Go WrongStolen Wishes
Only in My SleepDouble Exposure
Jet Set (version 1 and 2)Double Exposure
Say it Like You Mean ItIgnition

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Contributor: Brian Greene

A lot of us who are musically inclined have a thought, during teen years, of forming a band with present friends, if not a sibling. Some do it while others just fantasize. But not many manage to not only realize the dream but maintain it for four decades plus. One of those few are power pop heroes Shoes. Hailing from a suburb of Chicago, brothers Jeff and John Murphy and their mutual friend Gary Klebe started writing songs together at an early age. All three could play (Jeff and Gary on guitars, John taking up bass) and all were songwriters. They put their many pop compositions on tape, and eventually pressed up some vinyl copies of a collection they titled Black Vinyl Shoes, issued on their own Black Vinyl label. They took up a grassroots effort to get the record out into the world, shipping comps to influential music critics and hustling copies into nearby shops willing to carry it. One of the scribes who got hold of the record and who was dazzled by it, was instrumental in bringing the band to the attention of taste-making hipster Greg Shaw. Shaw, impressed, put out a Shoes single on his Bomp! label and offered to release a full length record by the band. By then, however, Shoes were getting attention from other, more well-connected entities. One of those outfits, the Elektra label, offered them a multi-record deal and the boys, now with drummer Skip Meyer in the fold, couldn’t say no.

The first two albums Shoes made for Elektra – 79’s Present Tense and 80’s Tongue Twister – are a pair of the finest power pop albums ever done. They are flawless. They perfectly capture the genre’s signature duality of possessing sweet melodies along with crunching guitar work. Both Murphys and Klebe are all crack songwriters and effective vocalists and, as the band has always been a democracy, they took equal turns at being the writers/singers of the simultaneously catchy and edgy tunes. I could go on and on about those two albums, but suffice to say I am comfortable putting both on the first tier of power pop albums, on a par with Big Star’s Radio City, Badfinger’s Straight Up, Dwight Twilley Band’s Sincerely, the first Cars album, etc.

In signing Shoes, Elektra felt they might have on their roster another hitmaker a la label mates The Cars. But somehow that didn’t happen. Jeff Murphy feels the label erred in being indecisive about which song from Present Tense to release as the first single. Four different tracks from the album were made into videos that were aired on MTV in its earliest days. Whether it really was the label’s blunder, or if fickle listeners were the problem, bizarrely neither of these two albums caught on commercially, although both got plenty of good reviews. The band’s third record for Elektra, 82’s Boomerang, didn’t bother the charts any more than its predecessors. After that, Elektra bought the band’s contract out and freed them to go on their way.

Many acts would have been crushed by this point, might perhaps put their guitars in the closet for good, keep their melodies in their heads only from then on. But that brotherhood and friendship bond that’s always been at the heart of Shoes proved stronger than temporary disappointment. Handymen fully knowledgeable about, and fascinated by, how to get sounds out of instruments, they built their own recording studio in their Illinois hometown. They hired the facility out to other bands who wanted to record there, and they taped their own tracks within the walls. They brought the Black Vinyl label back into existence and returned to releasing themselves. The ensuing albums came out (eventually without the drumming work of Meyer, who sadly passed away just recently) with a number of years spaced between them, but they came out. None were as consistent as Present Tense or Tongue Twister, but all had at least a few keepers. Along the way they issued a live album and a best-of comp. And, to my own great delight, they also unearthed a two-CD set called Double Exposure which contains their demo versions of the songs that appeared on Present Tense and Tongue Twister, as well as other home-recorded songs from the time that didn’t appear on the Elektra records. Double Exposure is a beauty, a power pop fan’s wet dream.

In 2012, after a lengthy hiatus from releases, the band came out with Ignition. The album is the best thing they’ve done since Boomerang. It somehow hearkens back to their heyday without ever coming across as though they were attempting to revisit past glories. It sounds like what it is: a bunch of great pop songs by three guys with close interpersonal bonds, who’ve been writing and recording together for close to 40 years. What the band will do next is to be seen.

Final sidenote: while most tribute albums are misguided and forgettable products, Shoe Fetish is that rare exception to the rule. If you’re a fan of the band, or just of power pop in general, I strongly recommend this collection of other acts offering up their versions of Shoes songs.

Shoes official website

Shoes biography (iTunes)

Brian Greene interviewed Jeff Murphy for Shindig #16 and you can find his blog here.

TopperPost #337

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