Anyone should be forgiven if, by their forty-seventh birthday, they think they’ve heard it all. I’ve listened close to the greatest lyricists in popular music history, ranging from Bob Dylan through Lou Reed, among others, and I’ve never heard a lyricist quite like Brian Shapiro. I’m not saying he’s The Greatest Lyricist in the History of Popular Music – no. Shapiro, however, is willing to wrestle with themes more appropriate for prose writers than rock musicians and his sensibilities have a much wider perspective than you might be used to. And he does it exceptionally well.
The first track of It’s Amazing serves notice of this. “Ambitigeddon” blew me away the first time I heard it. It doesn’t overwhelm you or hits its mark with some killer guitar riff or ear-catching melody but, instead, the improbable juxtaposition of several musical strands. The dominant texture is tightly wound and dissonant rock. The sound is clean, though there’s some slight post-production affectations heard throughout the album. Despite its unique qualities, Shapiro eschews gimmicks and keeps the focus on his music and songwriting.
Many of the songs will divide listeners. Fans of predictable riff rock or songs built around melodies who push back against experimentation won’t make it far with the Brian Shapiro Band. There are glimpses, extended and otherwise, of traditional songcraft and arranging throughout the collection but, for the most part, Shapiro and his cohorts, particularly co-arranger and drummer Ben Kutner-Duff, are never content with a cookie-cutter approach.
It sounds like upright bass opening “Go To” and St. Clair Simmons’ slightly delirious trombone pairs well with its slow melody. There are melodies aplenty in Shapiro’s songwriting, but he can’t resist the temptation to place them in unexpected settings. The lyrics are among the album’s best, though not particularly cheerful. “More Memories” is an even bigger stunner. It’s reminiscent, in some ways, of Tom Waits, but without any of the noir posing that’s long been a staple of his work.
It marries Shapiro’s voice with Alex Posmontier’s piano, but the song opens in remarkable ways thanks to the lyric. It has dark humor galore depicting the narrator’s fraught relationship with money and there’s several turns layered within the lyric that give the songwriting further distinction. There are slightly under the radar jazz influences scattered throughout the album and those surface during the song “All of the Time”, a concise mediation on dysfunctional interpersonal relationships. It’s one of the album’s overriding themes.
The penultimate cut “Take-N-Make” has a deliberate pace without ever risking the listener’s attention. It’s full of chiming guitar chords that fall like brief downpours washing across the arrangement and Kutner-Duff setting a steady foundation from the first. St. Clair Simmons’ trombone contributions to the song’s second half put a crowning touch on the track. It’s Amazing is the band’s sophomore effort but, rather than reaffirming the debut’s virtues, it pushes into new territory. Their risk-taking pays off and the Brian Shapiro Band’s ten song release is a sure candidate for one of 2022’s best independent releases.