THE SHANG HI LOS – Aces, Eights And Heartbreaks

The debut EP from The Shang Hi Los was a little rough around the edges, but at its heart, it had some great songs. The musical marriage between guitarist Danny Kopko (Watts) and Jen D’Angora (Downbeat 5) seemed to be a perfect one, and their mix of garage rock and retro pop suggested great things ahead. A couple of years on, this full length album is bigger sounding, more slickly arranged and better produced, creating the kind of record that’s almost everything fans could’ve hoped for. By tackling various different styles throughout, it sometimes has a restless spirit, but some strong vocals – aplied brilliantly throughout – ensure the material hangs together well as a showcase for the Boston band’s talents.

‘Takes One To Know One’ opens the album with brilliant glam-esque stomp, where Kopko’s riffs and Chuck Ferreira’s drums appear to dominate from the start, but there’s room enough for some superb harmony vocals to drive a great pop tinged chorus. More importantly, it takes the band’s previous sounds and shines them up, adding bell like percussion, and by casting some extra attention on some sweet harmony vocals, there’s a genuine interest in ensuring that any pop-ish hooks are perfect. For those hoping for something a little rockier, the track also offers lead guitar sounds that are very much inspired by classic Cheap Trick recordings, and there’s even a coda teasing with the kind of hard rock you’d find on old Gilby Clarke and Izzy Stradlin records. In taking most of the band’s chief influences and throwing them into a great three minute piece, The Shang Hi Los make the old feel new again, and it’s a near perfect advertisement for the album.

Another great number, ‘Plymouth Rock’ doesn’t skimp when it comes to jangling guitars and punchy drums. Its mix of melodic punk and punchy power pop is very much the meat and potatoes end of the Shang Hi Los’ sound, but between some impeccably sharp riffs, hefty handclaps and a sassy vocal, it serves up some brilliant power pop, with an edge that sometimes feels like a throwback to the Blondie debut. Across this number’s high octane groove, D’Angora belts her voice at full pelt and Kopko barely deviates from his opening thrust, but a pleasingly melodic core is provided by bassist Lee Harrington (also of The Neighborhoods) who uses his bottom end sound to constantly dance beneath the harsher elements. It’s all relatively simple, but for those who still hanker after those classic power pop sounds, it’s almost guaranteed to please. Keeping with the rockier edge, ‘These Four Walls’ calls back to some skinny tie new wave influences but redresses them with a bigger crunch. Kopko plays in a style that makes the verses sound like The Cars wearing some massive boots, and by introducing a much tougher sound on the chorus, some listeners might even hear traces of Aussie bands like Midnight Oil and The Divinyls. It’s not just a quick and cheap homage to great sounds of the past, though; although the riffs may feel familiar, these Boston All-Stars play with a vigour that makes everything feel fresh. Two or three listens will be enough to win the hearts of many a power pop fan.

Presenting more of the band’s “pop” elements, ‘Monsieur Valentine’ is a genuine standout, since it works a very effective early sixties vibe. Its heavy nods to the Spector stable and the Ronettes make it a perfect fit for D’Angora, and her lead vocal soars throughout. In many ways, its the kind of showstopper of a performance that could dwarf the music, but the band are also very much on point, bringing a very effective arrangement that’s big on punchy rhythms, handclaps, and eventually, a heavily phased lead guitar break that adds a retro feel of a very different kind. Everything about this is great, and the fact that it plays squarely into the theory that retro sounds never date, it stands a fair chance of always sounding good. ‘Victoria’s Garden’, meanwhile, switches back to a semi-punky new wave-ish mood and isn’t shy in flaunting a very retro keyboard sound and some tautly played rock ‘n’ roll guitars, juxtaposed with a pop hook that sounds like something on loan from The Go-Go’s circa 2001. It’s the kind of tune that appeals from first listen, but extra time spent listening will certainly make its familiar elements sound even richer. Listen carefully and you’ll pick up on a clean guitar occasionally ringing out of the wall of sound, and after the initial surprise, the late arrival of some Brian May-esque chorus pedal goodness lifts everything skyward in a way that’s effortlessly grand.

The title cut goes a little deeper into the band’s new wave interests by stoking up the mechanical rhythms, and in doing so are to create a pleasingly new twist on their retro pop sound. You’ll find more immediate tunes within the Shang Hi Los’ catalogue, but fans will still be able to recognise the sweet and gritty juxtaposition of Jen and Dan’s vocals, and despite a musical backdrop that sounds as if it wants to drop into ‘Heart of Glass’ at any moment, it’s still very much them. Somewhat quirkier than your average Shang Hi Lo’s track, ‘Billy’ utilises a narrative that occasionally feels like a superb tribute to 50s “disaster discs” – all bad boys and heartbreak – with a tale of a gun-toting protagonist told via an overwrought vocal. Mariachi horns and rumbling drums accentuate a very retro feel, and a hefty twang via the guitar gives Kopko plenty of presence. This strange mix of pop, twang and ominousness could’ve felt out of place here, or worse, a flat-out novelty, but for D’Angora’s biggest fans, it’s a real treat as her best sassy vocals help a great melody to fly.

Moving on, ‘Ingenue’ might not quite reach the heights of this elpee’s best tracks, but fans will still get a kick out of some tough power pop riffs, delivered with a pinch of Watts-ish grit. It’s another rockier affair that really favours Jen’s voice – as is natural – and the chance to hear Lee pumping his bass beneath a fairly rigid rhythm really brings an oomph where needed. In fact, in terms of no frills rock ‘n’ roll, the music is great, so its a pity it couldn’t have been given a better chorus. That said, the fact that this track is good rather than great says so much about the quality of the material here.
Rounding out a superb LP, ‘Castaway’ is far more of the crashy rock school, with Dan driving the band via a massive guitar twang, whilst a call and response male/female vocal bravely tries to keep up the pop quotient. Throw in a pointed lead guitar solo, a couple of busy drum fills and a sample of Robert Shaw singing ‘Farewell Spanish Ladies’ and it’s all rather fun…and sort of works, despite sounding as if it could easily come off the rails.

On these nine songs, The Shang Hi Los constantly shift between retro rock with a very direct punch, singing sweetly and exploring old style pop-rock, but ‘Aces, Eights and Heartbreaks’ never feels as if it lacks direction. This band turns out some great hooks and above all, they know how to entertain. This album is everything the EP promised, and more. Whether you’re new to the band or a lover of their previous recordings, this is a release that comes highly recommended.

April 2023