Gills – Shadows Of The Moon – Album Review
Those of you that follow this page on the regular already know all about how a first impression can go a long, long way with me. Sometimes a little behind-the-scenes communication will tell you lots about a band you haven’t heard yet…it’ll often give you clues about the music, and more importantly perhaps, some insight into the people making it. With the debut album from Gills, I received a humble message along with it; it read: “As a Buffalo band, we are practically Canadian. More importantly the Hip was a major influence in all our lives, and in our music.”
In the aftermath of the black hole supernova of sadness caused by the early departure of The Tragically Hip’s lead-singer Gord Downie, I’ll admit, one of my first thoughts was ‘well who in the hell is going to teach us to be Canadian now?’ There is undeniably a hole that now exists in the Canadian music-scene…one that will likely take years and years and years to fill, if that’s even a possibility. Right now the wounds are still all-too-fresh in our hearts and minds…but I have to say as well, it honestly made me smile a genuine smile to know that SOMEWHERE down south of the border, The Tragically Hip were able to reach a few musicians out there and impact their lives potentially just as much as any of ours here in Canada. That’s always been the biggest mystery…that…jeez…how do you even put it – damn near non-existence of the band outside of our own native land? The Hip had incredible struggles getting heard in the USA, that’s no secret to anyone; I found it incredibly comforting and inspiring to hear that the music had reached the Buffalo-based band Gills and that they had found such inspiration through them.
Do they have some Canadian in them? Can we consider them honorary Canadians? Perhaps! Though if I’m being honest with you and honest with them, the undeniable dominant influence you can actually hear in the music on Shadows Of The Moon would likely belong to a little ol’ Canadian band by the name of Blue Rodeo than it might be The Hip. Nothing wrong with that either though, those guys are legends here in Canada and surely intersected with The Hip on many an occasion out there on the road – so I figure we’ll take that as a victory and welcome them into the country here with open arms.
Shadows Of The Moon. We’ve got a five-piece band making it all happen here…legend has it according to their official website that they began the recording last year and finished it up in June this year. Then of course, all the fine-tuning, tweaks and adjustments no doubt as they got set for the official release, which appears to have been around the end of September this year; never let it be said that making a record is any kind of easy accomplishment – most records are lucky to even get made. Especially in a five-piece! That’s a ton of schedules to work around and accommodate, let alone making sure that all the needs, wants and hopes of every player are met along the way. So how’d it all come out for them?
In my honest opinion, Gills has put together something pretty meaty here with their debut. While there might have been struggles along the way of making it, they’ve managed to put together music that’ll last. There are no flashy aspects to Shadows Of The Moon…hooks are not necessarily the priority here so much as making music that is thought-provoking and real. There ARE still hooks mind you, just buried more within the subtext of solid songwriting; essentially, if you end up digging a song from Gills, it’s not just because of one easy-to-digest hook or two, it’s because the entire song will captivate you. Pick your poison people – I know which one works for me, and I much prefer music like this that’s destined to last. Is there room for Gills to improve on their potential? Of course – but it’s a debut! You’ve gotta take that for what it is…the fact that pretty much every band & artist in that position still has room to evolve and grow, to expand and express themselves in other ways down the road…that’s a good thing, in my opinion. Bottom line in any debut situation is that you want to hear multiple reasons that a project should continue forward – and in that sense, I think Gills gives you plenty and then some.
If I had to sum up what I’ve heard…I’d go with a mix of Counting Crows, Blue Rodeo and Van Morrison, with a splash of The Hip in there. You’ll have to forgive me on the details of who is doing what in Gills – I know there are five players, I know they all deserve credit for a job well done…but they’re also still so new that the details aren’t all out there yet as to who is playing what. I like what I’m hearing in each element though…there are definite strengths in every corner of this band that have their own moments to shine.
“Shadows” makes an immediate impression through bold, crunchy guitar tones, beautiful piano lines accompanying the crisp beat and honest vocal sound…again, I think right away, you can hear that Gills is concerned with writing music that’s meant to last, because this is what it sounds like. While a song like “Shadows” would certainly have a tougher time climbing the mainstream charts with its distinct ethereal approach to gentle-rock and mid-tempo movements – the people’s playlists are where music like Gills will live on forever…and as a result, I can pretty much guarantee they’ll continue to see their audiences grow as listeners out there find their stuff and become fans. “Shadows” makes for an extraordinarily sincere opening and I really like the mix on this opening cut…great presence in the bass and string sounds, the backing vocals break through powerfully and the lead vocals are consistently engaging. Excellent texture & tone on the microphone in Gills – it all adds a lot of character and genuine personality into a song like “Shadows” and gives the audible impression that Gills really gets the sound & style they’re after. This opening tune unfolds like a great story does…a truly great lead-in to the record.
Where I do think they’re potentially a bit of risk involved with the layout of Shadows Of The Moon is in what they’re asking over the course of those first three songs, of which “Shadows” is the shortest at over four-thirty in length and ranging up to songs that hover right around the six-minute mark like “Beautiful Lady” and “First Kiss.” In the day & age of the short attention span – Gills is pretty much making a musical proclamation by going this route and stating up-front that these are going to be lengthy tunes…but you’ll see from further on down the list that the songs become significantly shorter in the middle, which will also see that energy, hook & pull increase at the same time. It’s all about the impression you want to make and how you want to present the music; where I say risk is involved, it largely due to the gentle wander & sway of songs like “Beautiful Lady” that are certainly inviting to the ears, but also asking a lot at the outset of an experience in a sense…you stick with this one for what feels like a long while. If you’re into it, awesome, you get plenty of “Beautiful Lady” – and personally, I dig it. “Beautiful Lady” is so laid back and so chilled-out that it might be TOO inviting and easygoing of a sound to keep that excitement building from where it left off with “Shadows.”
I think “Beautiful Lady” might serve Gills better later on into the record…I’m simply making the devil’s advocate argument for the band to consider what might happen if we weren’t into it…then what? Don’t get me wrong – I’m always for people, artists and bands to be making the music they want to make and how they want to make it – but my point is ultimately that within those first three songs, they could have potentially made about five impressions, or another way to put it, given people five reasons to like them & listen instead of three. Having their most lengthy tunes upfront isn’t necessarily misleading – but it does prepare you as a listener for heavy emotional experiences through the first impressions, which may or may-not be what someone is reaching for when they first go to put on an album…there are definitely risks being taken here and the last thing you want to do is potentially burn people out before they have a chance to get right into it. That being said…I’m certainly not suggesting to alter the tunes; ultimately I think there are safer places for them on the record where they’ll get more of the attention they deserve and the other songs potentially as a result as well, that’s all. I could be crazy – but I think I even hear a subtle nod to The Hip’s “Fiddler’s Green” within the occasional guitar-line on “First Kiss” and I definitely think the performance is a strong one from the band overall; perhaps a little bit floaty or dreamy and somewhat risky following the gentle & tender sounds of the melancholy ideas in “Beautiful Lady”…but they also have a pillowy-soft melody that seems to have its own capable charm and appeal. “First Kiss” details life & love, time and relationships with extraordinary lyrical insight and a real approach to the delivery of each line of the vocals that sounds authentic and connected to the words. I appreciate the honest way they approach their music and that gives both “Beautiful Lady” and “First Kiss” a solid, captivating and tender sound – but to further the point, suppose “Date” was at the number two spot on the record…the outcome would be a bit more energy, hook and pull into Shadows Of The Moon and the potential to keep more ears along for the ride.
I think a LOT of great things about “Date” and felt like it makes a strong impact on us as listeners, highlighting some of the best energy from Gills early on in the experience. There’s an excellent mix of old-school melody from the heart of rock’s history, combined with that slight Americana-sound that always finds its way into the sound of Gills’ music. “Date” has a perfect mix of energy, rock and sweetness…lyrically I think people would really relate to this one and think of their own dating lives & experiences that have explored the magic of love along their own journeys. Accessibility-wise, “Date” has a lot working for it…I love the splash & thrash of the cymbals in this song and how they really add to the energy and expression in this tune, same with the backing vocals breaking through. Great tune and potential a single-worthy track that could bring a lot of fans from all genres into their world of music.
Kristine Gills takes over the lead on “Faces” – and I felt like this was a great time to switch up the sound on the record. Ironically, of all the songs on the record, I felt like this one with the female-lead ended up being one of the closer ones to that influence of The Hip…but for the most part, really, I felt like Gills has offered up their own thing the entire time I’ve listened. I can hear slight influences for sure – but quite honestly, they’ve got their own combinations happening, their own style and their own sound…it’s defined enough musically that whether the lead vocals are male or female, I’d recognize them in a lineup blindfolded…and you’ve gotta admire an accomplishment like that for a band so young still. The progression from verse to chorus here sounds immaculately smooth and I love the opposite effect just as much with the way they break boldly at the defined end of the chorus before continuing on. It’s catchy, it’s dusty, it’s dark in that verse…and even though the lyrics of the chorus don’t exactly make it any brighter, there’s an uplifting sound and hopefulness that continues to creep into the music and ideas. Lyrically, it’s rock-solid, metered out and flowing perfectly with this beautiful melody they’ve brought to life, adding just a hint of extra expression to those final moments of “Faces” to bring it home.
Love the sliding guitars that come through the atmosphere of “Dying To Stay Alive” and overall think this might also be one of my favorite tracks on the record. Probably one of the ones that reminds me most of the Counting Crows – but let’s be clear here…I’m talking about brilliant first-record Counting Crows and not much more when I’m referring to that comparison to Gills; I’m not talking about the ridiculously happy pop-rock side of CC, but the forlorn, melancholy and soul-searching version of the band that got them into the big-time in the first place through the album August And Everything After. Just for the record, so we’re all on the same page. I think you can hear the comparisons in the melody and how they’ve structured their tune on “Dying To Stay Alive,” pacing, movement…that warm-glow in the atmosphere provided by the keys…this is a really solid tune on Shadows Of The Moon. I think the punch into the chorus and the vocals did an amazing job of separating the song’s main-parts and some of those exits from the chorus are among my favorite on the album. Right around the 1:45 mark here…that’s the magic…that sounds absolutely excellent and I love how they rebuild this tune into the verse to soldier onwards through a thick melody that’s full of tough emotions and experience combined into words.
Not to harp on the point…but I think it’s an important thing for Gills to consider over the records to follow – you can go from “Date” on-forward and hear that energy and connection to music that people want to listen to and truly crave. I want it on record that I AM a fan of both “Beautiful Lady” and “First Kiss,” but as the up-tempo fun of “Tornado” began, I couldn’t help but think back to the opening of this entire experience and feel like Gills might have placed a couple obstacles in the way of this album really getting the plays and spins it deserves. I really dig a lot of the mixes on this album and how these songs came out so balanced for sound upon this record – “Tornado” is a fantastic example of Gills lightening-up the music and atmosphere, even as the lyrics indicate a storyline filled with as much disaster and damage as the title would suggest. The rhythmic groove they’ve locked into here though, is definitely one that works strongly in their favor and I’d put “Tornado” right up there as perhaps the song with the most widespread accessibility on this entire album. I dig songs like this that have real pep in the energy on the surface, but when you dig right into it, a lot of these words are crushingly heartbreaking…there’s an excellent contrast that exists behind the mask of sunniness in the music that really delivers.
“Battered Cry” was right around where you’d expect to hear that random slow-burner…even though it comes right after the pepped-up melody and energy of “Tornado,” it feels like ears would be more ready to accept the transition and shift in sound on the record at this point. Took me forever to figure out which song “Battered Cry” was reminding me at tiny points along the way…the melody is masked in a much more rock-environment here, but it was actually “The Outsiders” by R.E.M. – at least I think it is. I’ve been searching through my brain endlessly for the song that Gills is reminding me of here…but I’m going with that one. At the end of the day, they’re completely different songs with a similar atmosphere that seems to really hang hauntingly in the air. I think the backing vocals on “Battered Cry” are some of the best you’ll find on the record and really fit the moment here…it’s a highly reflective tune that examines a lot of tough emotions; having that vibrant tone come soaring in from the background often adds a stunning shot of emphasis to the words. “Battered Cry” comes out sounding exceptionally cool through a slow-burning melody that is fueled through excellent performances on the guitars and drums, in addition to the slight edge you can hear in the vocals, telling you these words really mean something. It’s a track on Shadows Of The Moon that runs quite deep lyrically and potentially cuts just the same.
“Truth In A Bottle” mixes that Americana sound with sincerity extremely well…a lot of me is convinced that this is one of the tightest and most accessible tracks on Shadows Of The Moon. Gills has done a great job of making time for the instrumentation & musicianship all along the way – and they do so again here too – but this time around, I think the vocals and the melody might have outshined them all. Mind you – I love the trumpet sounds that creep into the mix of this tune about as much as anyone could love a solitary element inside of a whole song…there is a really strong atmosphere to this tune that gradually builds with immaculate insight and instincts…”Truth In A Bottle” is a definitely highlight on this record for being able to hear the connection from the band to the music and to the vocals. Something about “Truth In A Bottle” sounds realer-than-real on an album that’s been incredibly honest and unpretentious from the get-go. Excellent evolution and structure to this tune that quickly kicks-in from a sparse beginning to fill-up perfectly, there is incredible focus on the lyrics in “Truth In A Bottle” and in all honesty, I think it’s come out sounding as one of the strongest tracks on the record overall.
C’mon…I mentioned Van Morrison at the beginning of this review…you telling me that you DON’T hear the influence on the final tune “Gazebo Song?” You do so – you can’t fool me. There’s a couple of really clever lines that stand-out even more on “Gazebo Song” if you know your music history and get what this song is really all about. If I’m making an educated guess…it’s probably referring somewhat to a specific area, the ‘Gazebo’ if you will, where the magic happens and the party never stops. As Gills gets into a brilliant verse that strings together several song-titles in a row, mentioning in a unique way that these are often the songs that keep those parties and get-togethers going from night until morning – the songs in our soundtrack that make our moments memorable and stick with us for our entire lives. Combined with the chanting anthem of it being ‘no black-tie affair in the backyard’ and how the whole band seems to come alive and sing this one together – this song audibly SOUNDS like the fun & unity you experience in the best of times when hanging out with the people you love…family, friends, both perhaps – heck, maybe even strangers! One of the best guitar-solos on the record exists in this tune as it heads towards the ending too. By the time the music is stripped away from the ending of “Gazebo Song” and the vocals remain, singing loud & proud, it’s like they’ve invited everyone out there into that backyard experience and everything you’ll hear on this one makes you want to sing along & join the fun.
So! There you have it! Should we accept Gills as honorary Canadians? I don’t hear any reasons as to why we couldn’t and I’m sure as a country, we’d be happy to adopt this crew. I’ve had a great time listening to Shadows Of The Moon and really believe that it’s not just a great debut record, but an album that you’ll find will really last. I don’t feel like Gills went for any cheap thrills or wrote anything on this record that wouldn’t hold up over time and scrutiny – and I can also hear the potential in the band for where they’ll head to next as they continue to develop and refine their style & sound for the follow-up. Definitely fair to consider me a fan of Gills based on what I’ve heard here today – Shadows Of The Moon is a pretty moody album when it comes right down to its attitude and music, but that certainly works for me. I’m all about records that have real depth of character and something unique to present us with – Gills has definitely created strong music to consider, ponder and wander off in thought to on their debut, and I think that’ll make a lasting connection to listening ears on many music-heads out there, not just mine.
Find out more about Gills from the official homepage at: http://www.gillsband.com/