Shady Bug has been building up to this moment for a while now. They took the city by storm when they first started, quickly amassing a loyal following and becoming the top name in St Louis indie rock. They released their debut album “tbh idk” in 2017 and singles like “Soft Touch” and “Walking Home” infected fans right away, helping cement it as a success in St Louis music. Their debut had a handful of good songs on it that I still hum to myself on occasion, and even though I felt like the production worked against it most of the time it still had a heart and intention that resonated with many.
It’s two years later and Shady Bug released a new album after some slight changes. Their original lineup (and the one that tracked this thing) is composed by Hannah Rainey on lead vocals and guitars, Tom Krenning on guitar, Aaron O’Neill on drums and backup vocals, and Todd Anderson on bass. Even though Todd recorded his bass parts, he has since quit the band to move away from St Louis, and Chris Chartrand took over his duty in the low register. The new lineup sounds solid live and the transition between band members seems to have been clean, thankfully.
Their sophomore album “Lemon Lime” (Exploding in Sound Records, 2019) implies growth in many senses. The thing got on a decently sized label and got a vinyl pressing to boot. The band also got the chance to travel to Chicago to record at Pallet Sound and up the ante from the quasi-home recording Zach Schimpf conducted on “tbh idk”. Shady Bug sounds considerably better than on their first release and a number of issues I perceived in the past seem to be gone for good. I have my qualms with the production, but those can be addressed later.
In terms of identity of sound Shady Bug’s deal is contrast– they love sections that break open or close up the sound quickly to keep the brain between transitions. Whether it’d be hyper distorted passages, half time dreams or a clean eighth note beat jam, they feel compelled to switch it up on us quickly and seemingly arbitrarily. This is not too different from their style on their debut, but the band revs it up so that the compositions shift a lot more than they used to, defining a clear intention of disorientation and momentum throughout the track list.
The album opens up with its lead single “Make It Up”, a good showcase of this clash of sounds the band opts for. It starts loud and boldly before going into the actual song, eventually traveling back into the loudness after a couple verses and choruses, and hitting a half time section that feels like it will close up the song before another verse is stated towards the end and colored with a heavy, distorted outro. The melodies are endearing and catchy, the clean guitars pluck with charm establishing a nice difference between their sounds, and the groove is steady and fun. The extension of the song after the half time break doesn’t feel necessary to me, but it’s a worthy lead single and one of the highlights on the release.
The second tune, “Lucky”, is perhaps my favorite song on the album. It relies on a bouncy groove that feels outside of Shady Bug’s sound, and it’s topped by a vocal melody that is both interesting and energetic. Hannah’s voice and enunciation changes multiple times through one verse line for a surprisingly nuanced performance considering the easy-going nature of the track. Shady Bug achieves their signature contrast without half time drops or distortion by establishing a completely different compositional structure on the chorus, which prances in eerily and menacing to break off from its worry-free counterpart. Low and cacophonous backup vocals also step in to accentuate the effect. The song does eventually build into a high-octane section towards the end, but the verse-chorus interaction from before had already given me everything I needed.
Songs like “Lucky” and its followup “Whining” bring to mind one of my main sonic issues with “Lemon Lime”: the difference in sound quality between sections. I believe Shady Bug sounds the slickest and most on point when they’re playing clean, and focusing on good melodies and guitar interactions. These light passages showcase Shady Bug’s signature guitar language pleasantly and often pitch melodic and harmonic content filled with emotion and raw power. On the opposite side we have the sound on the distorted sections which come across as over compressed and boxed in, to the point where a lot of them sound lighter than some of the most energetic clean spots. This lack of uniformity in sound combined with the band’s tendency to switch up gears countless times in one song leaves me looking at dozens of vignettes throughout the release as opposed to the nine songs presented, and works against my focus on certain compositions.
Oftentimes I find that my favorite parts of the album are just sections of songs. I brought up “Whining” before and although I love the melodies presented at the beginning and the lazy, meandering feel that beds them, I don’t necessarily care for the jump in energy towards the middle as I think it robs the song of its aura. By the time this section is over a new guitar lead that mimics the vocals at the beginning plays over the original clean feel. I consider this specific passage to be one of the most beautiful moments of “Lemon Lime”, but it inevitably makes me wonder why that middle hook was there to distract me from its beauty. When looking at the sections in “Whining” individually I can appreciate the emotional strength of the opening and closing passages; the interaction between guitars in the outro is especially heavy and touching, and the final couple of vocal lines wrap the song up with a lot of class. When looking at the song as a whole I can’t help scratching my chin and raising questions in my mind.
The second half of “Spooky” is also representative of this qualm I have. The song opens with a calm groove and quiet, percussive guitars atop which Hannah sings a tense melody. This introduction works to reel me in but as soon as Hannah’s face turns red from running the song shifts to a new heavy section with a jagged melody that doesn’t do much for me, especially considering how hard it is for any of the instruments to breath in this hyper distorted environment. “Blow” follows and exemplifies one way in which Shady Bug’s dream of contrast and polarization works. The clean groove is infectious, and the way it gets interrupted by quick fuzz hits actually works really well and achieves the desired effect. However, the song switches again towards the end into a tempo and texture drop that feels out of place and uses up the momentum created by the first half. It feels like it’s when I’m enjoying the band the most that a curve ball gets thrown and I’m left wondering where the song went.
After countless listens in the past couple of weeks I have gotten used to perceiving the music on this release in chunks instead of individual tracks. Songs like the first three hold strong, relatable melodies that help keep the arrangements tied together, but going deep into the track list the melodic content wanes in comparison and leaves a lot of the tunes feeling disjointed and unfocused. In that sense “Flood Song” is a breath of fresh air towards the end. Hannah’s low register melody feels honest and heartfelt, the guitar leads support this emotional moment with a lot of personality, and the double-sung hook funks up the groove and simplifies the vocals in a tasteful way. Even the distorted second half works well, perhaps because it’s not pushed to the max and the mix can breathe more.
In a similar regard “Flake” feels a lot more put together than a lot of the tracks without sacrificing the constant change in texture and arrangement the band is known for. The new tempos and styles that arrive throughout don’t feel forced or tacked on; on the contrary, they blend together seamlessly, and maintain momentum in a refreshing fashion for a dynamic result that I believe a lot of the tunes of this album were trying to achieve. Curt Oren’s flute feature fits right in place with Shady Bug’s clean guitars, and the way it’s interrupted by a tempo change feels appropriate, albeit slightly off-putting. No frets though, as the song manages to build into a feedback clad section atop which Curt comes back for a saxophone solo that closes the album out very strongly. Perhaps it was the desire to accommodate Curt’s sound, but the arrangement style of Shady Bug feels better orchestrated and justified on here than on a good chunk of the album.
In a lot of ways “Lemon Lime” is a success for Shady Bug and it should be celebrated. Their audience has grown considerably, their sound has gone up in quality and their music is getting a lot of well-deserved exposure. I found myself wondering at times if the production was the true culprit of my issues, and if the heavy sections’ sound is messing with my perception. However, it just takes remembering their debut to perceive a handful of songs that were so well thought out, catchy and drenched in melodic bliss that they transcended the sonic issues of “tbh idk”, ascertaining that a good song is not dependant on perfect production to be good.
Shady Bug shows a lot of great material in “Lemon Lime”, but there are definite highlights that shade the weaker spots in its runtime, and these highlights end up so due to how they keep their ever-changing arrangements uniform and interesting through strong melodies, transitions and intentions. The dips in the track list show a good deal of promise and often present solid musical ideas, but they ultimately feel too disjointed and jagged in nature to inspire my appreciation as whole compositions. These songs that stuck with me leave me eager to see what Shady Bug’s future looks like, and curious as to where they take their arrangement style next.
Listen to “Lemon Lime” via Bandcamp down below: