Album Review: Sally Shapiro – Somewhere Else

[Paper Bag Records; 2013]

It’s been a while. Four years, in fact, since the Swedish disco duo, Sally Shapiro, released their last LP, My Guilty Pleasure, which itself was not bad but failed to reach the euphoric pop peaks of their 2007 debut, Disco Romance. So this third album is perhaps make-or-break for singer Shapiro and producer Johan Agebjörn. Another mediocre effort would put them in a two-in-a-row slump, which in this day and age is practically a death sentence for an artist’s continued viability; on the other hand, another winner would allow them to regain the momentum they’d lost, positioning the music of Sally Shapiro (the project) as a reliable dance floor filler well into this decade.

And they know it’s been a while. Their new full-length, Somewhere Else, opens with a brief ambient prelude before segueing into, well, another ambient prelude. It’s not until 1:13 into second track “I Dream With An Angel Tonight” that the beat kicks in, and when it does, it’s more spry and nimble than many would expect, almost veering into Monolake’s hybrid IDM/techno territory. The song is sweeter than candy and smoother than a freshly polished roller rink floor, but it belies the most memorable genre-hopping efforts on the rest of the album, which is more traditionally pop-with-a-capital-P than its disco-minded predecessors. And that’s not a bad thing, since it represents a move away from the dance music with which we’d grown fatigued on My Guilty Pleasure.

In fact, the new album occasionally approaches the sort of synth-pop-rock employed so successfully on such contemporary classics as Cut Copy’s In Ghost Colours (also from 2007). The flutes, guitars, and sentimental synth strings of “What Can I Do” give the song a relaxed vibe that sits somewhere between sunny 60s pop and ABBA’s catchy and impeccably crafted 70s/early-80s work. “Starman” also evokes the sixties, but does so with an unexpectedly psychedelic rock edge as opposed to another seeming tribute to Sunshine Superman. Even when the folk-pop guitars are absent, a light rock structure remains; the bass line on “If It Doesn’t Rain,” for example, sounds decidedly more Woodstock than Studio 54, while the gorgeous “Sundown” features that most ubiquitous of retro-rock staples: the saxophone.

Of course, the more things change, the more they stay the same, and in the case of Somewhere Else that means Shapiro’s coquettishly insecure lyrics. “Who will want me if you leave me?” she asks on “What Can I Do” right after admitting that she “[doesn’t] know for sure if I’m in love no more.” And on “Starman,” she emphasizes that she “wants to know” and “wants to love” the titular character, a strangely cautious maneuver for such an otherwise jaunty number. We never find out if she’s actually succeeded in winning his affections; considering, however, that the bulk of the album’s lyrics leaves behind another trail of crudely ripped paper hearts, we can imagine that she probably isn’t swimming in romantic happiness.

And there’s still plenty of classic electropop here too, from “All My Life” and the surprisingly self-aware “This City’s Local Italo Disco DJ Has A Crush On Me” to the vaguely trance galloping of “Lives Together.” Overall, while Sally Shapiro (the duo) take some much-appreciated baby steps towards new sounds on Somewhere Else, Sally Shapiro the frontwoman remains just as stuck in unrequited love as ever, and the music that supports her is no less bouncy or plasticine as her previous stuff. There’s something to be said for artistic consistency, especially when it’s pulled off as joyously as it is here. That said, the most exciting moments on Somewhere Else are those in which Shapiro (the project) stray from their Italo origins; unfortunately, they don’t occur as frequently as I’d have liked, and this pleasant album ultimately suffers from being a bit too pleasant. A dash of thematic tension never hurt–the dance floor typically stays dark for a reason–and you’d think Ms. Shapiro would be used to heartbreak by now. Still, it’s an improvement over the last one, and while nothing here matches the sheer melodic majesty of “I’ll Be By Your Side” or “He Keeps Me Alive,” there’s enough good material on this album to justify the wait. It’s like, Gothenburg wasn’t built in a day, you know?