Welcome to 45 RPM, Heave’s weekly discography feature, in which Josh Watkins looks at a given artist or band’s full body of work to see what he might find. This week, Seattle band Sharks Keep Moving.
Desert Strings and Drifters EP (1998)
There was a time in Jake Synder’s life, pre-Knudson and thereby pre-Minus the Bear, where he wasn’t writing songs about boats. The element of movement and the sentimental focus on small but memorable moments in a specific place are still at the core of each song. The difference is that nowhere on Desert Strings and Drifters is there a late-nite yacht, spilling with chic and mysterious women, booze, best friends, liquor, alcohol and fuckparties. Sharks Keep Moving are a different beast: freer, jazzier, less interested in songwriting as they are soundscaping. The settings are the Pacific Northwest and the deserts below it. Snider and the band focus on using the music to illustrate how it feels to be somewhere, rather than narrative lyrics telling a story about the place. “Cashmere, Washington” highlights the small details of a trip to Cashmere, snapshots of buying fries and shakes, a rainless overcast sky. Very little of the song has vocals. The moment is instead captured with the bright and jazzy tone of guitars in a tango, loose drums, and the voice of a cello. “Try to Sleep” is similarly structured, but with more peaks and valleys between relaxed and explosive. The highest peak comes at the end, culminated in shrieking Big Star/Crazy Horse guitar solos.
Following an instrumental bridge (the bouncy “All Out Of…”), we have the EP’s centerpiece “Arizona.” At fourteen minutes, it revolves around the repetition of the phrase “you’d call this a landscape in any other state.” Similar to Sun Kil Moon’s “Duk Koo Kim,” it introduces a few minutes of lyrics before melting into dreamy, looplike repetition. It’s downright breathtaking, bringing back the cello and pristine guitar tone. The last second of the track is someone gasping out a sigh, exhausted from the preceding beauty. Sharks Keep Moving’s first EP is as sprawling and complex as Don Cab, but layered with more of the emotional sentimentality of Unwed Sailor.
Sharks Keep Moving (1999)
The Instrumentals: There’s an unevenness that runs through this album, the band’s only full-length, that is absent in the EPs. It feels like there’s a vague “slowcore” line running through SKM, stitched out of steady, droning riffs. The difference is that the atmosphere is way less melancholic–meditative and tranquilizing, sure, but “Second Instrumental” is light and fluffy fun, shrieking guitar effects clicking arbitrarily on and off. “First” is the “mathiest,” locking you into a groove and then switching it on you. Quick, to the point, not unlike fun. “Third” instrumental is slower, quieter. At ten minutes, it doesn’t exactly build into anything, but the experience is relaxing.
The instrumentals, especially “Third,” contribute to the album’s slight unevenness in comparison to the EPs. This one has bigger chunks of no-vox, which is a tricky complaint–parts of the instrumentals exceed in storytelling, parts of them become redundant. On the other hand, redundance seems like the point. Sharks have a good deal in common with contemporaries American Football: very similar twinkly guitar tones and guitar layering, vaguely jazzy and jammy without sacrificing a feeling of construction, especially on these instrumental tracks. And they’re superb. Nothing yet has been said of the spot-on drums and complex, melody-driving bass. They do drag sometimes, but if this many Sharks songs all had vocals, it’d be a much different album.
The Non-Instrumentals: The lonesome sailor struck by storm, the deserted soldier awaiting rescue, a plane crashing over the mountains–these are the stories contained in the three vocalized tracks on Sharks Keep Moving. Bummer tales, but the album refuses to depress. Rather, it acts like a long drive, with waves of excitement and sleepiness, weaving though monuments and hypnotic roadsigns. “Join Up” could’ve been released as a single. The interplay between acoustic strumming and electric coos row the emotions regarding, at heart, cheating and abandonment. These rank among some of Snider’s most vivid and expressive lyrics: “The highway stretches out just like an angel’s wings to the line that cuts the land from sky/And God knows I’m a sinner, but I’m not begging for forgiveness this time/You walk these streets like a soldier; a solitary infantry woman/I could have been the helicopter sent to save you, but I’m walking away instead,” this followed by a lone flanged guitar and a dizzying climax.
Hard-hitting opener “Sailor” layers on thick the repetition and just-off-kilter time signatures, with slight improvisations and variations. Conversely, we find the closer, “Jet’s Jets,” a succinct, subtle song about a plane crash. It’s quiet all throughout, save a few promises at explosive endings (“she’s commiiiiing down”), but these are teases. The album will end as quietly as you expect. Good luck straying from the repeat button.
Pause and Clause (2002)
Concluding such a short-lived project, it’s hard to call Pause and Clause a swan song. Frontman and songwriter Jake Snider went on to make Minus the Bear, a more focused and accessible continuation of SKM, so the spirit of things is floating around out there in the ether. Three songs at 21 minutes, and “Like a River” is longer than the bordering two combined. It’s safe to say it sucks a lot of attention from the other two. At this point it’s standard Sharks–long, repetitive, elegantly complicated, this one with a subtle vocal melody floating throughout. “Pause and Clause” feels like an instrumental B-side to the full-length. Bubbly and directionless jazzy indie. Really, it’s “Tied to the Tracks” that gives any hint at where Snider’s career will tread next. It’s melodic, a little less free and more guitar-centric, and it’s about women.
This is all to say that Pause and Clause is quite good, but appears formulaic to the previous releases and singles/splits. It’s no wonder Sharks Keep Moving split: where could they go from here? The Karate-meets-post-rock model was chiseled to perfection, and to keep going would screw it up. So thanks, Jake & co., for crafting a spectacular and precise discography, moving on after nailing it, and going off to try new approaches–something many artists could learn from.