Graham Wright

Booksmart Power Pop

Review

Pitchfork

Graham Wright plays an often-overlooked role (keyboardist) in an often-underrated band (Tokyo Police Club), so it’s not like his solo bow comes with a lot of the usual baggage. Hell, even when the Hold Steady‘s ivory-tickler Franz Nicolay embarked on a similar side project, certain expectations came with the mustache. All we know is that there’s label machinery legitimizing Shirts vs. Skins as more than just downtime with Bandcamp, that it’s deemed worthy of our attention by more than just the guy who made it. So what does Wright have to say?

Well, to find out, you have to get past “Chucklefucks”, which unwisely decides to incorporate its title– one of the least euphonious not-quite words in the English language– into Wright’s prickly, pitter-patter melody. It just piles on from there. Soon come the skittering drum machines and lyrics that lean heavy on signifiers instead of insight (“the party kids,” “the party,” “pockets overflowing with designer drugs”), the sort of things usually found on the relationship-altering demo CD your friend made that you’ll never unhear.

But after that mercifully brief 80 seconds, “Heaven’s Just for Movie Makers” is a comparatively welcome respite, hewing more towards TPC’s modes of zippy tempos, generously upfront vocals, and sharp, concise hooks. It’s also more indicative of Shirts vs. Skins as a whole. The album hangs looser than Wright’s main gig, however, dabbling in rootsy singer-songwriter fare, giddy synth-pop, and too-cute saxophone skronk. The lyrics also lack TPC leader Dave Monks’ cryptic, literary bent. They tend toward straightforward girl talk laced with proper nouns, recalling the “like K-Ci & JoJo, like Sonny and Cher, you’re Tina but I’m not Ike” kicker from “Favourite Colour”, off of Champ, the 2010 album by Wright’s main band.

All of which means that if you can trust I’m using the phrase “Welcome Interstate Managersera Fountains of Wayne” as a sales pitch rather than an exit cue, this might be in your wheelhouse. Shirts vs. Skins does feel weirdly out of time in 2011, its power-pop classicism and sense of irony having a decidedly mid-1990s vibe that values kitsch over actual nostalgia. “Soviet Race”, in particular, could’ve found refuge in the buzzbin. Its narrative about astronauts and international espionage doesn’t mean much upon the slightest inspection, but it’s all prelude to Wright’s biggest chorus, which takes obvious pleasure at stressing, “I was shitfaced!” while serving a softball to the egghead critics who generally eat this stuff up (“I read your book… I give it three stars out of a possible five”).

To Wright’s credit, Shirts vs. Skins actually manages to be catchier in a more straightforward way than either Champ or its 2008 predecessor Elephant Shell, two records that certainly didn’t lack hooks. Whether or not you want these songs to stick in your head is another matter entirely, and it’ll be largely based on your tolerance toward the standard options in the power-pop package deal– namely, the stilted dialog and single-serve plots that make it feel more like a collection of sitcoms than songs; the overbearing pursuit of cleverness; and the weirdly dismissive attitude toward females that often reduces them to a single crush-worthy quirk or some incorporeal straw-woman that dumped your sorry ass.

You might end up taking the latter’s side on “Leftovers”, which stretches a single relatable image way too far. “Something Stupid” quotes Uncle Tupelo but is mostly an unspoken homage to Fountain of Wayne’s “She’s Got a Problem”, or any other song that disguises wimpy condescension as actual concern. Likewise, “Canadian Thanksgiving” poses as brotherly advice to a moony-eyed teen but more or less turns into a bro’s tall tale about a pretty girl who gets a few drinks in her and inevitably ends up embarrassing herself in a restaurant bathroom.

Despite all of the above, this album might still hold a huge appeal for listeners. This stuff’s not unlike gangsta rap– you come for the formalism and escapist pleasures, not for the nuanced take on gender relations. But for such a casual record, Shirts vs. Skins can occasionally strike at a deeper discussion. Power-pop of this sort is often overlooked, but it can also be stifling taken in large doses– Wright’s clear talent and occasional charm notwithstanding. The wacky neighbor POV wears pretty thin, but ultimately more oppressive is the glorification of generic heartbreak. It makes allowances for juvenile self-absorption that actual romance never does.

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Biography

Our lives are full of firsts. Our first jobs. Our first apartments. Our first victories and first defeats. Our first loves and…first heartbreaks. Each and every day we’re challenged to take risks and try something new. Graham Wright’s debut album,Shirts vs Skins, is about those challenges. His first full-length collection captures the excitement of the moment when you step out on your own and boldly face the future.

Following 2008’s The Lakes of Alberta EP, Wright experienced a period of intense creativity in the wake of a big breakup. Instead of dwelling on the past, he chose to plow ahead. He wrote over sixty new songs and embarked on a series of recording sessions with the help of Dean Marino and Jay Sadlowski at Toronto’s Chemical Sound Recording Studio.

The resulting album, the first of a planned trilogy, displays all of the skill and trademark charm that Wright brings to his other work: as a host on CBC Radio 3, as a contributor to 2009’s groundbreaking Novels project, and as one of the four great musical minds that make up Tokyo Police Club.

Shirts vs Skins is full of raw emotion, swinging wildly from abject misery to pure joy. Each character has a unique voice. They take on tough subjects but don’t take themselves too seriously. The songs are funny, playful, and nostalgic. They weave through a host of styles to incorporate the best of Wright’s influences but never lean on them. And, perhaps most impressively, they stand up to repeated listening, growing a bit better each time, like a favorite pair of blue jeans.

They’ll make you remember all of your firsts and they’ll leave you wanting more.

Close Bio

Biography

Our lives are full of firsts. Our first jobs. Our first apartments. Our first victories and first defeats. Our first loves and…first heartbreaks. Each and every day we’re challenged to take risks and try something new. Graham Wright’s debut album,Sh...

Read Full Bio

Review

Pitchfork Graham Wright plays an often-overlooked role (keyboardist) in an often-underrated band (Tokyo Police Club), so it’s not like his solo bow comes with a lot of the usual baggage. Hell, even when the Hold Steady‘s ivory-tickler Franz Ni...

Read Full Review

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