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Catchy and ragged

The hooks and off-kilter vocals of Fauna Shade

Fauna Shade make wonky guitar rock with unconventional vocals. Photo credit: Andrew Imanaka

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I've said it countless times in articles I've written about bands in the almost seven years I've been doing this, but that's because it's truly stuck with me in the way that most insights in music journalism don't: "The better the person's voice, the harder it is to believe what they're singing." These words were spoken by David Byrne (in an interview with himself) in a special feature on the DVD of Stop Making Sense. Beyond just doing the legwork of defining what I personally look for in artists, I think it's a rule of thumb that should be considered by those who have a more passing interest in music.

This past year, my favorite album was Perpetual Motion People by Ezra Furman, an album filled with buzzing energy and hangdog ballads, with jumpy new wave and scrappy doo-wop affectations (it's like he read my diary!), and all of it colored by Furman's voice, which resembles the love child of the Violent Femmes' Gordon Gano and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah's Alec Ounsworth. His cracked vocals establish the kind of intimacy that lends weight to lines like, "I think it's time you brought your face/Across the railway to my place/I can't share this whiskey with you through the phone," and gives punch to clever lines like, "Showed up in court wearing an Indian headdress/Somehow I think maybe the message was lost."

Vocals, by necessity, remain the front-and-center first appeal to me, when it comes to music - if you sound like Celine Dion, I just don't trust you.

It's the vocals, then, that first leapt out at me when I was listening to Fauna Shade's recent LP, Baton Rouge. The Everett trio nominally makes quite catchy guitar rock, with occasional flourishes of psychedelia, but Scotty Smith's lead vocals carry a glam-rock swagger tempered by his hoarse inflections that sometimes resemble the unhinged quality that the British avant-popsters Wild Beasts have when they get away from their usual foppishness and play around in the muck. Smith's voice is ragged, but with a trembling vibrato that also evokes T. Rex's Marc Bolan at times, which gives a wonky feel as the frontman of a band that seems atypically capable of crafting pleasing hooks and soaring choruses.

The voice of Smith lends credence and an appealingly goofy sincerity to songs like "Marzipan," which details the mundane bliss that defined his relationship with a woman who's since moved on. I believe that he's the kind of guy that truly would relish memories of laying in bed with this old girlfriend, swatting at flies as they passed above - that the ground-level nature of this memory could be as romantic as anything else in a pop song about lost love. Accompanied by a simple arrangement of hazily perambulating guitars that slowly give in to a bigger sound, it's a delicately sweet anthem that seems marked by a willingness to move on with life, but a hesitance at leaving those memories behind.

On some songs, as on "Delirium," the guitarwork is reminiscent of Mac DeMarco's off-kilter style, which has slowly begun to infect indie rock in general. I'm not entirely sure if I'm onboard with this trend, but Fauna Shade are perfectly capable of surviving the comparison. "Delirium" also furthers a perception of Fauna Shade as a lovesick band, featuring the chorus asking, "Do you really love me?" Throw in a sweet saxophone solo, as Fauna Shade does on the song, and I'm once again helpless in their clutches.

To be a guitar rock band is to lay yourself bare, to rely only on charisma and musicianship to carry the day. With this level of craft, and Scotty Smith's assured, unconventional vocals leading the charge, Fauna Shade have nothing to hide behind.

REAL ART TACOMA, w/ Brooklyn Pool, Wow, Laura, Patrick Galactic, Sat., January 9, 7 p.m., All Ages, $8, 5412 S. Tacoma Way, Tacoma, realarttacoma.com

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