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Andy Shauf - The Bearer of Bad News (Tender Loving Empire)

4 May 2015

It’s interesting to think about the completely irrational way in which our brains react positively to the music of one artist, while not at all to another seemingly similar musician. For instance, I have a completely illogical love/hate relationship with bleak male singer/songwriters. Sometimes, I can’t be bothered with privileged, white males whining about how bad their lives are. I can’t imagine anything more boring, save maybe Xiu Xiu. I’ve never been able to understand why so many people seem to be so moved by Elliott Smith and Sufjan Stevens. There isn’t anything about their songs that illicit an emotional response from me. Then, there are other instances when a privileged white male comes along with his whispery vocals and acoustic guitar and breaks me down to the very core. Sure, I can try to draw some line about melody or role-playing in the songs. But, the truth is that there is just something about those few artists that get the endorphins moving. They’ve found some loose wire in this brain that responds. With his first full length album, The Bearer of Bad News, Andy Shauf found one of those wires and kicked it into overdrive.

Singer/songwriter Andy Shauf‘s dark, rustic tales of the Canadian prairie, reflecting his upbringing in Regina, Saskatchewan. He became interested in music as a teenager, teaching himself guitar, drums, piano, and any other instruments he came across. The songs he wrote and recorded in his parents’ basement eventually culminated in a collection of demos called Darker Days, which he self-released in 2009. He spent nearly four years painstakingly recording his first proper album, The Bearer of Bad News, which he self-released in late 2012. The album was critically well-received and over the coming two years he expanded his touring range throughout North America, eventually heading to Europe as well. This week, The Bearer of Bad News was re-released by Portland, Oregon-based label Tender Loving Empire (Typhoon, Radiation City).

Shauf plays nearly every instrument on The Bearer of Bad News. The album was crafted on his grandfather’s timeworn guitar and heavily influenced by the aforementioned – and newly learned – clarinet, which was a Christmas gift from family.The solitary nature of the recording perhaps helps some make connections between Shauf’s songs and those of the vaunted Northwestern ‘genius’ of Elliott Smith. Even I have to admit at times that Shauf sounds a lot like Smith (take a listen to “You’re Out Wasting Time”). But, whereas I can barely make it through an Elliott Smith record, The Bearer quickly added itself to a list of album-of-the-year contenders I have been compiling.

I actually find the way Shauf creates characters and environments to be a lot similar to someone like Bob Dylan or Josh Ritter than Smith, Stevens, or Iron & Wine. Album opener “Hometown Hero”, about a guy stopping a convenience store robbery, and “Wendall Walker”, the tale of a love triangle gone horribly wrong, exhibit a keen hand in storytelling that makes one thing that Andy Shauf approaches songwriting almost more as a writer of fiction than someone pouring their hopes and dreams into some kind of depressing public diary. As someone that appreciates the former much more than the latter, I find that to be the absolute strength of this new album.

Sure, there are a few woe-is-me ballads on this album, but even these (like “The Man On Stage”) are saved from drowning in pretension, aloofness, and misery thanks to Shauf’s love of a pop-oriented chorus and humble lyric writing (“I am not a poet, I’m a broken heart”). And, there isn’t really anything wrong with an isolated, lonely ballad, just so long as it doesn’t take over an album and make the listening more like work than casual enjoyment. Maybe that’s really where my whacked brain draws the line. The Bearer of Bad News never makes me ask, “who is this music for?” It is clear from track one that Andy wants us to enjoy these songs. We should love these songs rather than commiserate over them. Bob Dylan once said that he didn’t like to talk about what his songs were about because it took part of the magic away from listening. Even if he wrote a biographical song, he didn’t want the to take away the audiences ability to find something in it that they could relate to their own life. He didn’t think of them as ‘his’ songs. I’ve always appreciated that idea and I believe Andy Shauf does too.

Altogether, Andy Shauf has done a wonderful job on this his first full outing. He walks that fine line of someone writing amazing, personal music without taking it too far away from the audience. As a listener, The Bearer of Bad News never feels like some sadomasochistic act of voyeurism. This is a very strong collection that offers the promise of a songwriter that could become everyone’s favorite new ‘genius’. Luckily, I think Shauf’s work is more simple than that requires. These are great stories put to good music. That’s all you really need.