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Shy Boys - Bell House Music Album Reviews

Bubblegum surf-pop meets Midwestern earnestness on the Kansas City quintet’s sweet, funny, but sometimes inscrutable sophomore album.

In the four years since they released their self-titled debut, Shy Boys have undergone a metamorphosis. Known for glossy harmonies subdued by lo-fi production, the Kansas City, Missouri quintet showcases bubblegum surf pop on its sophomore album, Bell House. Sleeker production allows Shy Boys to showcase their sunny falsettos, while creating a peculiar time warp: Their new music feels refreshing and nostalgic at once.

The project of brothers Kyle and Collin Rausch, along with their friends Konnor Ervin, Kyle Little, and Ross Brown, Bell House is named after the street they all shared for nearly five years and charged with familial love. The snap-happy “Champion” feels like the theme song for an ’80s sitcom where bickering friends and family learn wholesome values through gentle life lessons. Dedicated to the Rausches’ mother, it reminisces over back-to-school photos and marvels at her ability to make them feel like superstars. The song is emblematic of the sincere Midwestern sweetness that pervades Shy Boys’ work.

No matter where they direct their attention, Shy Boys come across as both introspective and benevolent. Their epic lead single “Take the Doggie” swaps blissful guitar for rock angst in the vein of Thin Lizzy, as they contemplate rescuing a neighbor’s abused, malnourished dog. True to their moniker, there are moments when Shy Boys reveal, and even celebrate, their fragility. “Tragic Loss” captures the anxiety of nightmares, and the uncontrollable nature of the subconscious. The chorus is suffused with panic: “Think of what a tragic loss would have done to me.” But for all its unease, the song’s melodramatic tone feels playful and self-aware. Such glimpses of humor are crucial for a band whose earnestness can sometimes feel like a bit much.

The same levity gives opener “Miracle Gro” its charm. The band members’ voices entwine like vines stretching sunward in a cappella harmonies whose Beach Boys-style airiness evokes innocence and simplicity—but the song’s title refers to the super-powered fertilizer one might use to grow a crop of overly potent bud. Handclaps keep the cheerful beat as the groups sings about a seven-foot-tall “dirty secret buddin’ off the street.”

Bell House is an endearing album, but too many gooey guitar licks and saccharine lyrics can start to give you a toothache. Although it ostensibly recounts drummer/bassist Ervin’s encounter with a thief, “Evil Sin” feels more like a scolding parable than a reflection on being the victim of a crime. “But it’s still an evil sin/If you want to be my friend/Don’t ever lie again,” Collin Rausch sings. The baroque-pop melody is pleasant enough. Perhaps there’s a hint of Shy Boys’ subtle humor at work here, too; like kindly teachers, they’re not mad at the robber, just disappointed. Ultimately, though, the pedantic lyrics and honeyed delivery still recall the preschool stylings of Barney or Disney.

Anchored in the Rausch brothers’ “blood harmony,” as Kevin Morby describes their vocals in their liner notes, Shy Boys’ gentle vocals can be disarming. But they can also sound sappy and artificial, as they do on “No Fun” and the odd R&B ballad “Disconnect.” On Bell House, it’s sometimes hard to tell when the band is being too precious and when it’s consciously using self-deprecating humor to subvert that self-seriousness. For all their charms, the album’s confusing tone suggests that Shy Boys haven’t quite figured out how to communicate with listeners who don’t know them as well as they know each other.

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