Posted on May 21st, 2015 (3:00 pm) by Matt LaBarbera

Of all the many trendy flirtations the '80s-era music industry partook in, the construction of androgyny and destruction of gender boundaries is perhaps the most memorable. With Boy George and Annie Lennox, there’s a simple flip, but with artists such as Divine, there was a conflation of what was considered masculine and feminine. Or take Grace Jones, whose factory-pressed physique was neither / nor. The reasoning is clear: deconstruct all divisions between artist and audience and you have a universal idol. However, despite all of this blurring, it’s all image; the effect is a function of purely visual phenomena. Perhaps the most prominent artist to blend image and sound in such a mercantile fashion was Sylvester. Enter Shamir, the twenty-year-old Las Vegas artist whose most noteworthy and marketable feature is his unplaceable voice, a light and often beguiling countertenor. Expanding on his first release, 2014’s Northtown EP, Shamir explores disco-inflected pop and various strains of house in his debut album, Ratchet. Playing with a number of conventions of '80s dance-pop, and stripping them down into more contemporary forms, it’s an effort that does not always succeed by dint of its production, but is always buoyed by his flittering voice.

Aside from voice, there’s actually little overlap with Shamir and '80s music industry culture. His approach is not HI-NRG or the damaged disco that surfaced during the time. There is also little obsession with image. While the Northtown EP featured Shamir’s figure front and center and Ratchet has him stylized in neon chalk, he's only there as a presence and not the commodity being sold. His image is his voice. Like Sylvester, he sounds neither masculine nor feminine and his lyrics never betray one or the other. This queering of his voice, the sonic signifier of his identity, extends to the production choices of the album, committing to no genre in particular, but dipping his toes in many pools. Instead, his style is more of an amalgam of contemporary styles, more often than not minimal over bombastic. “Demon” is a spare synth-pop cut that’s pretty much just a vocal sample, a tinkling synth line, and minimal production. His voice, light and sweet even when soulful, is the centerpiece in this and a lot of his tracks. “Darker” is even more austere with the swelling and bursting of the hook—“It never gets darker”—taking far more precedence over anything else.

However, outside of the curiosity of his voice, there’s not too much to grab on to in those less densely populated songs as they reenact the sort of Vegas phantasmagoria that is shot through Ratchet. The real enjoyment from the album comes from the marriage of his voice and the more up-tempo electro-disco cuts. The closer, “Head in the Clouds,” with its wheedling synths and stomping beat, matches Shamir’s vocal theatrics point for point. The apathy-infused youth culture anti-anthem, “Make a Scene,” and its nothing-left-to-lose lyrics is similarly matched by fun percussion and addictive, whining synths. He even raps—maybe chants is more appropriate—over a hip house beat, mimicking Azealia Bank’s “212,” on the lead single, “On the Regular,” which curiously brings into focus the notion of himself as a commodity: “Don’t try me, I’m not a free sample.”

Still, there could be a little more showmanship on this album, especially from someone growing up in such close proximity to the Strip. While his voice might be airy, it is not meek or understated in anyway, and a fair amount of the production does not meet the bar he sets. “In for the Kill” opens with a bouncing beat and blaring horns, but it all falls away into the same stuff he’s been singing over the whole time. Yes, it’s all very danceable, but some variety among the dance cuts would be far from detrimental. Perhaps adding some density, something to struggle with, would break up the monotony that cuts like “Youth” indulge in.

It’s rather unfortunate for Shamir that his career is, more likely than not, going to be defined by his voice. It's one that we’ve heard before, but it will always be a curiosity because of its home in the uncanny valley. However, Ratchet demonstrates a bit more than that. He’s a lot of fun, both ironic and earnest. He has a keen awareness and great control over his expression and delivery. He has all the makings of a great performer, and not necessarily musical. Never divorced from the adult Disneyland sheen of his upbringing on the outskirts of Las Vegas, his work is most certainly steeped in unreality, at least as unreal as all of those '80s artists, but lacks all of the evidence of such image construction. The catchiness, simplicity, and grab-bag genre-hopping all scream "boardroom," but without the image, without the product being sold, he can’t be anything other than bedroom. Wait, never mind.

Track List:

  1. Vegas
  2. Make a Scene
  3. On the Regular
  4. Call it Off
  5. Hot Mess
  6. Demon
  7. In for the Kill
  8. Youth
  9. Darker
  10. Head in the Clouds
Shamir - Ratchet Review
Purchase at: Amazon | eMusic

Our Rating

70 / 100
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