Listening to Shael Riley isn't like listening to most nerdcore (there is no rapping, for one). The songs, perspectives, and themes he speaks on can apply to a good cross section of nerdcore, yet are not topics often tackled by other artists. Then there is the way in which Shael approaches these topics, from what seems like a very first hand experience on the subjects of love, laziness, and self loathing. Of course mixed in what seems like some heavy handed topics Shael adds a signature dose of nerdy references and a kind of passive aggressive ridiculousness to his songwriting. His first person style of lyric writing can place him into many situations and as many characters. In this album he goes from your enemy, to your conscience, to your favorite game character, seemingly with great ease.
Songs From the Pit is an album that has to be heard to be believed. The layers in the album are something that is hard to sum up in a review (especially with my sometimes limited collection of words). Also I was quickly beaten to the punch when Z of Hipster, Please! posted a great review, so I have to tread lightly, lest I plagiarize one of my heroes to discuss another. Anyway, enough of my excuses, I have to write a great review, and a great review shall be written! Let's get right into it. The album kicks off with a ton of energy right off in the opening track Publishing Rights. The driving bass and drums create a rhythmic danceable track which meld right along with the vocals, guitar, and subtle chiptunery to create a song that can fit right in with the rock top 40 (well at least when there was actual rock on there). The catchy nature of the track belies the vocals, which you may not catch the first time through due to the furious head bobbing you'll be doing on your first run through. The vocals work to create the years in the making stereotypical rock star persona. The confidence and swagger, infused with lines like "Ya'll bitches dance and have sex with me, Ya'll bitches, Ya'll bitches fuck, that's my philosophy" can take the lines that in the hands of a less skilled performer would show through for the soaked in irony words that they are. The song also has a guest appearance by Schaffer The Darklord as the personification of record labels everywhere, using this persona he injects an energetic rap into the center of the song about all the worst fears of an artist, losing the publishing rights, so that your songs can appear in shoe commercials the world over. This song seems to cast a glaring eye both the oblivious musician as much as the record executive looking to take advantage of him, yet still remains catchy and doesn't beat you over the head with it's message.
Now we learn How To Fire a Gun. This track starts off with much softer felt vocals than the last song, along with some dreamy chiptunes and marching drums. In this bit we learn that Shael Riley would like to learn to fire a gun among other things. But for whatever reason has not done so. Is it apathy? Fear? He never explains why he never had the opportunity to do this or several other things he wishes he had learned like programming or playing guitar. The song kicks in fully with livelier drums, and catchy chips and guitars. The song seems to be an ode to all the times you feel "If only I could do this." knowing full well you could if you decided to put the effort in, but instead decide daydreaming is the best course of action. What is doubly amazing about this track, and Shael Riley's lyric writing in general throughout the album is the way he can juxtapose heartfelt lines like "Do you believe she'll ever leave you? Do you have someone to read to? Do you hope you'll never have to fire a gun?" with lines like "I'd like to learn how to program C. Design a 2D fighting game." and make sure both sound as heartfelt as one another, and that both have an impact on you in some way. The song hits a breakdown about 2 minutes in which sounds like the end of the song, but picks up again with another laundry list of things Shael wishes he could do. At this point it takes an air of ego as the lyrics suggest that if only he put some effort in, he would surely solve everything and be at the head of the class in every objective he undertakes. As if he is asserting that he doesn't undertake things he already knows he can do. This balance of ego and fear seems to be a nerd staple, as anyone who can code an entire game themselves but can't talk to the girl they sit next to in class knows.
Admittedly, the third song on this album The Other Side of Memphis didn't strike my attention as much as the other songs at first. Maybe because at first it doesn't seem to tackle the broader issues of musicianship and nerddom that other tracks do. The song has slowly grown on me though through repeated listens so I definitely suggest giving it a chance even if it doesn't catch your ear the first go around. This song kicks off with some lively chips and drums, with some nice backing guitar and bass to keep things moving and upbeat. This may also be the least straightforward song lyrically on the album as well. Perhaps this is all because it is the one song written by drummer Ricky Henry and not Shael himself. The song contains some clever lyrics like "The window to your heart is frozen solid, this place we're living in lacks mountain dew." and at this point I am unsure whether he means honest morning dew residing in mountains, or simply that it sucks that no Mountain Dew soda is to be had in the area. Both sad, but i like to choose the latter (and nerdier) interpretation.
As mentioned, the main theme of this song is hard to pin down, is he unhappy with where he lives now? Is he unhappy with where he is from, and can't escape that? Who is this girl he is obsessed with? Are the two inseparably linked together? This song basically left me with more questions than answers at first. Eventually bits and pieces of the song start to fall into place. It would seem he is obsessed with a girl, possibly from "the other side of the tracks" as they say, and perhaps a bit jealous of her life as well. Of course I could be totally missing the goal post on this one, luckily, Ricky gives a bit of explanation himself to help out in it's interpretation.
For a song with the ridiculous and possibly slightly offensive name Asian Kids Have All the Best Moves, the song is surprisingly heartfelt. Although it contains much of that ridiculous juxtaposition of meaningful words and strange references that I mentioned earlier in the review it manages to paint a sympathetic picture of Shael's and seemingly many others plight in life. The song starts off again with a simple drum and chip combo, the other instruments and vocals all come in on one beat. We are treated to a ballad like track with many none rhyming couplets, which add a very different feel to this song from the others. The verses take Shael from a youth to the musician he is today, woefully harangued by Asians throughout. Shael tackles the subjects of being shown up in any and all endeavors by his ethnic peers, and considers the reasons why throughout. This song also holds some of my favorite lines from the album, such as the honesty of, "I'm not a racist, alright, maybe yes I am." The song also paints a sympathetic picture of the culture less folks who choose to identify as Japanese (though it could be any other race), with the best intentions but not the best execution. The picture of the poor kid looking over the fence at the things he wishes he could have is a sad outlook. Although towards the end it seems like they are going out of their way to rub it in Shael's face with possibly my favorite line from the entire album, "You could've been at any other bar in town, but you take your flaming dragon punch and follow us around. We're all on fire now and flying to the ground, seems like Asian kids have all the best moves." The song ends with a heartfelt final call from Shael. The songs ballad like nature is probably what gave them the decision to rework it at the end of the album, we will get into that later though.
Probably the most heartfelt, the most personal, the track that effected me the most, and the best song on the album is Hipster Hoax. Right off the bat we start with the line, "Life's strange when your friends are names on a screen, and the bulk of them are strangers." Eerily accurate for some, huh? The song hits on a topic many in nerdcore would be afraid to tackle, perhaps believing that all the articles detailing nerdcore would come crumbling down once we reveal that the mainstream journalistic fodder of "nerds being the new cool" is only a sham. Shael creates a song in where he points out the differences between this media painted image of a hip nerd, and the real life nerds that I am, that Shael is, that the people reading this blog about video game inspired music most likely are. He points out the life of your typical nerd, nervous around girls, messy, and obsessive. And compares this to the cool nerd image that pervades many an opening to a nerdcore article.
The song has a lot of energy with the guitars, bass, and drums running at a good pace, with Shael's vocals keeping great pace. As the song hits the half way point we get a great breakdown with some fantastic slowed down lines, which breaks right into the verse again, and at this point, the chiptunes which were bubbling just underneath the track take on a much more in your face role. The song comes to a close in an almost reprise like style, but is abruptly cut off before Shael delivers the last word, almost as if he was cut off.
As with the opening, many of the lines hit close to home, sometimes too much for comfort. "Media tells us, 'nows our day' but we're not the 'us' they mean" this line right here, is something I have thought about a lot, and has finally been put into words. The "us" that is the people playing halo, and not the "us" that wishes we could play NSF files on our iPods. Shael goes on that even in this climate of nerds supposedly being cool, he has not become any cooler, and his songs have not become that much more popular, not only that but it seems we are more uncool than ever, and much like punk rock before us, the mainstreaming of our culture has given us a "20 side identity crisis". Basically, "This has all been a joke, this has all been some jacked up hipster hoax, that I'm not cool enough to understand."
Stepping back from the serious questions the last song brings up, we dive right into a song about a mysterious masked Chinese ninja warrior...and with that I have probably said half the lyrics to this song already. The song in question is a cover by the band Immortals, and goes by the name Chinese Ninja Warrior (catch a great youtube of the song here). The song starts with some ominous chirps backed up with some strong drum hits. The song quickly jumps into full pace with a ton of energy. The lyrics are very low on content of course, but the song is incredibly catchy none the less. It is hard to see exactly if Shael and the band mean this as a loving tribute to the song, or a ridiculous mockery of it. I believe it is a nostalgia induced intermingling of the two. As Shael mentioned when discussing the song during Nerdapalooza 2009, the original track sounded as if someone took a passing glance at Sub Zero's picture before writing the song. The song fits in well with the other tracks though, and adds a nice break to help bring us into the end of the album.
The end of the album is with what seems to be the title track tip eht fo mottob. Be warned, this song is incredibly catchy. kicking off with the catchy back and forth of chiptunes and bass, which bring the drums and guitar into the fun. The song is from a first person perspective from a certain game character who resides at the bottom of a pit. In this song Shael's lyrics really shine, as so much is alluded to but never spoken, referenced but never outright. Not only this but even in a song that you would think is pure fun he manages to squeeze in more of those lyrics that you somehow identify with. This time the somewhat depressing chorus. "Someday you're gonna die, you know it. Grow a backbone but don't you show it. Sing to yourself this is it, this is it, this is it." which is also the catchiest part of the song. Seems like Shael knew how catchy it was too, as he cuts off all the music to bring in the chorus as he starts to bring the song to a close. Then all the instruments burst back in and the track builds a ton of energy before coming back down again in an ending of feedback.
We are not done yet though, as it seems we are treated to the bonus track I alluded to earlier. We get a classy piano version of Asian Kids Have All the Best Moves. The track takes on a soft low feel and the piano works great for this song. If you didn't pay attention to the lyrics too closely this could easily be mistaken for a catchy mainstream piano love song. This is another part where Shael shines, his pop sensibilities are always at the forefront as he crafts songs. If he could wrangle his lyrics into simple love ballads and break up songs he could easily be an incredible song smith for many a pop star, but lucky for us Shael doesn't deny his many nerd tendencies and gives us an album and band named in tribute to an early 90's fighting game that we all gladly dropped quarters into back in our youth.
I have mentioned in passing to many a friend that Shael Riley is probably the best songwriter and singer in nerdcore, and with this new album I feel ever more justified for maintaining that position. Once again you can order the album via bitpopshop and check out more Shael Riley at shaelriley.com.