When a band emerges from a fairly substantial hiatus, and emerges with music that is both exciting and a step in a new direction, a wonderful mixing of nostalgia and discovery have the chance to take hold. I wasn’t really around C-U for Shadows on a River’s debut self-titled album back in 2009, so I can’t really claim to be feeling all that nostalgic about the release of their newest EP Drought. I did, however, recently discover their wonderfully melancholic style and can imagine a sense of excitement at the return of what seems to me to be one of the stronger bands in this music scene.
A little over a month ago, Shadows on a River released their first sampling of new music in almost two years. It had been that long since the band had released their second album, The Other Astronaut’s Wife EP. Before that release the band was a fairly standard part of the Champaign-Urbana music scene, as their debut LP impressed enough critics to sneak beyond our central Illinois borders and garner some online success.
Their latest work comes in the form of a two song EP. It isn’t quite enough to solidify the return, but the eight minutes that make up Drought are definitely enough to make you excited to see where this is all going to go next. The first track, “Drought,” is definitely the stronger of the two and features a churning acoustic picking that starts as simple and beautiful and slowly starts to haunt. There is a beautiful sadness in this song that many bands just can’t pull off. Melancholy can lead to cliché. Not this time around. “Drought” is beautifully layered with a delicate piano line, swells of slow synth, and a quiet drum beat you often forget is even there. “It will come back,” sings David Henson “when you stop trying to lure it out.” Well, artistically, it seems as if the inspiration never left.
The other track here, titled “Sun Sings Something,” is also a foray into dark and contemplative composing. Low, rich synth tones play backdrop to fleeting and lovely guitar and Henson’s delicate falsetto that dominates. “Don’t be fast with your heart. Take it slow from the start.” This is the line that really shines through the fuzz and it seems the band really is deciding to take things slow. That approach didn’t seem to go awry at all.
Because this EP just kind of leaked out into the ether without a whole lot of fanfare or shouting from the rooftops, I caught up with lead singer David Henson to see if this latest release was a sign of more to come:
Smile Politely: For those like me that have only been in this community for the past few years, who is Shadows on a River and what are your roles?
David Henson: Shadows on a River is mostly Adam and I, or at least it has been for the last two recordings. I sing and Adam and I both write, play guitars and keyboards and anything you hear on the EPs. For our upcoming recordings/shows we’re hoping to bring back the older members as much as possible and to incorporate some new people as well. We’re still figuring out the logistics of that. Danny Hynds (guitars and keyboards) and Jordan Snow (drums) have another band called The Midwest Hackers that’s about to put out a new record that should be pretty incredible. The show at the Clark Bar will probably just be Adam and me.
SP: How did you meet? How did the band form?
DH: We met in college at Millikin University in Decatur, IL and formed a band called The Infinity Room that played a lot of shows around the midwest. After we graduated, we took some time off and half the band ended up moving to Chicago while Adam stayed in Champaign. Eventually most of the band got back together and we started playing all new songs under the new name that ended up being on the full length. I moved to China for half a year while the record was finished and pressed, then came back and played some shows, then moved to Wyoming for a couple years and somewhere in there did a little touring with Adam and recorded The Other Astronaut’s Wife EP.
SP: Shadows on a River, where did the band name come from?
DH: I was trying to have less anxiety with this version of the band, and to know that if things fell apart it was okay because everything was impermanent anyway, so I did my best to come up with a band name that reminded me of that. I think I was also feeling claustrophobic in Chicago and I wanted something that reminded me of nature.
SP: Your very enjoyable and self-titled 2009 full-length drew comparisons to Radiohead and Elliott Smith. How would you describe your sound in your own words?
DH: While we were making that record I thought that we were [writing] the most Pop record we could, and I think in my head I wanted it to be like if The Microphones made a Top 40 record, but a few months later I realized it probably wasn’t as Pop as I thought. That said, of course being compared to Radiohead and Elliott Smith is really kind and right on the nose as far as influences go, but I hope we aren’t stealing too much from them. It’s difficult to make records in a post Kid A world.
SP: What are your current influences?
DH: The best things I’ve heard recently are the James Blake full length, which really turns what a pop song is kind of inside out, and the final record by The Books called The Way Out. I like things that make breaking the rules seem natural. And Adam and I have both been listening to Summer Sun by Yo La Tengo. And the Drake Pandora station.
SP: What’s your musical guilty pleasure?
DH: Getting drunk and watching four hours of The Cool TV.
SP: How did your latest EP, Drought, come about?
DH: We’ve been experimenting with recording in my basement for a while, and those two songs clicked right from the beginning so they didn’t get thrown away. They seemed most suited to what the two of us could do together and represented what we currently sound like. I thought that if we were going to be playing shows as a duo then it would be nice to put something out in the world that would sound like that.
SP: What is on the horizon for Shadows on a River?
DH: Hopefully a lot of recording. I think my dream would be to have a big website where we post things we’ve made really quickly after they’re done. Songs, videos, etc. But that said, it would also be great to get another full length done this year. And to play some shows where everyone cries at the end and loses their cell phones.
Shadows on a River will be playing a show coming up on Tuesday, August 28 at the Clark Bar with Vivian McConnell and Isaac Arms. Keep your eyes and ears open for more on the event and be sure to mark your calendars.