Hard hitting, big hearted, dynamic Southern-esque rock of the kind that never dates.
One thing that strikes you instantly about Ryan Law and the Shelter’s second, eponymous, album is that they certainly know how to write an introduction. From the moment the first chords of ‘Suit for the Man’ thunder through your headphones (and with that kind of crunchy, hardhitting Southern rock sound, the volume has to be loud), in fact, you can feel a pleasing, well-channeled raw energy and power driving this album. Its most notable failing is maybe that lyrically it’s very uneven and some of the content fails to live up to its consistently strong, fluid musical arrangements. But thankfully, sound-wise in what is very much a rock album, there’s always enough in terms of sheer dynamic traction in its nine tracks and a very firm-handed production, too, to keep RLATS from derailing because of occasionally under-cooked lyrics And at times, such as with the magnificent ‘Help Me See’, the second last number, that energy and evident pleasure the band take in playing joins forces to lift the album into a whole different league.
Around now for the best part of three years, RLATS have a curious backstory in terms of band membership, with four players in the USA (and in three different places, just to further complicate matters) another in England and yet another, singer Ryan Law, in Qatar. So if the rock-solid arrangements of some of the ballads and rebel-rousing stadium anthems are already a sign of their cohesion as a band, the geographical challenges presented by somehow putting an album together with a three-continent foundation make that musical tightness even more remarkable.
RLATS never ceases to entertain, either, as it’s cleverly structured to keep your interest high. A searing, fast-moving starter shows that if one their early key influence back in 2020 was REM, now at least one track has got distinct similarities to early The Wallflowers tune. And that’s followed by another humdinger of a rocker in the shape of ‘Raider’s Town’. This injection of adrenalin gets our interest high going before a phase of slower, more thoughtful sounding music kicks in. Highlights of phase two in terms of pure music (we’ll get onto the contents later) include ‘Our Credit’ , a kind of country backwoodsy waltz and ‘I Don’t Know Man’ which feels like a slow-mo homage to 1980s Bryan Adams, all crunchy power chords and drawnout reverb.
Law’s singing is as flawless as the arrangements, clear and unmelodramatic and very well paced no matter the switches in mood and rhythm in the backngi music. The only problem is when the lyrics of certain songs like ‘Our Credit’ or ‘Raider’s Town’ or ‘The Oldest One’ tend to ramble around a subject with a fair amount of unnecessary baggage. In ‘Raider’s Town’, for example Law says something is “a Chaucer-like movement” without giving any sign of what exactly a Chaucer movement is. Or ‘Our Credit’, which seemingly aims to be a searing assessment of the moral decay in the United States, never really gets round to more than a bit of banal hand-wringing about how “our credit is too far damned” without explaining why or giving examples. This general dearth of references to particular social situations and still more notable lack of humour or wry irony throughout isn’t a gamechanger in any album. But traditionally they are two of Americana’s longest suits and might have lightened things up as a nice contrast to other points where the RLATS seem to take themselves overly seriously.
Fortunately, the music is consistently good enough always to carry the songs forward, on top of which there’s enough other tracks where the lyrics are well-measured and wrapped around a single coherent idea to eclipse the weaker ones. The best examples are maybe ‘More than Then’, an excellently paced reflection on how many variants a relationship can have, and the equally memorable ‘Better Days’, a gently tripping ballad that wouldn’t be out of place on a Josh Ritter album and on an album as rock-tensive as this, an interesting side project. Even better, the album then moves up a notch or three with ‘Help Me See’ an atmospheric curtain closer of an anthem, all single power notes blasting through in classic guitar-crunching style and which even had this reviewer waving his arms aloft from side to side in appreciation. Arguably ‘Help Me See’ is worth the entrance price alone and bodes very well for seeing RLATS live, as is set to happen soon in the US and Europe. Then it’s time for what feels very much like an encore in the thudding, juddering ‘Long Way Down’, and moments later Ryan Law and the Shelter have already left the stadium. Hopefully not for long, though.