There are some people who are described as having “music in their blood,” being “born to play.” Nobody lives that aphorism better than San Diego by way of San Francisco by way of Denver’s Annie Shaw, the leader and mastermind of the psychedelic pop outfit Smiling. Shaw began playing piano at the age of three and guitar at the age of ten and started her first band (of many, more on that later) when she was only in second grade. It’s all been uphill from there, and while Devour is nowhere near her first release, it does a great job of showcasing a different side of her talents.
Smiling began life in 2015 under the moniker Annie Girl and the Flight, almost immediately gaining live traction by touring several cycles across the US and Canada and even doing a couple of stints opening for Against Me!. The songs that would end up on Devour actually began life on these long treks across the continent, and in 2016 the band went into the studio to begin a recording process that would ultimately result in the album that’s here today. Accompanying Shaw into the studio is her longtime cohort Josh Pollack, who has been playing with Shaw since before Smiling and has even started contributing writing to future endeavors between the two (although Shaw wrote all the music on Devour). “Josh Pollock and I have played for a long time together and have a natural way of harmonically moving around one another. Josh also happens to be a guitar wizard and has a pedalboard the size of a small country. He can make sounds with a guitar I’ve never heard anywhere else and he shreds,” says Shaw of her relationship with Pollack. The band started recording Devour at Dock Studios in Sacramento, which is now sadly defunct, but quickly hopped all over the map, tracking vocals and overdubs in San Francisco and adding violin and guest vocals courtesy of Sivan Lioncub in Oakland.
The band describes themselves as the perfect middle ground between Fugazi and My Bloody Valentine, and while that description does a little bit of justice and it’s certainly not my place to tell them they’re wrong, I think there’s something much more similar to the early 2000’s era pop of bands like Metric and Broken Social Scene. It’s actually uncanny how much this album sounds like it was made fifteen to twenty years ago in the best way possible. There is understandably a little bit more of a psychedelic influence, but these ten songs are still rooted in good old fashioned guitar pop, flush with nostalgia but with an undeniably modern edge. Cuts like opener “Strange Attractor” and the title track rampage their way through four-on-the-floor beats and cutting guitar lines, all kept from flying apart like a port-a-potty in a tornado by Shaw’s golden howls. It’s Shaw’s voice that is undeniably the star of the show, but there is definitely something to be said for Pollock’s guitar lines; they are an essential part of what makes these songs as infectious and memorable. The psych elements really come into play in the slower songs, like closer “Duvall Gardens” and “Forgetful Sam”, where Pollock’s myriad effects pedals all seem to toggle on and off underneath Shaw’s layered croons. I was expecting something a little heavier on the psychedelic elements, but I’m honestly glad that everything seems really balanced and nicely arranged. This is an album that is instantly accessible but with enough layers to warrant repeated listens.
If this sounds in any way at all up your alley, there’s good news: Smiling isn’t even close to being Annie Shaw’s only project. There’s Book of Eyes, an acoustic outfit that is currently writing a companion book to their music; there’s Premium Destiny, where she churns out both dream pop hits and film scores; and there’s Thirst, which creates more straightforward electronic pop. I told you, there was something in the water the day they made Annie Shaw. She literally can’t stop making music, and you should check it out now so you can say you knew about it when.