There are a number of things I could write about Dresses that might give you a sense of their potent charm without even mentioning their music. First, the band consists entirely of a young girlfriend-boyfriend couple that, secondly, hails from Portland, Oregon—a destination for hipsters, bohemians, and DIY types the world over. Third, the band members sing romantic indie-pop songs that may or may not be written for each other, and fourth, the female member’s real first name is Timothy. Need I go on?
It might be perceived as a slight if I were to emphasize these seemingly extrinsic details in place of Dresses’ music itself. But I must confess that I fell out of the indie music scene in 2005, which was the same year I graduated from college. Why? Next confession: I felt too old. You can only imagine what I feel like in 2013, as a full-time professional fixed to a desk. When I first listened to Sun Shy, the strongest point of reference that came to mind was the band Stars, circa the time of their breakout album, Heart—albeit a quirkier version. If Stars’ take on this sort of pop is an oil painting, then Dresses’ Sun Shy is done in watercolor.
Stars wasn’t mentioned among the “sounds like…” list of bands in Sun Shy’s promo material—in fact, I was unfamiliar with any band on that list. Even worse, I had the sinking feeling that listening to those bands wouldn’t help me much in describing Dresses’ sound. That said, maybe Stars is an inapt comparison as well, despite my intending it as a compliment.
Yet what redeems my opening paragraph (and possibly this entire review) is that if anything I described in it resonated with you, you will feel it in Dresses’ music too. Maybe some of it has aspects that could be described as precious, rarefied, or even “pretentious.” But the music also has a good chunk of what could be described as timeless. And if it can speak to me from my place within a suburban office building, I dare say that it has the universality of good art.
The first of Sun Shy’s eight tracks—Back to Life—just about had that effect on me after my eight year absence from indie pop. Beginning with a plucky acoustic guitar, the listener is soon introduced to the unique lilting vocal style of Timothy Heller, and the wonderful “Shoo-la-la-la-bum-bum-bum” that serves as the chorus. Blew My Mind also features Timothy on vocals. It too begins with an acoustic guitar, but is later accompanied by a bass rhythm that opens up onto a warm synthesizer melody in the chorus.
The title track, Sun Shy, is a duet between Jared Ryan Maldonado and Timothy with a catchy dance beat, a nice electric guitar solo, and a happily shameless drum machine. The nuances of the expression Sun Shy make it an apt phrase to describe the feeling of the album—there is shyness throughout in the vocals and music, but they nevertheless give off warmth like a slurring of that same phrase, sunshine.
The riff in Friends are Dead sounds oddly enough like the one in Tracy Chapman’s Give Me One Reason. Painting Roses features Jared on lead vocals and is a slower romantic song. The lyrics have an all-too-human feeling—either of fear of getting in too deep with another person, or of shooting oneself in the foot (Maybe that isn’t necessarily an either/or dichotomy). The impassioned declaration, “My heart, it belongs to you,” is followed up by the dull fact that “you need a heart to move,” and finished off with the question, “Do you think I’m dumb?”
Real People has some great high-pitched enunciation by Timothy that make for a vocal performance strong in feeling. Gotta Love is a number with a playful guitar melody and vocals by Jared. Tell a Lie also features Jared. The EP closes on Timothy’s note with Sticks and Stones.
My personal awkward fear upon listening to this album is that I would feel jealous or resentful of Dresses’ lifestyle, their young love, and the style of its expression in music. The relief I experienced on my part is a mark of quality for all other listeners. Sun Shy succeeds in capturing the fragility, but also the vibrance, of a special moment in a special place. Like a sunny day in Portland.
Reviewed by John Koch