City Light is made up of four guys, but it’s headed up by Matthew Shaw, a Seattle-based singer/songwriter that makes use of fuzzy synths and electronic beats as the main instruments in his solo work. Shaw is fascinated with the pros and cons of modern life, and his music and lyrics display this motif very effectively. Technology and its positive and negative effects on daily life merits special attention, seeing as up until now, Shaw’s work has been mostly created with the very technology that he can’t make up his mind about. He knows this; it’s an irony that he gently acknowledges within his work.
The lyrics this time around do not stray far from his formula: two parts modern angst, one part women trouble, one part description. It is a solid formula, and it works within the surprisingly full-bodied sound.
That full-bodied sound in City Light’s Down the Pacific is a dramatic step forward from Shaw’s solo work. Although the general mood is similar, thanks to Shaw’s careening, dramatic vocals, the method of getting there is much different. Instead of electronic beats dominating the time-keeping, the drummer spends a fair amount of time producing down-tempo breakbeats, similar to stuff Portishead would turn out.
This is especially true on stand-out track “Hwy 99.” There are still twinkling keys and buzzing electronic bass notes, but the strong presence of insistent drums and chiming guitar creates a song that Shaw could not have produced on his own. “Hang On” similarly makes great use of multiple vocalists to produce a full sound.
The band shines most when it acts like a band: “Cityscape,” which is heavy on the music and light on the amount of vocals, is a perfect example. The moments that Down the Pacific falters a bit are the moments that are heavy on the electronics and light on band interplay; the songs that take this track seem to be merely Matthew Shaw vehicles, and that’s not what this album is for. These songs don’t have the depth of feeling and creativity that other songs that show the band fully portray.
If you’re into moody, haunting, electronic indie-rock, you would do well to check out City Light. Their debut effort is a little uneven as a result of still getting to know each other as a band, but the moments that shine do so very brightly.