About to Hatch

With The Egg, its most mature release yet, Shiner cracks expectations wide open.

Making babies and playing rock-and-roll music don't really seem like compatible endeavors, even though the process of making babies is one of the genre's most well-celebrated themes. Raising a child requires a certain settling of one's more raucous instincts: How can you party till dawn in a nihilistic, depraved fever if you have to wake up at 7:30 to drive Mick Jr. to daycare? How can you create art from behind the wheel of an Astro Van?

"Tell you what: During all of Zeppelin's most debauched years, they all had babies at home," says Shiner singer/guitarist Allen Epley. "Not to say we're out doing 'Shark Stories,' all the Zeppelin hijinks. I think there's a huge perception in the world and among musicians that everything has to stop [once you've had a child]. I don't buy into that, necessarily."

Babies have been on Epley's mind a lot lately, and not just because he and his wife want to someday have one of their own. Childbirth has touched his Kansas City-based band more than once in recent years: Drummer Tim Dow parted amicably with Shiner in 1998 to be with his wife and newborn in Los Angeles; current bass player Paul Malinowski and his wife just had a child, too. Perhaps Shiner's newest release, The Egg, should have been titled The Egg and the Sperm instead.

Kansas City's Shiner breaks out of its shell on a nearly episodic new record.
Kansas City's Shiner breaks out of its shell on a nearly episodic new record.
Kansas City's Shiner breaks out of its shell on a nearly episodic new record.
Kansas City's Shiner breaks out of its shell on a nearly episodic new record.

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"I just think you have to be smarter about it," Epley says, dismissing notions of the muse of rock and roll floating away with the arrival of dirty diapers. "I think it takes a lot more work, and commitment from your partner, but all our wives completely believe in what we're doing, and that helps. If they were like, 'You guys are pretty good, but not that good,' it would be different."

There's little doubt that Shiner is that good. A followup to 2000's Starless, The Egg displays the band in all its four-piece glory (drummer Jason Gerkin and guitarist Josh Newton play alongside Epley and Malinowski) and in its most mature state since forming in 1993. Shiner falls somewhere outside of emo and indie, barely skirting the southern fringe of art rock. The music is at times shimmering and otherworldly, at times pounding and inexorable -- a combination that has drawn comparisons to Radiohead as often as ones to Jawbox or Chavez. A warmth and humanity in Shiner's music prevents its soaring, ethereal songs from developing ice on their wings: Despite the bleakness, there's always a human heart beating underneath.

The Egg marks Shiner's return to DeSoto Records, the label for which the band has recorded a string of seven-inches and EPs in the past. Circular, roving and thematic, the disc comes this close to being a good old-fashioned concept album. Thankfully, the band avoids the ham-handed, Tolkein-influenced images of '70s prog rock.

"We've all grown up with Rush, Yes and all this ELP nonsense," Epley says, laughing, "and we like a lot of it. But we also know so much of it's just wizards and fairies." He bursts into a flailing attempt at Rush's "The Trees," then says, "You don't know what the hell's going on there. We try to incorporate the coolest parts of that stuff into what we do. There definitely was a push to create something larger, to go beyond rock."

That push is evident in the album's masterful title song, an insistent rush of pinging guitar lines matched against twin vocal tracks -- one Epley's normal scratchy tenor, one a muffled, bassy track that sounds like it was recorded by someone singing through a pillow. An episodic bend also weaves through "The Simple Truth," an eight-minute saga so riddled with movements and subtle changes it's practically a symphony on its own.

But the elliptical nature of the record as a whole is best illustrated on "The Truth About Cows," the opening track. One of Egg's few lighter numbers, it features an exultant shoulder shrug of a melody despite power-rock rhythm and bleak lyrics: "The sheep are Styrofoam/They'll go where they are told/They'll eat what they are sold/I wanna wake up." Eight songs later, "Spook the Herd" chases the same melody, though more slowly and with tweaked lyrics. In between, The Egg flows along like a withdrawal dream -- sounding alternately sharp, piercing and wispy-soft. But there's also a naturalness and ease there.

"I had a bunch of different melodies floating around, and some of them overlapped with other parts of songs," Epley says. "At first I was like, 'Why am I writing the same song again?' But I found they worked together. I decided to use that basic theme lyrically and musically and alter them. I was like, 'Fuck! We can have a reprise!'"

That kind of childlike excitement and enthusiasm percolates throughout a conversation with Epley, a fact that runs counter to the desolate lyrics he pens. But even those -- packed full of startling imagery about death, suicide, murder, loneliness, hopelessness and depression -- convey a sense of life. It's as though Epley can never allow himself to truly give up, no matter how dire Epley's outlook may have been when he wrote a given song.

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