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(Older reviews archived alphabetically by artist name.)

  The Cost of Living  
  Sharks & Minnows  
  Two Sheds  
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Atlanta band Sharks and Minnows have long been one of my favorite live acts. Their shows are full of energy and clever songs, all performed by a group of excellent musicians who always have fun when they perform. However, after the release of Light as Feather, Stiff as a Board in 2001, the band more or less disappeared from the music scene, only playing the occasional show while they worked on the follow-up.

Now, over two years later, Sharks and Minnows have finally released a new album, called The Cost of Living, on Atlanta label Two Sheds Music. When I first put the record on, I was immediately pleased by the results. Whereas their previous recordings had suffered from mediocre mixing and recording techniques, this new album is easily one of the best pure recordings I've heard in a long long time. For instance, you can clearly hear the individual drums and cymbals of Daniel Hiesel. Similarly, the ever-important bass riffs of Chadwick Spangler throb and echo in a way that seems to propel the entire album forward.

Furthermore, the vocals of lead singer/guitarist Christopher Simony really shines throughout. In concert, Simony tends to bark and yell his way through most of the performance. In contrast, the recording of The Cost of Living showcases the fact that he has an excellent singing voice. Also, during the recording of the album, the band added a fourth member, Simony's brother Devin. Although Devin Simony is not limited to one instrument, his contributions flesh out the album, giving a fullness to the sound, which enhances the recording. In sum, recording engineer/producer Eric Friar (of Athens band Heros Severum) deserves high praise for managing to record and mix The Cost of Living so as to highlight all the skills and talent of Sharks and Minnows as a whole.

With such an excellent sound to the recording, it's easy to focus on the actual songs. Luckily, they justify the scrutiny. Of the 16 songs contained on The Cost of Living, all range from good to outstanding. Most surprising, however, is how the band's tone changes throughout the album. As I stated above, in concert, Sharks and Minnows are known for their loud and energetic rock stance. And songs like Sunday Driver, The Slip, and Saturday Night are live staples that translate the band's energy to the album.

However, the slower songs like Consummation, Past Life Regression, and Baby Boom are something of a revelation. In fact, as I sat and listened to Past Life Regression, I was struck by its resemblance to the mellower songs found on Superchunk's last studio album, Here's to Shutting Up. For instance, the simple, child-like keyboard melody recalls Superchunk's Drool Collection. Similarly, Heisel's comparatively simple drums could have been lifted from any number of Jon Wurster's patterns. More importantly, the lyrics of this song as well as Christopher Simony's voice have the same thoughtfully compelling quality as any number of Mac McCaughan's more recent, "mature" songs. Likewise, Baby Boom is just as well structured as any of the more rocking numbers on The Cost of Living. With acoustic guitars and a piano line which mirrors the vocal melody, this song brings backs memories of Joe Jackson in his early years. The comparison is particularly brought home by Simony's voice, which has an almost crooning quality and manages to make the chorus emotionally evocative. The combination of music and voice is a stunner, and shows how age and experience have really allowed Sharks and Minnows to grow as a band.

Still the true highlights of The Cost of Living are their more rocking numbers, most particularly Cleopatra Song and Final Offer. Long a live favorite of Postlibyan as well as myself, Cleopatra Song begins with a stunningly simple bass line that forms the entire backbone of the song. After the guitars make their appearance to the nearly marital drum beat, Christopher Simony begins to sing and manages to include one of my favorite musical lines: "Come back to me, but don't apologize." Immediately afterwards, the band breaks into the louder chorus. This alternation between relatively restrained verse and hard rocking chorus reflects back to Sharks and Minnows' beginnings as a post-punk band. Yet, in this recording, they've managed to make the old sound fresh and new.

In contrast, Final Offer begins on a more traditional rock note, and is completely driven by the drums. The vocals throughout are a nicely unexpected touch with the high front vocals doubled by a lower, more guttural sound. Similarly, although this song seems relatively straight-forward, the slightly syncopated chorus with its prominent keyboards may be the best "scream along with the band" moment of 2004. And when the song ends suddenly at the 3:20 mark, I'm left wanting more.which is exactly how a well-constructed song should leave you feeling.

In the end, as you can perhaps tell, I was a bit overwhelmed by The Cost of Living as a whole. Although I hoped that the time and care Sharks and Minnows took in producing the album would be well worth while, I honestly didn't expect the album to be this outstanding. With its excellent recording and extremely catchy songs, the album is quite frankly the best thing I've heard thus far in 2004 by any band, much less a local one. More importantly, it's the type of album that reaches out to a broad audience, who will hopefully also come to love and appreciate The Cost of Living.

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