A bit too much cool guy restraint.
Dan Vidmar, the singer-producer behind Portland-based project Shy Girls, is clearly a talented vocalist and songwriter, but, too often, his debut LP, Salt, feels like he’s honing his Weeknd impression – albeit without the drug-fueled fervor of the Toronto superstar’s hazy halcyon days. For Vidmar, who has toured with Haim and Imagine Dragons, love is never anything less than full-bodied drama requiring start-and-stop arrangements, shadowy synths and vocals so steamy and breathy that the engineer probably felt like he was intruding on an intimate moment between Vidmar and the microphone. But love is also never concrete enough to leave any truly lasting images in the listener’s mind.
On “Say You Will,” he apes a number of different Abel Tesfaye flows, with a staccato hook that bears a close resemblance to his current radio-friendly sounds and an almost-rapped cadence that recalls the singer’s mixtape days. That’s a risky proposition, particularly since Vidmar doesn’t have Weeknd-level charisma. The song aims for confessional and dangerous with its thumping percussion and dramatic lyrics (“Watching the light disappear/ All alone, on a stage screaming/ Caged up, screaming/ Echoes ain’t leaving”) but isn’t quite unhinged enough to convey that pain and frustration.
Another fair comparison point for Shy Girls would be Autre Ne Veut, another one-man show who employed leery synths and a requisite amount of ‘80s goo to sculpt dark pop/R&B landscapes. The difference between the two is that Autre Ne Veut’s Arthur Ashin is a leave-everything-in-the-booth vocalist, one who completely drains himself of every ounce of passion by the end of each track only to find some deeper, hidden heartbreak to draw on for the next record. Vidmar has a keen ear for melodies and a solid understanding of the kinds of instrumentals that work well with his voice, but he has a bit too much cool guy restraint for the listener to truly feel his emotions.
Still, Salt isn’t a record devoid of highs, and its best moments typically come from Vidmar’s more lurid instrumentation, proving perhaps that the area he needs to hone the most is his lyricism. “Why I Love” blends guttural synths and a distorted bass knock that are complemented well by a sugary guitar line on the hook. “What If I Can” has great icy tonalities and subdued textures that recall fellow bedroom crooner Astronomyy, as well as a synth horn outro that is blocky but effective in a departure from much of the rest of the album’s palate.
“Watercolor Dreams” also successfully deviates from much of the rest of Salt by leaning on a commanding, knotty guitar melody and filtered drums that pack tremendous crunch into every snare and cymbal splash, in addition to some subtle strings that accentuate Vidmar’s love-is-a-battlefield vocals. The record’s single, “Trivial Motion,” is endearing, with bombastic, low chords and vocal effects that create a kind of heartbroken choir behind Vidmar. A subtle synth melody provides additional rhythmic background with the sparse percussion. The song is tender and bittersweet, and, frankly, Salt would be better if it had more tracks that sounded like its single.
Salt isn’t a bad record. It’s well constructed and produced with a clear and graspable concept, but the character presented on the mic isn’t engaging enough to pull you into his world. The handful of moments with sonic diversity do make the listener aware of the fairly constraining parameters Vidmar works within as a producer. If you’re already buckling under the weight of sour or unrequited love, this Shy Girls record should do wonders for you, but others looking for downtempo, introspective and occasionally downtrodden electro-R&B would be better served circling the new Sampha or The xx projects.