Shamir Bailey’s accidental leap from his punk rock youth and country music upbringing to the disco/house scene could have always been – in the mentality of his tarot card reading mother – his cosmological destiny. As 1970s fashion, music formats and genres re-emerge, it could be said that the discotheques from that distinctive era were the first establishments to accept individuals with attributes outside of the social norm. Shamir’s idiosyncratic androgynous voice (which he refers to as an agender counter-contralto) and mixed-gender dress sense was likely to find a comfortable home in that nonjudgmental scene.
Although if his drum-machine debut EP Northtown taught us anything, it was never to second guess the 20-year-old Nevadan, just when we think we know him and his music preferences. Among the hyped electro-disco of “If It Wasn’t True” and warped 1990s house of “Sometimes A Man”, he sang a gospel-influenced downtempo ballad with seemingly heartbreaking introspective lyrics; “I’ll Never Be Able To Love” and an intimate and stunningly accurate lo-fi cover of a country song by Linda Ortega; “Lived and Died Alone”.
Playing the guitar upside down, declaring his happiness for single-hood and accepting the speculation that encircled the start of his career by conceptualizing it intentionally in his lyrics, shows a musician with a boldness and charm, that embraces rather than hides what makes him unique. This is the clear linear in his work, especially when his genre sways off into other territories. His debut full length album Ratchet extends this principle further with even more confidence and shows multiple sides to his outgoing personality.
For instance in the hip-electro-house of “On The Regular“. He directly confronts the gossiping whispers with a sarcastic humour; “So you know, yes yes I’m a guy“, before going on to state that this identity isn’t merely an experimental phase but “this is me on the regular so you know“. On Twitter, Shamir has described himself as a “comedian” and this cheek is shown by the lyric: “I’m the best f**k, you heard“, adding another side to his unraveling dimension.
Thought-provoking “Vegas” is a social commentary on his home instead, attempting to describe Las Vegas from the contrasting perspective of a resident and tourist. Stated in confessional interviews and hinted in the song “Sometimes A Man” from his EP, if you’re under 21 there’s nothing to do but draw circles in the sand. “Vegas” derogatorily labels it the “city of sin” and questions the illusion that the money-making attraction is a problem solver for passerby: “Fantasy greets with reality / Let’s believe the city has what you need. There’s no place you’d rather be“. The eerie air that swirls in the background makes us imagine the emptiness of the majority of it’s landscape.
Shamir’s R&B vocals are complimented with spacey synth flanging and shaking percussion, sounding like a extract from the new alternative chapter of Kelis’s career and is one of many occasions where saxophones are added to the showcase. A saxophone begins “In For The Kill” before strange duplication makes it sound like seagulls fighting over bread. Shamir’s imperfect and slightly off-key vocals struggle to catch up to it’s pace at times but it has such a memorable and oddball blend of fluttering disco with disorientated free jazz, psychedelia and spitty funk bass, that it’s peculiarly endearing.
Beginning like “Starlight” by The Supermen Lovers, “Call It Off” is one of many occasions where he uses both deep and extra high vocoders to contrast with his naturally feminine voice. It has the quirky persona of Hot Chip, from its strange Ed-Sheeran “Sing”-esque music video to its unpredictable alternative dance arrangement of squeaky wildness and brings in his commonly-used cowbell (which is also featured in the Purity Ring-esque “Demons” and the click-clack ambient-acid-house “Youth“) to make it reminiscent of LoneLady’s “Groove It Out”.
Furthermore, “Make a Scene” continues his original hedonistic take on electronic music, with momentary electric guitar riff and bizarre yelling, whilst he talk sings about the mediocrity of adulthood and the need for originality. The line “so why not go out and make a scene“, is a perfect Ting Tings-esque motivation tool for party-shy students on a Friday night. It seems like Shamir has reached another level in his understanding of club culture, no longer peaking through it’s doors but on it’s centre stage.
The second-guessing trap door opens wide again as the atmopsheric “Darker” soothes in to our consciousness and away the disco lights. With a music video in the spacious Nevada desert, Shamir belts out a Sam Smith-like ballad with a message about optimism and our footprint on the world. The production haunts and makes it sounds like it’s situated in a echoey tunnel accompanied by a subdued electric organ. Whilst “Head In The Clouds” dangerously sways away from his previous principles.
Yes, he’s enjoying the moment, but it removes his modesty and disregards the past in favour of devouring his fantasies. Furthermore, the revelations in “Hot Mess” (“Cause life has no answers, it’s one big guess“) and “Make A Scene” (“I guess I just don’t belong“) show a vulnerability and uncertainty that are understandable for someone so young. Still, his recent dating advice line on YouTube entitled Call It Off Relationship Hotline, shows that he likes to pretend to be a guru now and again.
In a recent interview with Pitchfork Media, he has hinted that he would like to incorporate his punk roots somewhere in his music. Thus also establishing himself as an eclectic act on the lines of his self-confessed favourites Beck and Tegan and Sara. This is great news for fans because it ensures there’s plenty more exciting surprises on the horizon. Shamir’s Ratchet is out now on XL Recordings, purchase it here.
Words by Matt Hobbs