Kennedy Shaw – Boys (Single Review)

Kennedy Shaw’s debut album, Girl Almighty, made it clear that Shaw wants to make music for strong, complex, and unashamedly emotional young women. She follows in the footsteps of other artists with similar target audiences; her vocal style and piano playing are strongly reminiscent of singer-songwriters like Tori Amos or Sarah Bareilles, with an occasional hint of Ani Difranco. Girl Almighty saw Shaw unpacking the aftermath of what seemed like some messy romantic relationships. Her lyrics and vocal delivery were packed with an in-your-face intensity that rode atop piano arrangements that seemed melodramatically tragic. However, Shaw’s most recent single, “Boys”, sees her pull on the reigns and take a bit more of a refined approach to writing about heartbreak. 

“Boys” begins with sparse, spaced-out piano chords; with a much softer attack than anything we heard on Girl Almighty. Beneath them treads a steady, monotone drum beat, creating constant motion beneath the track. From the jump, this track is clearly a more minimalistic version of the Kennedy Shaw we knew previously. Her vocals are relatively subdued; she stays restrained and monotone throughout the song, while making melancholy statements, such as, “I need more than being satisfied / you’re lacking” and “love ain’t lasting / system crashing in my memory.” The chorus acts as the thesis statement of “Boys”, as Shaw sings the relentlessly repetitive refrain, “boys, boys, boys, boys, boys / boys can’t handle me.” Mournful, reverb-drenched backing vocals surround her relatively minimalistic singing, providing much-needed life to the track. A dark, squelching synth also comes in towards the end of the tune, adding slightly more dimension. 

Shaw’s previous work relied heavily on just piano and vocals, with some appearances by a full band; “Boysseems to be her first foray into incorporating alternative software instruments. Trading in typical indie rock instrumentation for a more highly processed and poppy sound works well for Shaw in some ways, but blunders in others. Bob Bowling Audio did a masterful job engineering the track, making it her most polished and professional sounding release so far. This production style combined with newfound control of her voice gives the track an air of maturity, while on the other hand, the song’s artificial elements sound flat and dispassionate; passion usually being one of Shaw’s greatest strong suits. 

In many aspects, the minimalism of “Boys” acts as both a sign of maturity and a sonic obstacle. Shaw’s vocal performance demonstrates clear growth since her previous release; she’s gained much more control of her raucous voice and learned to expose a softer side of it. Then again, she may have reigned herself in too much in some respects. The lyrics, which are also much more poppy than any of Shaw’s previous work, can seem recycled at times. While her previous lyrical work was more raw and passionate, “Boys” contains many Tumblr-esque lines that lack much emotional impact, such as “it’s 1 a.m., who do you adore? / I’m smoking on the balcony.” Artists with a strong feminist influence have long been co-opting the “crazy ex-girlfriend” label with songs such as No Doubt’s “Ex Girlfriend,” or Marina and the Diamonds’ “How to Be a Heartbreaker.” This seems to be what Shaw is trying to do with “Boys”, however; the song is lacking a fresh take on that perspective. 

Overall, “Boys” has some successes and some stumbles, but that is understandable; as Kennedy Shaw is branching into new stylistic territory. The production, arrangement, and performance all help Shaw sound noticeably more mature than she ever has before. That said, as she ventures into the Pop genre, Shaw loses a bit of the depth and vulnerability usually found in her music. If she can bring some of her old poeticism and grit back into her newly developed sound, however; Shaw will be much more likely to produce something evocative and successful. 

Pros:

  • Shaw’s most polished sounding release yet 
  • Improved vocal performance 

Cons:

  • Track feels flat and devoid of Shaw’s characteristic energy 
  • Lyrics lack depth and take a tired stance their subject matter

Listen here! Let us know what you think of the single in the comments below.

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