Straight outta Zion, Illinois, Shoes created some of the most ebullient and memorable power-pop that ever put starch in your skinny tie. Their first proper LP, 1977’s Black Vinyl Shoes, established the quartet’s classic approach: a wonderstruck, adrenalized sound in which melodies whoosh and soar with the freewheeling euphoria of teenage love. They’re such romantics (and better than contemporaries the Romantics, I hasten to add). While Shoes’ songs are too clean to overtly signify lust, there’s undoubtedly a strong libido propelling the group’s output. They just want eternal devotion, but their longings always keep getting thwarted. That sucks for the songs’ protagonists, but it makes for unbelievably memorable tunes.
While many fans peg Black Vinyl as Shoes’ peak, and I do think it’s a stunner, I believe Tongue Twister might edge it out as the band’s zenith. The front line of Jeff Murphy, John Murphy (the brother with the amazing cheekbones), and Gary Klebe form a fantastic songwriting team, but they also thrive individually, with Klebe especially distinguishing himself with album highlights “Burned Out Love,” “She Satisfies,” and “Yes Or No.” In a true display of democracy, they all sing lead and backing vocals, play acoustic and electric guitars, and percussion. (Drummer Skip Meyer doesn’t write, but he’s a damned solid timekeeper.)
On Tongue Twister, Shoes convince you over and over that there’s a lot at stake with matters of the heart while working within well-worn parameters. The lyrics won’t win awards for originality, but they’re delivered with utmost sincerity and a winning earnestness. Make no mistake: guys’ frustrations with women in song is such an overplayed conceit—it was even so in 1981—that these tropes can make you roll your eyes right out of your head. But Shoes’ trio of composers and singers imbue this tradition with an almost naïve, unstinting belief in its potency.
“Your Imagination” is one of the greatest opening songs ever, springing out the gate with amphetamine-gazelle speed and an undulating synthesized-guitar motif that epitomizes an emotional roller coaster. “Burned Out Love” is a glam/power-pop blaster that thrusts with “Ballroom Blitz”-era Sweet- and Electric Warrior-era T. Rex-like lewdness. In a similar glammy vein, “She Satisfies” might be Shoes’ toughest rocker, somewhere between Sweet and Slade, but with passages of psych-y delicacy.
If you like meringue-light love songs, you’ll swoon to “Karen,” “Found A Girl,” and “Only In My Sleep.” “Girls Of Today” percolates with the suavity of prime-time Cars, and it should’ve been as popular as anything off that Boston band’s first album; it’s just what I needed. And according to a scientific study I conducted with myself, I’ve determined that “Yes Or No” possesses perhaps the most ecstatic and catchiest chorus ever. I’ve gone whole days with it looping in my brain, with no complaints.
The refrain from the winsome “When It Hits” goes, “It’s gonna hit hard (when it hits),” and it could be Tongue Twister‘s manifesto. This is a power-pop paragon. -Buckley Mayfield