The enigmatic album from the reclusive Canadian band is as bold as it is mysterious.
The Golden Hits of The Shangs sounds gorgeously anachronistic. It’s the X that marks the spot where lounge music, movie soundtracks, girl groups, Syd Barrett, and The Velvet Underground overlap, and an album that is as current now as it will ever be since there’s no time when it would have made more sense. It’s an album that feels like mirage because it’s hard to be sure if The Shangs ever existed as a conventional band. The Shangs' history tells the story of Dave Byers and Ed O'Neill coming together to make music, but band photos include Ed's brother Pat as well. The credits on Golden Hits list Byers "with" Ed O'Neill and Pat O'Neill, which suggests that this time around, they didn't participate equally.
The Canadian band released two albums and a single for their own indie label between 1991 and 1995, then disappeared until now, and some tracks are remakes of old songs. Some have been around since 2008 when The Shangs’ website promised a third album, and some are actually of newer vintage. Since none were hits, the album title raises its own questions, as does the album's roll-out. None of The Shangs' albums--A Little Bit of Semi-Heaven, Longet, and The Golden Hits of The Shangs--are on Spotify or Apple Music, and Golden Hits is only available online at Bandcamp. Are The Shangs active, or did they simply put more music in the world?
That air of mystery is in the songs as well as human reality around them. It defines the atmosphere of The Shangs’ tracks like incense, so the ephemeral feel of the band seems right. It’s hard to hear them and imagine The Shangs ever functioning like a conventional touring band, and if they played live, it’s equally hard to believe that the songs would come with the same heady atmosphere. Unassuming, quiet acoustic guitar-based songs teeter between trippy and claustrophobic as they’re draped in the musical equivalent of the smoke from a richly scented candle. Flutes, ethereal percussion and ambient loops are as central to the compositions as 12-string guitars, and they lend a hallucinatory quality to songs that take their languid time. Occasionally, a sharp electric guitar cuts a quick, light rhythmic pattern, or Velvet Underground-like scrubbed electric guitars contributes some grounding texture, and we hear them in songs that borrow from girl groups and beach pop.
All of this sonic richness serve as ornate framing for overtly queer lyrics. Byers sings, “She-boy, dressed in your mother’s dreams” in “Adore,” and The Shangs gender-switched Little Eva’s “Just a Little Girl” to “Just a Little Boy,” in which he sings, “I’m just a little boy / but I feel a grown man’s love.” They similarly switch Ronny and the Daytona’s ode to a summer love, “Sandy,” so that Byers sings to a boy “with sunlight in your hair.” Those substitutions are quietly audacious as they reimagine rock ’n’ roll history and put gay relationships at the heart of the songs and genres that helped imprint heteronormative roles on a generation. You can also hear those gestures as profoundly affectionate, as Byers and O’Neill love rock ’n’ roll so much that rewrote its history to include them.
Golden Hits also includes a tribute to the bisexual torch singer Libby Holman and shout-outs to glamorous actresses Carol Wayne, Claudine Longet, Arlene Tiger, and Peggy Entwistle. Their lives, like the loves in the songs, are taken very seriously, and the subjects of those songs reveal how fundamentally indie The Shangs are. Only Wayne and Longet had mainstream popularity, and their careers existed in very specific spheres. Those songs celebrate lives led on the margins of our pop culture, and the stars’ beauty only emphasizes how tragic and/or star-crossed their lives were (or are—Longet is still alive). If there is anything tongue-in-cheek about these songs, the improbable album title, or the songs themselves, Byers’ performances don’t give anything away. Everything he sings about sounds significant to him.
That is what makes Golden Hits so magnetic. Everything on it is meaningful to Byers and O’Neill, and the project seems tied together by a network of references. One song is a tribute to a band that inspired them—the all-girl The Feminine Complex—while the album cover is their remake of the cover art for the 1967 release, The Golden Hits of the Paris Sisters—another effort to write themselves into rock ’n’ roll history. The album looks backwards so reflexively that it’s no surprise that The Golden Hits of The Shangs is ill-suited to the streaming age. The music works just fine, but the liner notes signal to listeners which tracks are remakes of 50 year-old songs and which ones shout out stars that are now the answers to trivia questions. Without those notes, some of the boldest gestures are lost.
Still, the songs can stand alone, and their sound folds together the things that matter to The Shangs, whoever they are. Some show up as influences, and some they try on and attempt to walk in their shoes. That personal quality is palpable throughout The Golden Hits of The Shangs, and that makes all commercial prospects and existential concerns irrelevant.