Having made slow but steady progress towards gaining wider recognition, the Portland Oregon-based band known as Shoebox Letters has arrived at a place where appreciation is definitely due.
The band — guitarist, keyboard player, vocalist, songwriter, and erstwhile front man Dennis Winslow, singer Stephanie Cox, guitarist, steel guitar player, keyboardist, and backing vocalist Greg Paul, and bassist Dave Stricker, augmented here by drummer and utility player Brian David Willis — have always proven themselves to be an able ensemble, and given the right break, they clearly have what it takes to find a prominent place within the Americana elite.
Every album thus far has proven that point, and indeed, their latest, Car Crash Life, is no exception. Happily, the band makes no concession to any sort of commercial consideration. Rather, the songs find them adhering to their rustic roots, whether it’s through the hard bitten ballad, “Under the Same Roof,” rousing, robust roots rockers like “Under the Same Roof,” the straight-ahead stride taken with “If I Can’t Have You,” or the folksy, candid and confessional approach of “Drinking Till I Can’t Walk Straight.” These are songs designed to muster down home appeal, the kind of sound that would work equally well in a neighborhood bar, some rowdy roadhouse environs or under the auspices of a featured showcase. In that sense, Shoebox Letters are the kind of band capable of garnering true populist appeal, sans any posturing or pretense.
In that regard, “Another Kiss,” “Something I Don’t Know” and “Takeoff” come across with an unblemished attitude that’s rife with honest emotion, a clear reflection of the Everyman approach that’s tempered Shoebox Letters’ every effort. Those are, in fact, the band’s best assets, a sound that’s nurtured with both flourish and finesse. In the title track, they sing of a “Car Crash Life,” but one gets the impression their efforts are no accident. Shoebox Letters are nothing if not deliberate and decisive.
Shoebox Letters - I'm Into Now by Dan MacIntosh
Shoebox Letters may still be a new name to some, but this quartet’s members have notable resumes. Vocalist and songwriter, Dennis Winslow, is a former Nashville songsmith who has placed some of his songs in Hollywood movies. Bassist David Stricker co-founded Kung-Fu Bakery Recording Studio, where acts like The Decemberists and Pink Martini have recorded. Guitarist Greg Paul has lent his skills to the bands of both Amy Farris and Deborah Iyall. Lastly, vocalist, Stephanie adds a feminine element to the act. Based in Vancouver, Shoebox Letters nicely muddles the line between folk and country music with I’m Into Now.
During its best moments, Shoebox Letters draws comparisons to Lady Antebellum, another act that smartly mixes male and female vocals. During the brooding “Last Night’s Lie,” Cox plays Hillary Scott role, to Winslow’s Charles Kelley. The album’s best song is “I Drink For Two,” which finds its character having a lonely drink of rum while mourning the death of a romance. No amount of alcohol, though, will ever help this woebegone lover understand why a seemingly good relationship died too soon. The album’s title track, however, is far more positive. “I’m Into Now” is a song that bravely forges ahead, while leaving all painful baggage behind, in order to make a new romance work.
I’m Into Now is a simple album, in the best possible use of that term. It’s filled with good singing and sparse instrumentation. The musical focus is squarely on servicing the song, instead of any instrumentation being the means to an end. It’s an album filled with smart, soulful and honest songs. Lyrically, Shoebox Letters isn’t telling us anything we don’t already know about the trials and tribulations of love. It is, though, putting these familiar truths into gentle, melodic settings. Let’s hope quality music like I’m Into Now never goes out of style, or worse yet, goes away for good. It’s the kind of ‘now’ we want to remain now for a long, long time. Dan MacIntosh, The Daily Ripple
Shoebox Letters - I'm Into by Bobby Moore
It’s become increasingly obvious in recent years that Americana isn’t just a term for country music beyond what gets played on commercial radio stations. Such guitar-slingers as Aubrie Sellers, Aaron Lee Tasjan and Lilly Hiatt get stamped with the same label because the mainstream overlooks rock music that’s neither over-the-top aggressive nor overly pop.
Lesser-known acts proving that Americana’s the new home for rock storytellers include Shoebox Letters. The Portland and Vancouver-based band’s new album I’m Into Now fits in with the before-mentioned artists’ struggle to bring substance to rock ‘n’ roll through stories that should appeal to fans of twangy singer-songwriters.
Songs like “Please You,” “Running,” “Turn to Stone” and the title track favor rich stories over rock subgenres, comparable to the timeless approaches of Neil Young and Tom Petty. As the band name implies, these songs feel like they began as deeply personal memories before becoming something relatable to more than the letters’ writers or intended recipients.
So, if you’re delving into the current Americana scene to discover acts that should also be labeled as rock ‘n’ roll, you’re in for a treat once you discover Shoebox Letters.