Fans of Shelf Life’s previous release, Everyone Make Happy, may be shocked be the seemingly distant sound of Scotty Leitch’s vocals on Spirit Bear, but the distance allows Leitch to project a hazy uncertainty onto the album. The post-dream pop sound that’s become a hallmark of the Philly music scene blends perfectly with the album’s theme of ambiguity. On the opening track, “Kissing the Moss,” Leitch notes that he only pretends to know what life’s about. Shelf Life’s lack of certainty in life isn’t a unique feeling, but his lyrics avoid trite cliches, and instead leave room for the listener to actively engage with the music. The mournful opening track is counterbalanced by the playfully energetic “Eating the Rotten Fruit,” which feels like The Flaming Lips circa Clouds Taste Metallic.
Even though ambiguity is a theme of Spirit Bear, everything on Shelf Life’s album seems like a calculated and deliberate choice, akin to the mise en scène of a film by Wes Anderson, and it isn’t hard to imagine a world where “Please Play Rough” was part of The Royal Tenenbaums soundtrack. Spirit Bear isn’t being specifically called a concept album, but the thematic motifs that spin around the record like a frisbee will certainly reward fans for listening multiple times.
“Ready Freddy?” is a standout track, and it isn’t hard to understand why Shelf Life made a music video for it. This song features some truly fantastic electric guitar tones that you wouldn’t necessarily expect to hear on a lo-fi record. Leitch shows a lot of the restraint by using distortion sparingly, not only on this track, but Spirit Bear as a whole. As the album concludes with “Khloe’s Baptism,” the listener can’t help but feel like it was another deliberate choice to end the album with a “goodbye” song. The metatextual nature of choices like that once again make me want to call Spirit Bear a concept album. Even if that isn’t the case, there really seems to be a film-like arc to Shelf Life’s album.
Overall, Shelf Life’s new record is absolutely worth your time, especially if you’re a fan of Waxahatchee or Brandon Can’t Dance, who is playing with Shelf Life and Blue Smiley this Sunday at Siren Records.