The Shivas have always been more of a live band than an album band.
For the decade the Portland four-piece has been playing dive bars and house shows, their albums have mostly served as stencils to dye and garble live. "You Make Me Wanna Die," the doo-woppy single off their 2014 album, You Know What to Do, is still their closest thing to a hook-happy, radio-friendly hit.
But the Shivas' new album, Dark Thoughts, a strident Tender Loving Empire debut, represents a shift. It's 40 minutes and 13 songs' worth of catharsis and, more than any previous Shivas release, offers a snapshot of the band.
Underneath all its reverb and riffage, Dark Thoughts is a contemplative album. It took three recording phases—a total of 50 days in the studio—to get it right. As the title implies, it deals with dismal subjects like malaise and creative stagnation. But the Shivas turned their self-doubt into some of their most confident and clamorous psych-garage songwriting yet.
The album is crammed with cacophonous guitar riffs, fueled by the heat of early 2000s New York hedonism, but has the catchiness and intoxicating drive of a band at their most precise. The opening riff of "Start a Fire" achieves the song's title, while "Can't Relax" is a twisting barrage of guitar swells bound by an unwavering bassline. The lustful opener, "Gloria," yearns for creative potency more than anything carnal, with double-meaning lyrics like: "I've been waiting down here but you won't come my way/Gloria, can't see your face in the mirror/Gloria, just take a step, come nearer." That desire is fulfilled on the trippy "Feels Surreal," which sounds like a riotous, psychedelic purging.
Songs like "If You See Me" and "Can You Feel It Too?" provide dreamy, lustrous moments. While the former is filled with bruised, lonely lyrics, it's sung starry-eyed. And producer Cameron Spies gives each track on the album a polished sheen.
Despite songs like "Playing on the Radio," a sardonic squint at repetitive, unimaginative songwriting, Dark Thoughts rolls with the "medium is the message" ethos of the Shivas' live performance. The momentum speaks more than any lyrics, which, sometimes, are so obfuscated by all the reverb that the words are unintelligible. But even when you can't understand what vocalists Jared Molyneux or Kristin Leonard are singing, you can still feel it.
In Portland's saturated garage-rock scene, the Shivas have sometimes seemed more deeply rooted than exceptional. Dark Thoughts, though, is the strike of a new match. Backed by a new label and a refreshed studio credo, who knows where their momentum will take them next.
SEE IT: The Shivas play Doug Fir Lounge, 830 E Burnside St.,
dougfirlounge.com, with Cry Babe and Ex-Kids, on Sunday, Nov. 10.
9 pm. $10 advance, $12 day of show. 21+.