Sally Shapiro: The New Belle & Sebastian


Tom Ewing once wrote that Stuart Murdoch was house music’s greatest loss of his generation. Now house music has its own Stuart Murdoch.

You wouldn’t think that disco singer would be the ideal career choice for Swedish disco singer Sally Shapiro, whose real name isn’t Sally Shapiro. We don’t know a whole lot about Sally Shapiro right now, and that’s either because she’s unbearably shy or because she doesn’t want us to know much about her. Here’s what the bio on her website has to say:

“Sally (whose real name is a secret) is so shy that she refuses to record a music video, perform her songs live, let herself be photographed by someone she doesn’t know, or even let her producer be in the same room when she’s recorded.”

All that might very well be absolute bullshit, or it might not. We have no idea. Maybe her real name is Sally Shapiro after all.

If her carefully invisible image is just a canny little PR stunt, it’s a brilliant one. Because Sally Shapiro sounds shy. A few months ago, her single “I’ll Be By Your Side” trickled over the internet and started getting blog love, and I fell all over it right away. It’s a stunning piece of naive synthpop froth, its vintage synths lightly sliding up alongside each other and floating over the drums’ steady pulse while Shapiro’s voice, a barely-there sigh, hides in the corner. The lyrics are all about reassurance: “Cuz you know that when you feel so lonely in your heart / I’ll be by your side tonight / When the world is falling all apart / I’ll be by your side.” But she sounds inconsolably sad, like the burden of keeping someone else afloat is just killing her and she’s only barely managing to soldier through it. Late in the song, a soft-focus chorus of vocodered ghosts pipes up in the background, and the ghosts sound like they’re giving Shapiro the push she needs just to get to the end of the song. Maybe Shapiro really is as shy as her press bio says she is, or maybe she’s preying on popular notions of the idealized fragile woman, the delicate flower who could fall apart at any second. It doesn’t particularly matter. If she’s playing a character, she’s doing it perfectly.

After “I’ll Be By Your Side,” a few more songs gradually made their way onto my hard drive, and they all had the same twinkling beauty, the same sense that the person who made them is just reluctantly starting to acknowledge the fact that she’s an amazing pop singer, that her voice transmits feelings that most others can barely imply. Her songs are all immersive experiences unto themselves. Aesthetically, they all fit into the boundaries of the drippy minimal techno that’s apparently been running European clubs for a couple of years now: wub-wub-wub bass noises, muffled kick-drums, hazy clouds of synth. The whole Kompakt sound tends to bore the living shit out of me, mostly because a song needs recognizable personalities and up-front melodies and (most of the time) vocals to really capture my imagination. Without that stuff, I can appreciate or admire a track, but I can’t love it. Maybe that’s my problem. But I love these Shapiro tracks Purely as genre-works, they’re among the best Kompakt-type stuff I’ve heard. But they also transcend that scene because Shapiro’s voice takes all the latent melancholy and floating bliss that’s hiding beneath the surface of those Kompakt track and pulls them to the foreground, puts them on display.

I was ridiculously amped for the album to finally emerge, and now I have my copy. Turns out I’d pretty much heard the whole thing anyway. Of the album’s nine tracks, four had already leaked, two are remixes, and one is a dubby-ambient sound-experiment thing that sounds like the Orb. And I love it. In its own way, it fits perfectly with the other two winter albums I can’t stop listening to: Clipse’s Hell Hath No Fury and Celtic Frost’s Monotheist. (Monotheist came out this past summer, but it’s a winter album through and through.) All those albums rest on a disciplined rhythmic pulse, all of them dig deep into the pleasures of their respective genres, and all of them sound relentlessly, implacably sad and destroyed.

I can’t pretend that Shapiro’s image, invented or not, doesn’t play a huge role in my reaction to her album. The last time we saw that kind of fetishized shyness in a musician, it was 1998 and his name was Stuart Murdoch. Now that they’ve mutated into a consistent touring unit, it’s hard to remember when Belle and Sebastian wouldn’t allow anyone to photograph them, when they wouldn’t do interviews or play shows anywhere except falling-apart churches with birds’ nests in the rafters. But there was once something fascinating and mysterious about that band; their elusiveness and their music went together perfectly. Shapiro’s elusiveness works in the exact same way. If I knew more about her, maybe her music wouldn’t thrum with feeling anymore. Maybe she’d lose her magic. But right now, she might as well be an alien, and her music just kills me.