The Shoes, a French duo comprising childhood friends Guillaume Brière and Benjamin Lebeau, have been knocking around for eight years now. To date, they’ve impressed upon the public consciousness mainly through association with other, much more famous people: through remixes for Shakira, London Grammar and Pharrell Williams, and through the appearance of Jake Gyllenhaal as a psychopath murdering his way across east London in the video for Time To Dance, from their last album, 2011’s Crack My Bones.
Like Crack My Bones, The Shoes’ new album, Chemicals, features a roll call of guest vocalists. English vocalist Esser pops up again, lending his voice to two songs. He’s joined by Blaine Harrison of The Mystery Jets, newcomer SAGE, promising hypnotic pop singer Petite Noir, Anglo-French duo Postaal, English rapper Mikill Pane, and the Canadian act Black Atlass.
The eclecticism of Chemicals’ guest list is mirrored by the music. This album is all over the place. Its 10 tracks cover heartfelt balladry, new wave pop, hip-hop, grime, EDM, dubstep and synth pop. One track – the frankly insane 15 Instead & Brown – resists categorisation altogether: it starts with Mikill Pane slurring a rap about drugs before collapsing in a morass of clattering drums and weird sounds of unknown origin.
The album opens in a relatively conventional manner, with Submarine, on which Harrison delivers a languid vocal over a drum loop that recalls – of all things – Groove Armada’s At The River, and Made For You, a slice of melancholic pop sung by Esser. But there’s a preview of the lunacy that’s to come towards the end of the Submarine, as the track cuts out and some studio chat is dropped in. It’s disorientating, but it’s indicative of The Shoes’ often thrilling ability to pull the rug from under the listener.
Track three, Drifted, is where things begin to get really interesting: featuring SAGE, the track is alternately dreamy and aggressively banging. Lost In London uses Petite Noir’s rich, deep vocals to lovely effect on the verses, but it falls to a deliberately robotic female voice to deliver the catchy chorus hook. Vortex Of Love reveals what would happen if the iconic ‘Yeah! Woo!’ drum loop (think It Takes Two by MC Rob Base & DJ E-Z Rock, among many others) were used on a stadium rock number. The results are, perhaps inevitably, slightly wonky, but also inspired.
The madness doesn’t let up in Chemicals’ second half. Us And I begins in a relatively tranquil fashion before a colossally loud bass pulse interrupts proceedings. Give It Away’s straightforward synth pop acts as a palate cleanser before 15 Instead & Brown’s above-mentioned lunacy, Feed The Ghost’s grimy, Tricky-esque trip-hop and the lovely, James Blake-ian closer Whistle.
All of which might make Chemicals sound like an exhausting, disorientating listen. But, thankfully, the album comes across as the sound of a band that’s trying hard, rather than the sound of a try-hard band. Its arrival late in the year means that it’s in danger of being overlooked, but to do so would be to miss out on one of 2015’s most daring and exciting records.