Review: Shay Park – “I’m Not What You Expect”

There’s really a lot to love about I’m Not What You Expect, the excellent, new, five-song EP from Boston-by-way-of-Pittsburgh pop chanteuse Shay Park. It’s easy, in fact, to get sucked in by the charmingly naïve twee-fuzz that dominates and defines much of the EP, self-released March 1, but it’s one of the record’s more uncharacteristic tracks that jumps out to me as its best, if not signature, offering: “Supermarket Sushi.” Though it lends the record its name, the mesmerizing “Supermarket Sushi” is by no means its anchor; instead, it’s something indescribably “other” – an airy mélange of keyboards (standing in here for Park’s ukulele), nicely recorded electronic drums bouncing from ear to ear, utterly emotive synth washes, and Park’s drop-dead-good vocals, cooed and ever-playful. (Listen to the way she stretches the phrase “cucumber avocado” into an addictive little “oh-oh-whoa-oh oh–whoa;” I challenge you not to smile.) It’s brilliant, engaging and just plain fun, the mark of a songwriter who knows precisely what she does well – and does it, time and again.

There’s a bunch of context that helps flesh out the story of the new EP. As I’ve written elsewhere, Park, in her incantation as former frontwoman for the vastly underrated Pittsburgh pop quartet Soda Club, eschewed distorted guitar on most of her songs, lending them Talking Heads vibes and a share of perceived naivete with which Park frequently toyed. On the new release, appropriate to its title, Park unfurls a kind of new and very inviting brand of mid-fi bedroom-pop with fuzzy guitars and driving refrains that feel sort of slumbery and sort of like a slumber party, lots of energy, lots of innocence.

On “Only Child,” Park tinkers with the new formula, adding palm-muted guitars and synth notes straight from the Top 40 of the 1980s, before launching into the chorus: “What’s it like/being an only child/Are you lonely?/Are you lonely?” On “If I Were Beautiful,” Park introduces a more pensive, even somber edge to things but doesn’t linger on it long before reverting back to the guitar-driven power-pop and giving it another go. (It’s a testament to the record’s naked innocence that lines like “If I were beautiful/Everyone would take my picture” don’t bite, and instead are taken at face value.)

Park has recorded wonderful songs under the sobriquet Blankets for Laura, with Soda Club and on her own. But where songs like the beautific gem “To Love Me” (featured through Pittsburgh City Paper and well worth tracking down) have a stripped-down simplicity to them, the new material is more ornate, more produced. It’s a testament to Park’s prowess as a performer that she’s able to still soar and succeed – the heart of these things is just that strong – and not appear as if she’s just strutting down the catwalk. I’m Not What You Expect has some new twists on Park signatures but, in at least one way, it’s exactly what we’ve come to expect from her: soulful and brilliantly executed pop. – Justin Vellucci, MusicTAP, March 8, 2019

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