Essential New Music: Shells’ “Outside”

Musician, DJ, show organizer—Shelley Salant is the kind of person who makes scenes keep on happening. The southeastern Michigan music community has been richer for her presence since the early 2000s. With Tyvek, Swimsuit, Chain & The Gang and the XV, Salant has kicked out plenty of jams. But on her latest solo outing as Shells, she leaves communal rock action behind in order to evoke states of reverie.

Outside’s title is a straightforward statement of circumstance. It was recorded in the back yard of Salant’s Detroit home in September 2021, and there are moments where the sounds of distant traffic surface in the mix. While Salant is a versatile multi-instrumentalist, she sticks to electric guitar and pedals when she dons the guise of Shells, putting her personal spin on a loops-and-strings methodology that’s been going strong since Fripp and Eno pioneered it during the 1970s.

Each of Outside’s four tracks is founded upon a load-bearing pattern over which Salant layers brief, ornamental phrases. As they stack up, the music takes on an undulating quality, like ocean waves driven to shore by shifting currents—or maybe a windblown field of long grass in one of Detroit’s expanses of reclaimed greenery. It invites drift, but it’s not without teeth. There’s plenty of grit in Salant’s trebly tone (which occasionally overwhelms the microphone and surges into the red), and the tension between her cycling phrases exerts a powerful undertow.

—Bill Meyer