"...Forget your age, forget you're clever; The Awkward Stage, it lasts forever"
A mantra that serves to remind us that we never truly shed our painfully insecure and ignominiously crushed youth. It is with us always.
That boy who had his head dunked in the high school toilet stares back at you as you adjust your tie in the mirror before you head off to work.
More than a tinge of that old body image issue is surfacing right now in the fitting rooms of every women's clothing store.
The Awkward Stage serves as a musical backdrop for those universal feelings of shame, inadequacy, anger, failure and loneliness. A revenge of sorts in the form of the most intelligent and brilliantly crafted pop songs to come along in quite some time.
In a musical climate that has never been more artificial, commercialized, and commoditized, what with television commercials replacing record stores, radios, and live venues as the new medium by which new artists get discovered along with the whole American Idol phenomenon wherein we are shown the card trick, taught how it is done, shown how empty and vacuous the industry has become, and yet we still line up for more. The pendulum is long overdue its inevitable swing back in the direction of substance, meaning, and intelligence.
For those of us feeling the cultural atrophy, and yet who enjoy good pop culture, The Awkward Stage is at the forefront of that return to quality and, quite simply, pop artistry.
Born in Winnipeg, Manitoba and raised in Vancouver, BC, Shane Abram Nelken, leader and songwriter for The Awkward Stage, has long been considered one of Vancouver's best kept secrets. Where some play hard to get, he has taken it a step further and played "hard to find." Much like TV "Fall Guy"Lee Majors, he's the unknown stuntman who made Vancouver's indie scene sound so fine. Shane's ability to seamlessly shift among a wide variety of musical styles (and instruments) has made him a much sought after "hired ringer" by many of Vancouver's elite acts: A.C. Newman (of The New Pornographers), Sparrow, Vancouver Nights, The Ronnie Hayward Trio, The Come Ons, The Buzzards, The Blue Lodge Quartet, to name but a few. He is finally stepping out from big brother's shadow with his own band, The Awkward Stage, and the debut album on Mint Records, Heaven Is For Easy Girls, co-produced and engineered by The New Pornographers' drummer Kurt Dahle, and possessing that distinctive intangible musical essence — some say "The Vancouver Sound" — initially spearhead-ed and made famous by those notorious New Pornographers.
Shane has also lent his talents to many films and videos as well. As both an actor (The New Pornographers' Blaine Thurier's Male Fantasy, The New Pornographers' "Use It" video) as well as a film scorer/original song contributor (The Corporation,Mile Zero,Bingo Ladies,Flesh), he is a true talent and one worth keeping an eye and ear out for. He cautions us with a rallying cry: "There is a war on and all of the morons are winning."
Shane Nelken - vocals, guitar, piano
Tygh Runyan- lead guitar, vocals
Chris Mitchell - trumpet, keyboards, vocals
Tony Koelwyn - drums
- Slimming Mirrors, Flattering Lights (CD out June 10, 2008)
- Young and Sexy/The Awkward Stage (Split 7" out May 15, 2007)
- Heaven Is For Easy Girls (CD out Oct 11, 2006)
The Sun Goes Down On Girlsville
Your Heart Serves Only You
Hey, Modern School Girl
Only Good Days Caught On Camera
True Love On Three With Feeling
We Dreamt of Houses
I Hurt The Ones That Love Me
Youth Is a War
Mini Skirt of Xmas Lights
Awkward Stage Feature (Eye Magazine Toronto)
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Social Insecurity Vancouver's Shane Nelken confronts deeply suppressed high-school traumas in The...Social Insecurity
Vancouver's Shane Nelken confronts deeply
suppressed high-school traumas in The Awkward
BY MICHAEL BARCLAY
THE AWKWARD STAGE Tue, Oct 24, 9:45pm. The Horseshoe Tavern
Like every good pop songwriter -- from Chuck
Berry to Bruce Springsteen -- Vancouver musician
Shane Nelken is fixated on memories of his
high-school days. But the singer/songwriter
doesn't want to go back to the so-called "Glory
"There are a lot of pop songs that
over-sentimentalize being young, but the reality
of it is that it's a nightmare," says the man who
named his first solo project The Awkward Stage.
"Those are the years that really shape you;
they're very psyche-warping. I'm 34 now, and it's
evident that I will always be working through
those issues. I really feel that youth was a war.
People who pine for those years, I just don't
trust them. Every year away from my youth is
glorious! I love getting older, I really do."
The cover image of The Awkward Stage's debut
album on Mint, Heaven Is For Easy Girls, depicts
an orthodontic-ridden Nelken in the back of a
limo, trying to pin a corsage on his blow-up doll
date. Lyrically, his sugary -- but certainly
never saccharine -- pop songs don't directly
revisit prom night, but they do dwell on the
perils of prolonged adolescence and fragile
"That's the reason behind calling the band The
Awkward Stage," says Nelken. "There's a song that
didn't make the album that includes the lines:
'Forget your age / Forget you're clever / The
awkward stage lasts forever.' Those feelings of
shame never totally go away. As we get older, we
learn to accept a lot of the things we can't
change about ourselves, but we're just one bad
experience away from those feelings of
humiliation: for the businessman who drops his
briefcase and papers spill out everywhere, he's
probably instantly transported to that gym class
where he gets pantsed or something. It's always
Nelken's impressive resumÈ is stacked with
sideman gigs for the extended New Pornographers
family (A.C. Newman, Sparrow, Vancouver Nights),
giving him an observer's role that serves his
character-driven narratives well. Offstage, he
may well be a Six Feet Under character: his day
job is as a cremationist, and both parents are
psychiatrists. That might explain why his songs
are populated with anorexics, psychopaths,
deluded paranoiacs and vengeful circus animals --
all of them just a few genetic mutations away
from a Barbara Gowdy short story.
Nelken says he relates to them all on some level.
"I do relate quite a bit to a sedated, repressed
circus elephant, and from time to time I
definitely feel the links of the shackles coming
loose," laughs the newly liberated sideman.
"Aside from a weight problem, there are other
reasons, too. But living in East Vancouver, I
come across a lot of psychotics and circus
animals just wandering the streets. It's funny
how it just doesn't faze you, either. 'Oh, look
at that -- an emu.'"
The most scathing song on the album is "I Love
You, Hipster Darling," where Nelken paints a
vicious character portrait of a fading scenester
whose "shimmer is ever dimmer." Instead of
approaching the subject like a turkey shoot,
Nelken employs equal amounts sympathy and scorn.
Considering the insular Vancouver pop scene where
Nelken cut his teeth, it's a wise approach.
"It's an amalgam of a lot of people I've known,
including myself," he explains. "I am fascinated
with celebrity obsession being our measuring
stick for human worth, and just how damaging it
is. I have it to a degree as well, and I try to
work on it and realise how empty and vacuous that
pursuit is. I know a lot of people like that, and
a few of them are girls -- though I'm really
trying to guard against the much-plundered
songwriting territory of the tortured female.
It's just so easy. But it's also rife."
As for the easy girls of the album title, Nelken
maintains that St. Peter is more forgiving than
we've been led to believe. "I do think they end
up in heaven. Nobody appreciates an easy girl
like a lonely pervert."
But can he imagine how disappointed all those
suicide bombers will be if they find out that the
afterlife isn't populated by waiting virgins?
"Exactly," Nelken deadpans. "See how much better
things would be? No 9/11! If only we just let the
sluts have their day."
eye weekly Toronto, ON
Slimming Mirrors, Flattering Lights Review (Made Loud)
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Is The Awkward Stage a real band or merely the alias for Vancouver, B.C. indie popster Shane Nelken?...Is The Awkward Stage a real band or merely the alias for Vancouver, B.C. indie popster Shane Nelken? When the act debuted with 2006's Heaven Is for Easy Girls, it seemed entirely possible that it, them, he (talk about awkward!) might be a one-time project from a dude best known as a sideman for the likes of alt-country band The Tennessee Twin, A.C. Newman (aka, Carl Newman, leader of The New Pornographers), and Sparrow, the chamber pop outfit led by Jason Zumpano.
Despite this impressive indie pop résumé, it looks as though Nelken has truly decided to go into business for himself. The Awkward Stage are back with album number two, Slimming Mirrors, Flattering Lights. Last time out, Nelken and New Pornographers drummer Kurt Dahle played most of the instruments. Dahle didn't return for Slimming Mirrors, but Nelken seems to have assembled a real band with drummer Tony Koelwyn, bassist Michael Boegh, guitarist Tygh Runyan, and multi-instrumentalist Chris Mitchell, who also helps with string and horn arrangements.
That last credit might lead you to anticipate a Baroque feel from The Awkward Stage's sophomore record, but catchy indie rock remains at the core throughout the dozen songs and trio of interludes that comprise Slimming Mirrors, Flattering Lights. However, these aural adornments provide a key role in keeping the material fresh from track to track. Opening number "The Sun Goes Down on Girlsville" begins with pretty piano, and its somber-yet-soaring build is oddly reminiscent of Coldplay, only Chris Martin would probably never use the word "epaulets" in his lyrics. "Animé Eyes," on the other hand, is gritty power-pop at a quick clip. Its chorus could've come from a Minus 5 song, while the latter half steers into seething riffs and horn blasts.
The diversity within that one track matches the overall range of Nelken's songwriting across Slimming Mirrors. "Skeletal Blonde," for instance, is a sweet, acoustic guitar-based ditty about a troubled girl named Jennifer who "sits down in the shower for close to an hour." Meanwhile, "True Love on Three with Feeling" is a lounge-samba duet with guest singer Heather Ramsay, nicely filigreed by Micthell's jazzy trumpet lines. Later on, the album cover's sartorial adventure is brought to life in "Mini Skirt of X-mas Lights," a 3:19 pop song in multiple parts that veers from 3/4-time swaying to raucous, psycho-surf pummeling, then into a playful, Doors-meets-Kurt Weill organ vamp. This may sound like an impossibly incoherent patchwork of styles, but The Awkward Stage pull it all off with aplomb.
That pretty well summarizes all of Slimming Mirrors, Flattering Lights. When analyzed in the abstract, broken down into its component parts, and labeled with sub-genre tags, Nelken's batch of songs seem like they wouldn't fit together. Fortunately, music is for the listening, and The Awkward Stage's second album comes together wonderfully. Accessible, hook-riddled, and oft-rockin' indie pop with a bit of a twist, Slimming Mirrors, Flattering Lights deserves to go Gold. Ah, if only we lived in that kind of world.
Track picks: Animé Eyes, Skeletal Blonde, Mini Skirt of X-mas Lights
Slimming Mirrors, Flattering Lights Review (Herohill)
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I was a little slow to embrace The Awkward Stage. When I first moved to Vancouver, I saw flyers for ...I was a little slow to embrace The Awkward Stage. When I first moved to Vancouver, I saw flyers for Shane Nelken's band all over town, and I'll be honest. The headgear, blow-up doll prom cover from the last record made me think they were just another generic pop punk band with an overinflated opinion of their own importance.
But someone gave me a mix CD with a few tracks on it, and I quickly realized that Nelken's song writing is much more than just power chords and shitty lyrics about not fitting in. In fact, one or two listens to Slimming Mirrors, Flattering Lights and you'll quickly realize that his songs are almost impossible to classify. He's able to tease punk (Anime Eyes - although it evolves into so much more), folk, touching singer songwriter numbers (I Hurt The Ones That Love Me), ballads, power pop and even experiment with country and metal riffs - often in the same song.
The Sun Goes Down On Girlsville starts out like a folk track with dancing piano and gentle acoustic, when out of nowhere the band kicks in with a heavy chorus. They slowly add a jangled electric and chugging drums before ending the song with booming horns (courtesy of Chris Mitchell), falsetto harmonies and some heavy keys. Skeletal Blonde shows how easily Nelken can find a hook, as it's as infectious as any song I've heard so far this year. The strums of the acoustic matches his lyrics nicely and when Mitchell's horns finish the track you just start zoning into the song, forgetting what you are doing.
It would be easy for Nelken to hammer out indie pop riffs, but he seems to want to challenge himself. The chaos of Hey, Modern School Girl someone completely contrasts the other songs, but manages to spark the energy and flow perfectly into the delicate piano ballad, Only Good Days Caught On Camera. Mini Skirt Of X-mas Lights sounds like a terrific b-side from a Matt Costa record, but instead of settling for a catchy progression, the band explodes into horn filled electric madness and then teases the listener with a a tender Queen like melody.
Somehow, even with all these changes (even Only Good Days Caught On Camera gains momentum and becomes a surging arena worthy anthem), Nelken's songs fit together like a puzzle, leaving you with a complete product. Even with titles like Youth is a War, subject matter and band name, you wonder how someone like Nelken ever felt out of place and like he didn't belong. He may have been an outcast then, but today, chances are he'd be hitting the dance in the same limo as the prom queen.
Slimming Mirrors, Flattering Lights Review (AllMusic)
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It was easy to imagine that Shane Nelken had picked up a few useful pointers from A.C. Newman, vario...It was easy to imagine that Shane Nelken had picked up a few useful pointers from A.C. Newman, various members of Sparrow, and the New Pornographers, and other luminaries in the Vancouver indie pop scene he'd worked with when he cut his first album as leader of the Awkward Stage, 2006's Heaven Is for Easy Girls. But the strength of the group's second album, 2008's Slimming Mirrors, Flattering Lights, makes it clear Nelken and his bandmates have more than enough talent and fine ideas to create a glorious pop album of their own. Slimming Mirrors, Flattering Lights opens with the atmospheric "The Sun Goes Down On Girlsville," adorned with spectral guitars, strings, and a slightly-Robert Smith-ish vocal from Nelken, but when the electric guitars and horns kick in on the next tune, the high-strutting "Your Heart Serves Only You," later making way for the punk/glam hybrid of "Anime Eyes" and the evocative chamber pop of "Skeletal Blonde," the Awkward Stage demonstrates that they have a firm command of many distinct flavors of clever and well-crafted pop music, and can make them come to life in the studio with consummate craft and no small degree of enthusiasm. Nelken wrote all 15 tracks here and handles guitars, keys, and even bass on these sessions, while he's ably assisted by Tygh Runyan on guitar and keys, Chris Mitchell on trumpet, and the rhythm section of Michael Boegh (bass) and Tony Koelwyn (drums), and together they give the music an impressive sweep and sense of epic scale; producer Howard Redekopp can make these performances sound epochal ("Only Good Days Caught on Camera") or intimate ("True Love on Three with Feeling") and knows which mood to reach for each time. Slimming Mirrors, Flattering Lights is an intelligent and sophisticated pop album that manages to achieve most of its not inconsiderable ambitions, and confirms the Awkward Stage rank with the best indie pop acts in the Northwest today.