The Shook Twins at The Old Church

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Photos by ronitphoto

Katelyn and Laurie Shook litter the stage with stuff like it was a kid’s bedroom. On the old altar of The Old Church last Thursday, April 30, was a golden telephone, a banjo, guitars, a xylophone, music stands for a string trio, and giant golden egg.  They advertised their name on a Lite-Brite.  As the audience filed back into the renovated and repurposed pews, they may not have felt certain about the relation between any of these things.

But as soon as the identical twins from Idaho came on stage and began to play with them, the point of all these objects was more than clear. The phone, the egg (which turned out to be a giant shaker): these things were indeed as much toys as finely tuned instruments—with all the fun that implies. In the sister’s hands, they had been released of any trace of gearhead bravado threatens to produce so much of an indie folk band’s sound, and make a crowd wonder about just how authentic it can be. Ornamenting their crisp, beautiful voices everything on stage became instead a private, fanciful plaything everyone was now invited to witness and hear about.

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Everything came from a space of their own invention, in which they moved easygoing and carefree.  The twins played with their instruments and intertwined their voices in a siren-song that stole the crowd’s heart; they swayed in their skirts, wooing the church into their world through the easy grace of their own imaginative attachments.

Their world is one of sweet joys snatched up in hard climes. These can be comfortable escapes from frontier dilemmas, as in one of the first songs they struck up for the toe-tapping crowd, “Potter’s Daughter”: an antiquated tale of a father soothing his daughter’s worries about not being pretty enough to marry a local boy.  But they also focus on the half-imaginary delights of contemporary life in the Wild West, as in “What We Do,” from their new album of the same name (their third, made with producer Ryan Hadlock): “We got campfire songs in mason jars / Love lost ones tattooed on our arms … We got the fear of people dying knockin at our door / but that’s what we leave behind.” “Awhile,” the album’s highlight, is even more carefree, regarding the hesitations of two just-met lovers with a full-throated and joyful recognition that they’re just a trick of the mind more love might solve.  “I can tell baby this one’s going to be good / Stop thinking ‘bout the end when it’s just beginning / Hold my hand to make your head stop spinning.” As the sisters sang words like these beside a banjo with its little pop-country twang, it made everyone loll along.  They both shook a shaker or two and strummed each other’s instruments; the audience (and a few children, too) danced in the aisles.

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It is a world that sometimes seems like our own, sometimes doesn’t. But the similarity is not the point. The point is that there is so much fun to be had in singing like this, and the twins so clearly like seeing how much can be had. Especially when they probe the pioneer imagination’s creepier depths and play with the gothic visions of preacherly hellfire. Their song “Shake” channels the voice of a backwoods pulpit in its talk of “truth time coming.”  It tells the tale of a married couple beset by troubles while the rich move in and profit, and the dulcet tones of their voices together conceal a vengeful glee that the devil will soon be at work against our enemies.

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This was even more the case when in the Old Church they summoned the fire and brimstone spirit in “Daemons.”  The simple lyrics alone don’t convey just how haunting these two weird-sisters, in one voice that was really two, two voices that was really one, made of them: “The demons have come to introduce themselves / They’ve come to make a home inside ourselves,” they sang. “And they’ve come to battle / And they’ve come to win.”  Amidst strange pops and plucks wrung out of their guitars, and the strange devilish drawl of string—all sorts of ornamental, decadent sounds don’t, in the cool light of reason, seem like they’d be anything other than comic—the audience heard the sisters thunder out a warning to them: “Ahhh, discipline! / Don’t let them win!”

Growing up in Idaho, the twins didn’t know they were going to form a band, let alone an indie folk pop band.  But they did know they were going to sing.  Everything they did Wednesday reflected this lifelong confidence in not just one but two voices, around which they have assembled a talented group of players and new friends, having relocated to Portland.  But that the sisters could give stuff this dark an element of playfulness was yet another feat of the immense sense of fun they brought to the stage—and testified to a quietly clever sense of the enjoyments available in such a space.  After they finished, they laughed it all off and rummaged around for the things needed for their next song.