Sometimes a band doesn't become the band it's meant to be until after a few lineup changes.
For The Shondes, which formed in Brooklyn in 2006, the first two key pieces have been there from the beginning: singer-bassist Louisa Solomon and violinist Elijah Oberman. The band's first four albums, which combined feminist punk with splashes of power pop and traditional Jewish music, brought praise from the likes of Bruce Springsteen biographer Peter Ames Carlin and led to a national tour in support of Against Me!
But it wasn't until The Shondes added guitarist Courtney Robbins and drummer Alex Smith that the right mix arrived, and launched the band in a new, richer musical direction.
"It's been so, so amazing to be doing songwriting and performing with Courtney and Alex," Oberman says. "It's been a stabilizing force to have these excellent musicians to hunker down and work with."
Brooklyn's gain is also Tucson's loss. Robbins had been a leading figure in Tucson's music scene for roughly a decade, from her acoustic-driven solo music to the innovative pop of Seashell Radio and the hard-charging rock of The Cordials. Robbins says she and The Shondes were "on each other's radar for a while," and while considering leaving Tucson to explore other musical opportunities, she joined the band as a touring guitarist in the winter of 2015. Then came the offer to be a permanent bandmate.
"It was like 'Well, am I going to do this or not?" Robbins says. "I'd been hemming and hawing over the decision to leave Tucson because I love Tucson, but ultimately I decided to give it a shot. I had a good time on the tour and we all got along and I felt like it would be a mistake not to do this."
With a tremendous versatility built up over playing with different groups in Tucson, Robbins' guitar gives even more dimension to The Shondes, which Rolling Stone had described as "Riot-grrrl furor, arena bombast and klezmer stomp."
"I was excited about the prospect of being in a band that's more straightforward rock," Robbins says. "I really like playing acoustic and I really love playing my own songs, but what it comes down to is I really love collaborating with people across a variety of genres."
After adding Robbins and Smith, The Shondes set about working on a batch of songs that would become Brighton, the band's fifth album, due for a Sept. 16 release on the DIY-focused Exotic Fever Records.
"Because of the changes in lineup and taking some time off, I didn't feel like I knew what this record was going to be like," Oberman says. "It was a period of discovery getting to work with these new musicians."
Brighton is The Shondes' most varied recording, with Robbins' guitar adding everything from wild solos to bright ringing hooks to soft and delicately layers.
"Any Shondes fan will listen to Brighton and recognize it as a Shondes record, but it's definitely going in a new direction," Oberman says. "There's still lot of punk energy behind it, but a little bit more pop and rock accessible. There's definitely more nuance to the songs."
At the release of The Garden, Solomon described it as a record about growing up, a fitting theme as the band began to find a larger audience. Thematically, as well as in a very direct sense, Brighton seeks to break with the past.
"Once of the central themes that we talked about that started to emerge was about transformation, about positive transformation, about letting go of old ways and patterns you're stuck in and how to ground yourself and orient yourself in the direction you want to go in," Oberman says.
Robbins connected immediately with the direction of The Shondes new songs, free to add her guitar in a way that expressed much of the same sentiment.
"I think thematically, most people can identify with themes of transformation and change, but it's particularly applicable for me since I've just moved across the county from my home of 11 years," Robbins says.
Brighton opens with "Everything Good," a sunny power-pop anthem that showcases the band's signature elements—the big guitar riff and the sweeping violin—in perfect balance right from the start.
"It has a little bit of a call to arms feeling and it felt like very much who we are, like saying 'This is a Shondes record,'" Oberman says. "It's a big, hopeful sound."
Oberman says that when The Shondes formed, it never would have occurred to him to play violin in a punk band. It was Solomon's idea and since the friends wanted to play music together, they gave it a shot.
"In some way it felt strange because there aren't a lot of role models I have. There are a lot of strings in rock music, but usually it's a studio musician and not a core band member. At moments it's felt strange, but at moments it feels effortless," Oberman says. "It is uncommon, so it's certainly something that people notice and a lot of people comment to me that what they feel it adds is an emotional component to what might otherwise be slightly more straight ahead rock."
Brighton came about quickly, and with an urgency The Shondes hadn't felt before working on an album. After Robbins and Smith joined, the band felt that so much new was happening they had to capture it on record and move beyond playing the older songs and onto ones that were equally shared by all the band members.
"One of my favorite things about working collaboratively is we so often have different thoughts, feelings ideas, different takes on things. But there are these moments when everyone just knows something, everyone just feels it and you're all on the same page,"
Oberman says. "Moments like that when everyone feels the magic, you know you're in the right direction."