Tommy Shaw

Girls with Guns/What If

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BGO's 2013 two-fer contains 1984's Girls with Guns and 1985's What If?, the first two solo albums from Tommy Shaw, the guitarist and second vocalist from Styx. In 1984, Styx was just a few years removed from one of their most popular records, the dystopian fantasia Kilroy Was Here, but on Girls with Guns, Shaw doesn't spend much time with the arena rock and balladry that helped make that confused concept album a hit. Instead, he dives headfirst into the propulsive pop of MTV, opting for maximized synthesizers at every chance. Girls with Guns may have been recorded in Chicago but every element reeks of Los Angeles in the '80s. Everything on the record is overblown, whether it's the frenetic title track -- its sliding synth hook nearly overshadowed by Shaw's yelp -- or the power ballad "Lonely School," a song designed for slow dances at homecoming. Shaw deliberately aims for MTV play or, failing that, soundtrack placement (the moody "Kiss Me Hello" sounds as if it was destined for William Friedkin's To Live & Die in L.A.). Although it can sometimes be fatiguing, in no small part because the stainless settings put Shaw's vocals into sharp relief, this shameless new wave arena rock has its charm because it evokes its era so effortlessly and unwittingly.

The same can be said of What If, the 1985 sequel to Girls with Guns. Opting for a different producer, Shaw works with Richie Cannata, the saxophonist in Billy Joel's band (their collaboration continued onto 1987's Ambition). If What If isn't as stylish as Girls with Guns, it's certainly every bit as slick, slathered in synthesizers and gated drums, sometimes opting for fully robotic arrangements, as on the stiff funk of "Friendly Advice." With this MTV-ready palette in hand, Shaw attempts to get serious, indulging in a bit of nuclear paranoia on "This Is Not a Test" while writing a bit about alcoholism on "Reach for the Bottle," odd choices on a record that also contains a fair number of power ballads, the Springsteen wannabe "Bad Times," and the theme to Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins. Every song here is part of the puzzle that adds up to the sound of mainstream 1986, when it was still possible for arena rock refugees like Shaw to score video hits but the window was closing rapidly.

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