The tale of Jillian Medford’s band unfolds like a classic love story: Girl is alone (playing guitar and singing on stage); girl meets boy (bassist); then, well, girl meets another boy (drummer); and the rest is history. When Medford, who played under the name IAN, met bassist Damien Scalise and drummer Tim Cheney, they happened upon an incredible chemistry, added “SWEET” to their title, and created the scuzzy rock band that a growing audience has come to know as IAN SWEET.
On their debut, Shapeshifter, IAN SWEET’s chemistry leads them through effortless-seeming fuzzy guitars, lo-fi drones, and vocals that punctuate the haze with yelps and cries. Underneath the fuzz, though, exist deceptively complex songs. Both Medford and Scalise have academic musical training, and their considered approach shows in songs such as “Cactus Couch,” in its wild, shifting meters, and “All Skaters Go to Heaven,” in its playful take on a ‘50s rock song. Scuzzy on the outside, Shapeshifter is comprised of sharp interactions between parts, with vocals, guitar, bass, and drums weaving together energetically. This clever intertwining guides much of the album, but comes out most strikingly on IAN SWEET’s single, “Slime Time Live,” whose vibrant melody and guitar riff might distract you from the real standout on the song: the stellar wandering bass line that propels the track forward.
All of that fuzz and compositional bliss also might distract from the album’s strong and deliberate message—but it doesn’t take that close of a listen for Medford’s emotional directness to break through. Even amid the fuzz and occasional noise, IAN SWEET maintains the singer-songwriter core of its origins, and the band wields it to create a powerful, coherent story about the impulse to lose oneself in service of a relationship (or, as the title refers to, shape-shifting for love). Letting her voice croon, rasp, break, and squeak, Medford threads her way through vulnerable self-reflection. Sometimes that leads to sad, lonely moments, such as the start of “Knife Knowing You,” when she sings in a near-whisper, “I’m stilling hiding in corners”; sometimes it is challenging (“You’re laughing / Do you find this funny?” she sings on “2soft2chew”); and sometimes it starts tender and gets intense, as on “All Skaters Go to Heaven,” which begins with the loving act of eating ice cream in bed and travels to the startlingly unnerving observation, “That’s a little exciting / To die by your side.”
The singer-songwriter format—singer alone on stage with guitar—is considered the milieu of emotional vulnerability, but IAN SWEET, with their cranked-up distortion in tow, make themselves comfortable in that space. Pairing smart and energetic scuzzy rock with heartbreakingly forthright lyrics and expressively raspy vocals on Shapeshifter, the trio proves that there’s a magnetic strength and confidence to kind of vulnerability.