Finnegan Shanahan’s The Two Halves on New Amsterdam Records

Finnegan Shanahan is one of the many artists and composers that are trying to further blur the lines between concert music and pop music. Frank Zappa was one of the biggest pioneers to start tearing down the classical and popular music walls, and pop music figures such as Ben Folds and Thom Yorke have also taken up the mantle, but Shanahan’s music brings a contemplative and meditative spirit to this bold endeavor. His album The Two Halves on New Amsterdam Records features the group Contemporaneous, an ensemble of which Shanahan is a founding member. Shanahan wrote the song cycle that comprises the entire album with the intent to aurally follow a map of the Hudson River Railroad as it was in 1852 from the Catskills down to New Mexico–then, the narrative breaks away, traveling across the country and into space. The whole album showcases well thought out new song forms that explore beautiful timbral combinations mixed with well-used electronic effects and filters to help recreate Shanahan’s dreamlike past.

The first track on the album, titled “The Platelayers,” instantly sets the tone for the rest of the album. A combination of tremolo strings and Shanahan’s voice, both put through an eerie filter, pulls the listener into an aural dreamscape setting before leading into an easy groove as the train picks up speed. Within this groove, the use of every instrument feels fresh. Instead of the conventional back beat in the drums, there is an almost melodic use of the different timbres while the mandolin and synth act as the rhythmic engine.

Finnegan Shanahan Credit Jonah Rosenberg

Finnegan Shanahan Credit Jonah Rosenberg / The Two Halves

“The Great Sunstroke” is similar in the unconventional treatment of the ensembles various parts, but is a different flavor. The piano part lays out the harmonic and rhythmic structure immediately with quick alternating hands. The form of the song always keeps the listener engaged as it alternates between funky feels and long easy vocal breaks. Eventually, all of these ideas and opposing sections start to collide with a beautiful tension that Shanahan releases effortlessly.

“The Exile” serves as an instrumental interlude in the song cycle. The use of only a small number of string instruments gives the track an intimacy and a feeling of calm. It’s as if the sun has set and the train is quiet with sleep and dreams. In the next track, “The Giant Sleeps,” the woodwinds and brass start to wake the strings out of their slumber as light pours through the windows. Shanahan’s voice breaks through with echo and delay effects, as if from the dreamworld, starting a slow build to the end. The title track of the album is a fast paced piece in 7/8, but it is easy to move to and almost Gigue-like. Though Shanahan uses hemiolas and layered meters in other tracks on the album, “The Two Halves” makes it hard to miss and is possibly the most fun as it rides over the 7/8 meter. The song is cut short by an electrical hum that soon starts to pull the listener away before recalling a small section of the chorus as it fades into nothing.



Finally, the album concludes with “The Azimuth.” This piece definitely serves as a fitting finale. It seems to pull in all of the emotions from the rest of the album and melds them together, giving the song a heavy feeling. The use of the woodwind members of the group keep it light in places and helps carry the track forward. As the song transitions into its different sections, the instruments play the same ostinato pattern making the timbres morph in and out of each other. It’s an interesting effect and shows a great sensitivity by the members of Contemporaneous.

By the end of the album, one cannot help but start it back from the beginning. Some of the best aspects of The Two Halves are that Shanahan keeps every track fresh by constantly implementing different timbres, multiple layers of feels and grooves, and a beautiful meld of musical influences. Even though the instrumentation doesn’t change, there are different effects and filters being used that don’t let the ear get bored, and Contemporaneous performs beautifully from top to bottom.