During the first couple of songs of Black Shark, you might not notice anything different from Durham's Hammer No More The Fingers. Granted, the second album from the kinetic trio doesn't come out swinging like their debut, Looking For Bruce, did with that "Automobiles" and "Shutterbug" one-two punch. Instead, "Atlas of an Eye" and "The Agency" bob and weave, carefully choosing when to turn up the volume and rock out. Still, the group's off-kilter sense of humor and melodic smarts are just as present here as on older Hammer offerings. The group even brings back noted producer/ former Jawbox and Burning Airlines frontman J. Robbins to turn the knobs and slide the faders. Same as it ever was, fitting enough for a band often typecast for its '90s nostalgia impulses.
But about two-thirds of the way through "Leroy," a somewhat profane ditty that's as Bruce-like (read: gloriously raucous) as anything here, comes a string section. It appears during the song's lone moment of calm, as the guitars go acoustic and Jeff Stickley eases up on his kit. These strings turn the song's shout-along chorus ("in the beginning of life/ there is a wonderful sound in our heads") into something much more poignant. At last, we have a newly interesting wrinkle in what was, until that point, just another indie rock headbanger.
While it'd be a bit disingenuous to call Black Shark a "mature" record, with songs like the motherfucker-dropping "Leroy" and "Your Nutrition is My Mission" front and center, there's no mistaking that Hammer No More The Fingers have developed as a band. The deployment of strings (and some organ) is only part of this growth. At 34 minutes, Shark is only two minutes longer than its predecessor. However, the songwriting here displays a newfound depth and skill that belies the album's brevity. Instead of seemingly rushing through their songs, Hammer gives these tunes room to breathe and relax. A song like the four-minute "Thunder 'n Rain" states its case lyrically in less than two minutes, sketching out a picture informed by bittersweet nostalgia and hard choices. The song's long coda fills in whatever gaps the words left, with the string section joining the band in a slow, stately dance that's just as lyrical as the song's words.
Even at its most energetic, Shark carries a sense of regret and loss, with images of old neighborhoods, church graveyards and spruce coffins dotting the album's upbeat landscape. A half-heard line as seemingly nonsensical as "these fingernails don't think about themselves" gains a sharper focus when the song's funereal setting becomes clear. As world-weary and downbeat as things can get in these songs, however, Hammer doesn't succumb to that mood. The same impulses that inspired the spy-guitar vibes of "The Agency" and the hit-and-run cheekiness of "Your Nutrition" are the same instincts that allow Hammer to get away with any sort of ponderous, existential worries, putting things in a proper perspective. As good as Looking For Bruce was, there was a sense that Hammer No More The Fingers was a happy-go-lucky bunch of dudes content with writing enjoyable indie rock tunes. With Black Shark, Hammer ups the ante considerably, putting them in a place where anything's possible.