Unwrapping the Shivers

by Ben Van Heuvelen

The best rock’n’roll show I’ve ever attended was played on the second floor of a little venue in the East Village called Mo Pitkins, by a band called the Shivers. There were six people in the Shivers at the time, and about twice as many in the audience. The band was on point. In one song, a waltz named after a stretch of traffic-clogged highway in Queens (“L.I.E.”), the players stuck so tight to the drummer’s slow beat that the song, rather than seeming downtempo, created a small universe where time just moved at a more contemplative pace.

The lead singer, Keith Zarriello, has a soulful and expressive voice with excellent range and pitch. He’s as strong in trembling low vibrato as when he’s belting a scratchy tenor or crooning in falsetto. As a lyricist, he can be brilliant. “I’m gettin’ to know you, girl,” he sings in “L.I.E.” “I’ve seen you with your glasses on / I’ve seen you in your daddy’s arms / and I’ve seen you drive a car.” I defy anyone to write three clauses that better express the feeling in a romance when the charge of attraction first locks into bonded familiarity.

On stage, Keith seems shy. He wears large dark sunglasses and his microphone banter between songs consists mostly of half-mumbled observations to himself. When a song begins, though, he performs with great intensity, almost despite himself, as though the man on stage is only a half-willing conduit for the persona of the singer, like Whoopi Goldberg letting Patrick Swayze possess her in “Ghost.” As my friend Ryan said, “You can tell he’s doing it” — being a musician in New York — “because he has to.”

What little I know of Keith suggests he’s an odd guy. He’s a sworn anti-sexual, a conspiracy theorist, and a New York City real estate broker. His eccentric commitments appear in his songs to varying degrees, and they’re most obvious in my least favorite numbers; on one Shivers album, for example, a track titled “Inside Job” consists of 9 minutes and 11 seconds of silence. In other songs, though, Keith’s sense of division — he’s both a man with everyday problems and a seer grasping some hidden current of life — makes for great blues-punk poetry. “Everyone here wants to shave their head,” he sings, “but I wanna shave my brain.”

Yesterday I received a package from the Shivers. I had ordered Keith’s new solo album with a PayPal donation via the Shivers’ web site, trusting, in the spirit of internet commerce, that my gift into the virtual ether would reach a person of good faith. That person, I assume, was Keith himself, and he took great care in making up the return package. Inside the manila mailing envelope, Keith’s album was wrapped inside two sheets of the New York Post. The outer layer was folded such that across the face of the CD case was a large photo of a Tiger Woods mistress, bearing her cleavage. The inner layer was a photo of Greg Monroe, a power forward for the Georgetown Hoyas, holding his forehead after an upset loss in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

I don’t see any profound meaning here, just a couple of images thrown into funny contrast, an aesthete’s little joke. I think it was Keith’s way of saying thanks for being a fan.

I was grateful for his gesture; I think he knew I’d feel a little starstruck. In a song called “Half Invisible,” Keith sings, “Sometimes I walk the streets / no one sees me. / Other days, people think / I’m a movie star.” In this digital age, of course, someone can be both a guy with a day job and a musician who — for a certain internet-connected niche audience — resides in the pantheon of iTunes most-played playlists alongside Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Lou Reed. How cool is that?

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