Not to be a grump, but this summer was totally lame when it came to finding appropriate good-vibes tuneage. You can cite Coldplay, march out Alicia Keys, or argue your O-Town till you're blue in the face, but color me unimpressed: Nothing truly rocked the block like them golden days when heat-drenched afternoons were soundtracked by classics like Brandy and Monica's "The Boy Is Mine" or, um, Lionel Richie's "All Night Long." (Hey, I was young, people.) As we all know, sun without song is kind of like the Beach Boys minus everyone except Mike Love: not much fun at all.
Which makes my recent discovery of Albuquerque pop-rockers the Shins even more frustratingly belated. Their debut album, Oh, Inverted World, (Sub Pop) is about the nearest thing to an honest-to-goodness slab of sunshine I've heard in a long time. But the bitter irony is that even though it was released in June, I've only discovered it now, in the fall, with the leaves dropping like flies. Pity: I can only imagine how much fun it would have been to cruise the summer streets in my hot wheels, cranking the great Kinks-style opener "Caring Is Creepy" through my dope subwoofers--that is, I suppose, if I could afford dope subwoofers, or, well, a vehicle to drive in the first place.
But if I actually had these things, the Shins would be the band I'd want shredding the speakers on a Sunday summer drive. They touch upon the familiar pop perennials--the Who, the Beatles, the stuff that gets Rolling Stone writers all hot and bothered--but they never fail to sound first and foremost like the Shins. And the tunes are, above all, tight like pop songs should be. "One by One All Day" crests on a Pixies-worthy swing, briefly nestles into a Duane Eddy guitar groove, then falls into a "la la la" refrain that would make fans of early Pavement weep. Such condensed pop chicanery is the natural language of the Shins, and the album packs 11 songs into barely half an hour.
"I was a little worried that it was too short, actually," admits Shins lead singer James Mercer by phone from his new digs in Portland, Oregon. But don't listen to him: Short, for the Shins, is a sweet thing indeed. Juxtaposed with the ear candy are Mercer's dark-hued and semi-creepy lyrics, reminiscent of those by Neutral Milk Hotel's Jeff Mangum. Check the lyric sheet for "One by One," and you'll realize that you've been humming along to the words: "I smell the engine grease and mint the wind is blending/Under the moan of rotting elm in the silo floor."
Mercer brushes off lyrical analysis, saying only, "I'm trying to find out what the melodies are expressing." When pressed, however, he grudgingly admits that he sees a little darkness in there. "One time, we were being interviewed on radio, and this girl really surprised me by saying I sounded bitter!" he laughs. "Definitely there's some--I don't know--remorse or something in there."
Public neglect can certainly be the mother of invention, and the band's path from obscurity in Albuquerque to semi-recognition in Seattle hasn't been free of potholes. The band's roots stretch back to the early Nineties when the Shins were known as Flake Music and were practicing a brand of shimmery guitar pop that evaded public consciousness despite seven records and countless tours. When Flake Music broke up in 1999, the Shins were born in a haphazard twist of circumstance.
"Yeah, it was kind of confusing," notes Mercer, whose unassuming manner and apparent lack of interest in the music-as-career thing may explain why the Shins' rise to prominence has taken so long. "The Shins started as a side project, just me and the drummer doing 4-track stuff. We ended up getting a bass player and becoming a full band. Then that bass player left and we just ended up getting the people from Flake."
But to say that Flake simply became the Shins is to miss some startling musical development, as Flake's indie-isms evolved into something much more tuneful and cohesive. Maybe the sudden development was spurred by boredom with the Albuquerque scene. (Mercer dryly notes, "It's not too exciting there. The typical story is, if a band's from Albuquerque, they'll move.") But more likely is that the sudden, impressive transformation was due to Mercer's assumption of full songwriting duties, revealing the gifted songwriter hidden in Flake's murky core.
Musical transmogrification aside, the Shins have been blessed by a series of industry connections. Flake once toured with a pre-fame Modest Mouse: As Mercer notes, "They were on their first tour, too. They blew up and sort of helped us out by bringing us along with them." Sup Pop band Love as Laughter also nudged the label about the Shins, and one quick demo tape later, they were signed. With critics now falling over themselves to praise Oh, Inverted World, the Shins look set to finally enjoy a bit of well-deserved sunny weather of their own. And their lucky streak doesn't seem likely to end anytime soon: They were picked for the opening slot of their upcoming tour by ex-Pavement and current Preston School of Industry star Scott "Spiral Stairs" Kannberg.
Ah, the wonderful world of the Shins, where a group of scruffy-looking indie rockers don't worry much about music-biz networking and end up in all the right places anyway. Maybe this world isn't inverted after all.
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