Friday, February 13, 2009

Primer: The Shins Part 1- Oh, Inverted World

Oh, Inverted World only took on significance and popular appeal years after it was released, which is an odd thing to happen to an album. It was highly praised on its release and it sold well, yes, but it was hardly a blockbuster success. No one was thinking of the band in the terms they do now. Anyway, in my recollection the trajectory and heart of this decade didn't really start to develop until 2003 or 2004, with the rise of websites like Pitchfork and the blog culture. It was another indie rock revolution as had happened in both the 80s and 90s with fanzines and the like, but this one moved faster and reached more people. The Shins were one of the first beneficiaries of this--particularly after the epochal Garden State film (love it or hate it, it's incredibly important to this decade and the youth coming of age during it). It was as if everyone went out and bought Oh, Inverted World 3 years after its release and subsequently decided that good music was worth seeking out since it was easier than ever to find (via the aforementioned websites and blogs) and to sample before buying (via piracy/torrents or things like MySpace and YouTube). When Wincing The Night Away, the first post-Garden State album by the Shins, was released in 2007 it went to number 2 on the Billboard charts and was, more significantly, the highest charting album that their record label, Sub Pop, ever had. Speaking of which...while this decade has seen the further strengthening of well established indie stalwarts like Matador, Merge, Thrill Jockey, and Touch N Go, it was also the decade when Sub Pop re-invented itself from "that grunge rock label" to "that indie rock label." The Shins were one of the first big indie rock acts that Sub Pop collected, including Iron & Wine, Fleet Foxes, Wolf Parade, and The Postal Service.

That's a lot of heady stuff swirling around this rather unassuming band and even more unassuming album. And even if most people only bought it because it was "the band who had that song from the one scene in Garden State" it doesn't change the fact that Oh, Inverted World is both one of the most fully formed, distinctive debuts of the decade and one of the best indie pop albums ever released. True, The Shins borrow from the pop/rock/psychedelia of the 60s. True, they sounded enough like indie pop torch bearers Belle & Sebastian to make comparisons between the two inevitable. But, at least on this album, The Shins are weirder and more psychedelic than Belle & Sebastian ever got. Revisiting Oh, Inverted World, I'm struck by how, on one hand, it's as catchy and near-perfect as I remember, but on the other hand, how strange it can be.

I'm not just talking about 'Your Algebra', either. The lyrics are memorably surreal at certain points. Behind all that addictive indie pop are some odd visuals and observations. 'New Slang', "that song from the one scene in Garden State", presents us with the following couplet that I think would disturb anyone who bothered to pay attention:

God speed all the bakers at dawn
May they cut all their thumbs
And bleed into their buns
'till they melt away

As the band are from New Mexico, I'd like to point out that the Southwest has a rich tradition of weird bands, like The 13th Floor Elevators and Butthole Surfers. However, their sound and lyrics remind me more of the Northwest during the turn of the Millennium. In the era after grunge died off, the Northwest became a hotbed of indie rock. Inventive, fascinating bands and musicians who drew from obvious influences but made music all of their own came into being: Built To Spill, Modest Mouse, Elliott Smith, Sleater-Kinney, The Microphones, and so on. Modest Mouse were another pre-super fame in the 2001 era when Oh, Inverted World was release. Modest Mouse used to be an indie rock band who wrote a lot of strange, fascinating music, and as they are thanked in the liner notes of Oh, Inverted World, they were probably one inspiration for the Shins. After all, Isaac Brock was not a man adverse to writing some surreal-but-poignant couplets.

Still, I'd be selling the album under false pretenses if I didn't praise the music. The Shins's second album Chutes Too Narrow is a much more straightforward and rocking release in comparison, but this one is perfect, catchy pop/rock. The electric guitars on it are more jangle than rock, more reverb than distortion. There are both more keyboards and more acoustic guitars than you probably remember as well; the bass playing is normally melodic in the Paul McCartney-style. All told, this is an album without much bottom end. But indie pop never does have that, unless you're Beat Happening. And even then it's only because Calvin Johnson likes his baritone vocals just fine. But I digress. Oh, Inverted World also has the most psychedelic touches of any Shins release though they're subtle and to-the-point. For what it's worth, however, when I saw the band live in '04 they played an extended psychedelic jam intro to 'Pressed In A Book' that came out of seemingly nowhere and set my heart a-twitter. Wincing The Night Away has some arty elements to it and it's nowhere near as immediate as their first two albums, but even it isn't as psychedelic as their first one gets. Songs like 'Your Algebra' and 'Pressed In A Book' represent an interesting direction the band could revisit someday.

We can look back now and say with certainty that the first Shins album will stand alongside whatever other albums you might wish to throw against the wall that we will build one day to define this decade. From the present, we can also say with certainty where the band would go from Oh, Inverted World. But if one examines it in a vacuum, pretends one was back in 2001 and feigns ignorance of the other two albums, the Shins's debut stands up as a truly exciting first release from a band who have an impressively complete sound and aesthetic. Oh, Inverted World does what most great debuts do: it suggests that while this is great, the best is yet to come. It presents a band with distinctive music of variety and consistency, but suggests a few pathes they might follow from here. Downright essential indie pop listening.

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