The Shins' first album, Oh, Inverted World, was released by Sub Pop records in 2001. I've learned since that there was a fair degree of media hype surrounding this particular album, and the band behind it -- however, this buzz completely bypassed my radar until 2004. I tend to be a hermit, musically speaking: in high school all I listened to was classic rock because that's what my parents had on vinyl in the basement. It was readily available, and most importantly, didn't cost my broke ass a cent.
Consequently, I became enamored with 1960s and 1970s music. Pink Floyd (especially the Syd Barrett-era material), The Moody Blues, Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, and Queen were my favorites. I developed a liking for some more modern, eclectic artists by the time I reached college, however, I have found very little in recent years that hits me the way albums like The Piper at the Gates of Dawn did when I was 16.
Discovering The Shins' Oh, Inverted World was like meeting someone I felt like I'd known for years, someone who became a good friend almost immediately. When I received the CD in the mail I popped it into the stereo, cranked it, and skipped into the kitchen to wash dishes. Several times during the first playing of the album I had to turn off the water, walk back into the living room and sit there with my mouth hanging open. I could not believe what I was hearing: fresh, lush, swirling melodies of a sort I'd thought were extinct. I didn't think people were still capable of writing songs like this. I have been humbled, my fellows: musicianship is not dead. It's just a matter of taking chances and making the effort to seek out the good stuff.
Caring is Creepy is impossible to describe without dipping into cheesy adjectives, so I'll just swallow my pride and use them. Flowing, cascading, even undulating are good descriptive terms here. Every element of the sound -- from James Mercer's odd boyish vocals to the understated drumbeat to the slighly dark and winding guitar work -- seems to blend with the others like heated, running wax. This is a good thing, mind you. It's the kind of music that would make you dizzy if you listened to it lying down with your eyes shut. No drugs required.
One by One All Day recalls what seems to be an idyllic childhood summer memory. The shameless lack of lyrical cynicism brings to mind Moody Blues classics like The Morning: Another Morning and Tuesday Afternoon. Lyrics such as:
"I smell the engine grease and mint the wind is blending"
"Under the logs are snails, and we can fill our pockets
Let them go one by one all day, in a brand new place..."
are simple, delightful, and evocative. One thing I like about The Shins is that they're not afraid to be kind of corny when it's appropriate. Musically, this song has the rhythm of an old locomotive, and the twangy guitar floats in front of what sounds like someone experimenting with an electronic keyboard. This track is really growing on me, mostly due to the lyrics.
Weird Divide is a short lullaby jaunt deep into 60s territory. This might be a bizarre comparison, but it vaguely reminds me of the Beach Boys. It brings to mind a dreamy summer courtship viewed through fog. Not, in my opinion, one of the best the album has to offer, but definitely pleasant to listen to.
Know Your Onion is, to phrase a coin, "post-angst". The opening line:
"Shut out, pimpled and angry
I quietly tied all my guts into knots..."
leaves nothing to the imagination as far as the subject matter of the song. It's about prickly adolescence, being something of a self-aware loner. The overall note of the song is triumphant and nihilistic at the same time
"I knew the worthless dregs we are
The selfless, loving saints we are
The melting, sliding dice we've always been."
Musically, the song is basic light pop; the tone is fairly bouncy and irreverent, with sharp quick mildly distorted guitar strokes. The real focus of this song, I believe, is the lyrics.
Girl Inform Me was one of the tracks that made me put down the dish soap and go, "Huh?". Can you say "infectious hooks"? This song sounds like it should have been written 25 years ago, but someone simply forgot to. It sounds, in a word, obvious. Lyrics like,
"And your lips when we speak
are the valleys and peaks
of a mountain range on fire..."
are sung against a backdrop of floaty psychedelic sweetness. Like many of The Shins' songs, this one delves into the mundane aspects of life:
"I can't concern myself with ordinary tripe
Like what's this morning's paper going to say
Or which brand of coffee to make..."
which seems to be a continuing theme expressed in The Shins' lyrics.
New Slang (When You Notice the Stripes) is the song you've probably heard, if you've heard anything by The Shins. I have never heard it on the radio but apparently it got some airplay a while back while I had my head stuck in a pretentious hole somewhere. First of all, the song's whistly, dark-Western intro was briefly used in a McDonald's commercial. I never saw this commercial, and frankly I don't really care what was done with the song. Young bands often find themselves doing things just for the heck (or the money) of it, and I would not begrudge my enjoyment of a lovely diversion simply because its intro was used in an act of corporate whoring. I think it's rather amusing that the song talks about "the dirt in your fries", though. I have a feeling old Ronald didn't even listen to the lyrics of the whole song when he offered to use it in the commercial.
Disclaimer aside, let's get to the song itself. New Slang is really something you should hear for yourself: it is a song that seems to have become its own archetype, whatever that means to you. The entire song only uses 4 chords: A minor, C, F, and G. This is good for me because all these chords are within my admittedly limited scope of guitar prowess. It's a fun song to play and sing. Find it, listen to the lyrics, and prepare to say, "WTF?" to such lines as,
"Godspeed all the bakers at dawn
May they all cut their thumbs
And bleed into their buns til they melt away...".
For some reason just replaying lines like that in my head sends a shower of sparks up my spine.
The Celibate Life is, in this listener's opinion, one of the weaker tracks on the album. It seems to be another song about some girl, and while the melody is pretty, it doesn't grab me by the navel in the manner I know The Shins are cabable of doing. I am giving it time, though, to grow on me, and perhaps it will.
Girl on the Wing is a nice bit of poetry built on a slightly ominous crunchy melody. The sound of the song alternates between jarring and smooth. The lyrics are a little difficult to make out, but reading them reveals a set of meandering musings that easily lend themselves to wonder:
"We take a week off, let the garden grow by itself
and let the gluttons fill themselves with all the worst of the gory nineties.
And though the comedy softens the fall, we still fall short.".
This song might be easily ignored upon first listening, but it seems to shine more and more each time I hear it.
Your Algebra is somewhat puzzling, no pun intended. It's a very short piece with lyrics that seem to be completely random. It's all echo effects and prettiness, and seems to be more an experiment in sound than a song in the vein of the rest of the album. It's an art project.
Pressed in a Book starts with an insistent beat and soaring harmonies. I could say it sounds like a lover's meeting between the Beatles and the Beach Boys, but that still wouldn't quite do it justice. Once again we have the focus on the images and snapshots of time that make up a life. The Shins are masters of the gaps, writing songs about the things that seem to be mere backdrop to most --
"Two fallen saplings in an open field
Snow padding gently on an empty bench
An old woman's jewelry lying unadorned
Cold nesting robins allied for the first time
I know when you hear these sappy lines
You'll roll your eyes and say "Nice try".
and ending on a note of self-consciousness.
The Past and the Pending is our goodbye melody for this album. It does a perfect job of wrapping up: like a proper ending theme to a story, it hints at a change in direction and season. Whereas many of the other songs on Oh, Inverted World speak of summer, The Past and the Pending refers to the end of warm weather and the diversions it holds, and to days that burn off into evening:
Enter the fog, another low road descending
away from the cold lust, your house, and summertime...
feed till the sun turns into wood dousing an ancient torch
loiter the whole day through, and lose yourself
in lines dissecting love
This is a song concerned with transition, and the manner in which it escapes us. Moments slipping away elusively, so on and so forth. It's a light acoustic song lacking the multilayered reverberations of Caring is Creepy
Oh, Inverted World is one of those albums that could almost seem to be loosely chronological. I don't know if there was any deliberate ordering to the songs, but to me it seems like the band sets us up with a statement of, "I'm alive. How did I get here?" We are led on a journey through childhood and adolescence, through a series of complicated relationships, and finally to a realization of inevitable change. Though some of the songs are dark in tone, it's the very best sort of darkness: that which is universal. There is a distinct lack of whining that I find very refreshing. The lyrics are rather oblique and open to interpretation: they make me wonder what sorts of experiences or ideas sparked them, and if this album is a work of fiction or some sort of buried biography.
Not everyone will like Oh, Inverted World -- I've heard some say that it's too "pretty" and slick-sounding, that it was over-hyped. Since I was completely insulated from the hype somehow, I had no expectations for this album, and was pleasantly surprised. I like pretty music, and melodies, and harmony. I like lyrics that demonstrate good vocabulary and a sense of self-awareness. If you like these sorts of things, you may appreciate an album such as this. To me it is musical comfort food: something I can listen to anytime, anywhere and feel warm and fulfilled as a result.