With the promise of a brand new Shins release threatening any day, I wanted to go back and re-examine their debut release Oh Inverted World. That album introduced the world to this influential and much beloved noughties band. “Oh Inverted World” would send the band to the top of the Indie music hierarchy as definitive artistes with significant critical and popular acclaim. Their charming off-kilter pop is laden with yearning, whimsy and the acknowledgement of the brittle status of innocence in a chronically messed up world. In many ways The Shins musical mission statement is to create music of sheer simplicity without any overt revolutionary goals. Their music is ebullient yet yearning, refreshing, exhilarating, and instantly approachable but rewards the listener with additional revelations upon each encounter.
The Shins formed in 1996 in one of the more unlikely places for a successful rock band to sprout, Albuquerque, NM. Friends James Mercer and Jesse Sandoval started the band as a side project from their already established group Flake Music or Flake as it was later known. Flake was eventually overshadowed by the new side project and would disband in 1999. In 1998 The Shins were asked to open for friends Modest Mouse. It is while on that tour they were spotted and signed by the major Grunge promoter and Seattle based label Sub Pop records. It was a mutually beneficial relationship with Sub Pop giving The Shins the platform for stardom and The Shins providing Sub Pop with a resurrection of sorts in the industry. The success of The Shins would reestablish the label as a dominant force in the Indie Music community. The band at the time of the recording of Oh Inverted World would be comprised of James Mercer as frontman, guitarist and songwriter, Jess Sandoval on drums, Neil Langford on bass and Martin Crandall on keyboards. There would also be the additional contributions of Dave Hernandez on bass for “New Slang”, Melanie Crandall on cello for “Your Algebra” and Neils Galloway on French Horn for “The Post and Pending”.
“Oh, Inverted World” was produced by James Mercer and the band members and mostly recorded in Mercer’s basement studio. It was during this time Mercer became an ersatz hermit working on his songwriting and the recording of the album in almost solitary confinement. It was an unsettling period for Mercer who had up sticks from New Mexico and relocated to Seattle, Washington and his response to the unfamiliar was to turn in to himself. He has described the period in this way, “before you knew it, my whole life was upside down; I got signed, I quit my job, I moved out of town, the big relationship I had for five years ended and all of a sudden my whole life was up in smoke.” That rapid change in situation reflected in many ways on the topics and feel of the forthcoming album.
Almost from the beginning of their signing with Sub Pop, the Shins experienced both commercial and critical success. The commercial success was assisted by the band’s music being utilized in hip millennial movies, the biggest assist coming from the 2004 movie “Garden State” and the use of the song New Slang. “Oh Inverted World” would be a solid success moving 100,000 copies in two years where Sub Pop’s marketing projections were slated for 10,000. In many ways, the song “New Slang” gave the band overnight success of a sort and made them Indie Rock Icons. Their popularity grew exponentially leading the band to move another 500,000 album units. The band also was given the title pop revivalists due to the influences they revealed in their music which included; The Beatles, The Zombies, The Beach Boys, The Smiths, The Cure, Echo and The Bunnymen, and Jesus and The Mary Chain. The combination of so many antecedents who had left their impressions on the band allowed the band to blur those influences. In many cases that blending made the influences unrecognizable and something that could only be labelled as The Shin’s own proprietary blend. That blend was best described as retro, modern, obtuse and attractive.
Oh Inverted World is an album that fits so beautiful together that it seems nearly impossible that it could have been a debut release from a tyro band and not helmed by a world-weary producer of some note. It is the quality of the debut from a band of relatively unknown musicians and that makes it so very noteworthy. The other amazing thing about the album is the short length. It is only 33 minutes in duration but its impact is immeasurable. The album begins with Caring is Creepy. The song is deeply introspective but couched in a sunny happy pop sensibility that captures the listener and prepares them for an amazing aural ride. Mercer’s winsome delivery draws in the listener as he analyzes the tricks life plays on us. He also examines the rationalizations we utilize to get through the less than extraordinary moments of our lives. Mercer suggests that we might all just be endless entertainment for the higher powers looking down upon our plight; additionally, we may never get the answer to what it was all about. All of this angst is conveyed covertly over a zingy guitar riff and crisp percussion with a Hammond organ outré and could not be more of an earworm if it tried.
One by One All Day Is a percussion driven tune with dappled forlorn Brian Wilson Psychedelica sprinkled throughout. The lyric portrays a walk around a farm with a grandfather and supplies the album with its title. It is a beautiful poem evoking the bittersweet dichotomy of one person with their future unwritten ahead of them and another knowing life is ebbing. The track is sparkling and shimmering but filled with an underlying melancholy yearning.
Weird Divide has an accompaniment that is best described as Simon and Garfunkel’s folk infused with pop helium. The song reveals strong clues that assist the listener in understanding why The Shin’s music lends itself to soundtracks in off-kilter movies. The song also reflects the head snapping changes that occurred in Mercer’s life with his move to Seattle. It captures that moment where the path divides and two people on the path select opposite options.
My personal favourite on the album is Know Your Onion, which as a title for a song sounds like a non-credit course offered at the local community college or a late night public access TV show about gardening. The song examines teenage angst and presents an individual who is completely aware of all their shortcomings. The song is fairly autobiographical with Mercer proclaiming his encounters with books and music made him desire more from life. It also examines the brave and what some considered fool hearty leap he made leaving the familiar and going after his dream. There is a beautiful paradox in the song between the deep personal themes and the catchy bouncy pop of the accompaniment. The track contains awesome guitar riffs and lovely melodies; it is a classic Shins song.
Girl Inform Me is at its core a love song that gets a definitive Shins treatment. It is informed by the peaks and valleys that almost every relationship experiences and is all about the mysteries of love. Mercer proposes that we are completely unprotected if we love someone. He also suggests that love is what takes us out of the mundane world into something other. The song sounds like a 21st-century update of the sunny surf band sounds of the Beach Boys, The Turtles and The Loving Spoonful, and it is an awesome confection of pop goodness.
Probably the most well know and beloved Shins tune, The New Slang is a song that captures all the unsettled feelings of our age. The tune echoes the disquiet in Simon Garfunkel songs like “Sounds of Silence” and “Mrs Robinson”; both of which are clever, low key and powerful songs. ‘New Slang” pro offers the idea that the good life we desire might never come, it portrays innocence as bliss while it lasts but acknowledges that it is fleeting. As a result of those discoveries, we are left with an unforgettable dissatisfaction with ourselves and our situation in life. We ultimately end up with the singular goal of hoping that those who love us do not see us as the failure we know we are. The apt handling of these heavy themes are a lot to ask of a simple pop song, but The Shins somehow pull it off and produce a tune worthy of the pantheon.
Celibate Life is a brief vignette that isn’t about celibacy but the lack thereof. The song again utilizes the concept of bouncy cheery sounds that belie a tawdry topic. The track ponders the sad situation of the individual who is the old sleazy guy or gal in the bar and who refuses to let their “Golden” days pass as they become a cautionary tale. The track is an unsettling topic made sunlit by how it is conveyed.
Girl on the Wing is a favourite with it’s straight out rendering of the iconic 60’s American Bandstand rock quartet. It includes an outstanding jam out that is not to be missed. The song’s theme speaks to a relationship that is pulled apart by passive-aggressive indifference. The Hammond organ and funky trippy melody underline Mercer and Co’s amazing pop sensibilities.
The psychedelic Your Algebra questions if anyone has all the answers and goes on to state that anyone who says they do is lying. The brief song is captivating. Pressed in a Book takes the ethos of “Your Algebra’ further questioning preconceived wisdom. The track is laden with earnest feelings and the harmony and simplicity of the sonics channel Brian Wilson’s musical genius. This brief tune encapsulates many of The Shins trademark sounds. The cello on the selection elevates the track into a hard to shake off experience.
The final track The Past and Pending is again autobiographical in nature. It addresses the end of a relationship due to Mercer pursuing his musical career, “…we settle to cut ourselves apart.” The acoustic guitar delivers the right note conveying a beautiful and heartfelt song. The theme expresses the forlorn desire to separate without leaving a bruise on the person who remains. It is a moving end to a spectacular album.
Oh Inverted World would place The Shins prominently on the musical map. Their significant triumph would pave the way for even greater success in the future but also breed disunity. In 2012 after two additionally successful albums and a five-year hiatus The Shins personnel would be down to only Mercer remaining. The break up would be blamed on as Mercer stated, “Aesthetic decisions.” Mercer would move on with The Shins name and go more collaborative in the studio as he called in producer Danger Mouse to oversee the 2012 Shin’s release, Port of Morrow. Fans would also see Danger Mouse and Mercer collaborate on the side project Broken Bells and release two critically acclaimed albums under that banner.
The commercial success of the Shins was assisted by their willingness to be open to licensing their songs to a variety of media and movies. That openness brought charges of selling out from the usual sources; however, the royalties allowed the band and Mercer to relocate to Portland, Oregon. In Portland, Mercer would build a studio to record the future Shin’s albums, so in many ways, the means seemed to justify the ends. Currently, fans await the promised long-awaited fall release from Mercer under the Shins moniker and ruminate over what it will reveal about Mercer’s life and his collaborations since “Port of Morrow”. Will the new release be retrospective or trailblazing, will the Broken Bells side project inform the new album or will Mercer walk away from that musical construct? If the Facebook utterances are to be believed we will find out shortly. In the meantime it is a good idea to remember where it all started; with a man, a band and a simple song or two.