Time to bemoan the current state of indie rock again. One of the major problems of the genre today is that it is entirely too self-contained and self-referential. It has no sense of any music outside of its own well-defined parameters. (One could also accuse much of the indie community of not being aware of the good music inside its parameters, but that’s another issue.) How many times have you heard someone listen to a band and say “this sounds like indie rock”? Such a statement misses the point and potential of the genre completely. A form of music once renowned for its eclecticism and adventurousness is now making itself irrelevant with its own redundancy.
Let’s imagine, for argument’s sake, that the entire world of guitar rock is the letters A through Z. Indie rock, just a fraction of this spectrum, could be represented by the letters A to D (and that’s being generous). Now, how many words can one make with those four letters? You could make “cab”, “dab”, “bad”, “cad”, “dad”, “add”, “a”, and “ABBA”. All these words have their uses, of course, but you’re not going to write a great novel using them exclusively. My point is, most of the bands playing indie rock today don’t have a sonic vocabulary broad enough to impress.
The Shins’ debut album, Oh, Inverted World, however, does impress. This isn’t because the band sounds unlike any other. Comparisons to other bands (Apples in Stereo and Modest Mouse are the names mostly likely to be thrown around) are probably inevitable and not entirely unfounded. However, no one could accuse the Shins of adhering to a stereotype. Oh, Inverted World is filled with musical allusions that will probably go over the heads of many backpack-and-thick-rimmed-glasses wearing listeners: lots of Brian Wilson-like vocal lines, McGuinn-esque jangley guitar, some Barrett-oid psych here and there. The album’s generous use of electronics (which, admirably, sound fully integrated, not like an extra appendage) remind me of those employed on Brian Eno’s Another Green World in their ability to sound chilly and inviting simultaneously.
Chilly might be an appropriate adjective for the Shins in the sense that they remind me greatly of the Chills. Not that they sound exactly like the legendary New Zealand group (though “Your Algebra” does sound a lot like the Chills’ “Whole Weird World”) but they share the same uncanny ability to mix bright ‘60s pop with melancholy post-punk. Album highlights like “One by One All Day”, “Know Your Onion!” and “Girl on the Wing” accomplish this with ease. Their sunny hooks are tempered by more subtle, darker undercurrents. Ergo, they’re inherently catchy but never in a crass or obvious way. Even the album’s most immediately hummable moments seem to be absorbed into the listener’s brain by osmosis, instead of jackhammered into his or her skull.
In keeping with the Chills comparison, the first single from Oh, Inverted World, “New Slang”, is definitely the Shins’ “Pink Frost”: a moody, ethereal number that nevertheless will linger in the listener’s head long after it has ceased playing. Ghostly background harmonies and strummed acoustic guitar set the mood before giving way to a pristine electric guitar solo. It’s the album’s centerpiece and has instant classic status written all over it. Cut from the same cloth, is the album’s closer, “The Past and Pending”. The song’s quiet, nearly whispered verses gently explode into a shimmering, irresistible chorus. It’s a fine end to this short album (running time is a little over half an hour), leaving the listener wanting more.
All of the aforementioned songs are a testament to James Mercer’s songcraft as are his lyrics which speak so much of resisting the temptation to express one’s emotions explicitly that the album might as well have been titled Oh, Introverted World. The album’s opening line “I think I’ll go home and mull this over before I cram it down my throat” is exemplary as are lines like “You’ll learn to live like a mouse” and “I quietly tied all my guts into knots”. But such is the Shins’ charm. Musically and lyrically, all the emotions are bubbling just beneath the surface but obvious to anyone who is paying attention. This works in nearly the same way you know what a friend is thinking just by observing his body language or facial expressions. He doesn’t have to say a word. You know exactly what he feels.
With Oh, Inverted World, the Shins have put together an enjoyable if not astonishing little debut. It may not change your life or be of groundbreaking significance but the next time you walk into ye olde hipster record shoppe with a couple of bucks burning a hole in your pocket, you could do a hell of a lot worse.