There is no denying that the Shins are a critical landmark in the history of indie music. The band’s mainstream appeal and hip indie clout made them something of a gateway artist for young music lovers around 2001, the year their breakthrough album Oh, Inverted World was released. In 2004, when Zack Braff’s trendy independent romantic-comedy Garden State became an unexpected hit, the Shins were pulled along for the ride into the mainstream world, having two of their songs on the film’s Grammy Award-winning soundtrack. The band was even name-dropped in one of the movie’s most iconic scenes, the first meeting between the characters portrayed by Braff and co-star Natalie Portman, ensuring that audiences would remember their name (and their music) when they left the theater. The story doesn’t start there, however.
In 1997, the Shins released their debut album under the name Flake Music called When You Land Here, It’s Time to Return. Now with a reissue of the underappreciated and highly sought-after album, the legacy of the Shins has had a gaping hole refilled, and the context in which the indie classics Oh, Inverted World and 2003’s Chutes Too Narrow were conceived can be more widely understood. But a question for fans who have never heard the debut record remains: are Flake Music any good?
The answer is that they are different. When You Land Here, It’s Time to Return shares many of the common features of landmark artists’ first albums: the compositions are messy and wild, the performances youthful and energetic, and the sound raw and inexperienced. The specter of ‘90s indie rock hangs over the album in a way that was never so acutely obvious with the Shins, but the tangled harmonies of jangly rhythm guitars, sharp melodic leads, and a mess of chaotic, sloppy drum fills still characterize the sound. In many ways it plays out exactly how one would expect: like a rough-around-the-edges, untested version of the Shins’ bright, contemplative guitar pop filtered through the alternative-rock culture in which it was made; on the other hand, it’s built from entirely different parts.
With the Shins, frontman James Mercer would reveal himself as a singular, eloquent poet of the lovesick and forlorn, offering complicated explorations of sincerity, maturation, and heartache; with Flake Music, Mercer seems vulnerable, much less confident, although yet still remarkably developed. His sophisticated musings had not yet become the heart of the band’s music, which instead branded itself around the jammier side of ‘90s indie – more Built to Spill than Pavement – but his characteristic twang is still present, albeit in a much rawer form. That the band was sensible enough to so completely refocus the music around Mercer’s distinctive words and voice for the first “proper” Shins record is almost unbelievable; Oh, Inverted World features such a fully-developed, thoroughly unique sound, a departure so far from the openness and passivity of When You Land Here, It’s Time to Return that it’s hard to believe that it’s the same band just four years later. It’s nothing short of alchemy.
What Flake Music builds from is the marriage between instruments. Expressive, spindly guitar licks glide and bend in an almost perfect emulation of the signature sound of Built to Spill’s Doug Martsch, particularly in jam-oriented songs like “Blast Valve” and “Deluca”, which dedicate passages solely to interlocked band grooves, heartfelt guitar work, and drums that match every beat and shift in melody. It’s distractingly similar to Perfect From Now On, the stand-out Built to Spill album that came just a few months earlier in 1997, showing that Flake Music was steeped in the same underground alt-rock tradition as everyone else back then.
Despite the rawness, there are still shining examples of what the Shins would become on When You Land Here, It’s Time to Return. The soft, earnest melodies of “Mieke” underscore Mercer’s poetic imagery and sudden climbs into falsetto as he sings, “Like two strays in a terminal / Floating cinders in the sky / Drifting leaves while stoned aside / This is the race we’re meant to run.” This is the sort of abstract, forlorn wordplay that would go on to utterly define the songwriter’s style, and there are traces of it all over their debut. On “Spanway Hits” – the album opener and perhaps the song most emblematic of who the Shins would become – Mercer confidently utters, “Cut all these ties, you’ll see how far apart we are” as the instrumental cuts out. This is a man who was gifted with an ability to convey uniquely powerful imagery from the very start, who keenly moved himself to the forefront of every record since.
If this album shows anything, it’s that Flake Music was a much more collaborative and free-spirited venture in comparison. The Shins, by contrast, eventually became a singular, offbeat one-man show, every note of every record radiating from the soul of James Mercer. The frontman would even go so far as to eventually fire his Flake Music bandmates from the Shins and start fresh with new personnel in 2009. When You Land Here, It’s Time to Return, then, is the sound of a band that hasn’t figured themselves out yet, as well as a brilliant songwriter who hasn’t yet started taking the chances that would define him. It may seem a little dated, but for the most part the album holds up as a charming piece of timid ‘90s indie rock: broken, raw, a little sheltered, but bracingly different and fun. Still, it’s much more interesting as a precursor of what was to come for the Shins, and a glimpse at the moment when the indie world shifted from apathetic, nostalgia-driven, ironically-detached alt-rock into the poignant, earnest modernist pop that defined a generation of maturing music lovers. From that point on, it’s all history.