I've missed three chances to see the Shins, who hail from New Mexico and are signed to the once-legendary Sub Pop label, perform live. The first time was a year ago, when they were the opening act on a three-band bill whose other players were the Black Heart Procession and Modest Mouse. I had never heard of them before, and was in no hurry to get to the club that night; they had just left the stage when I arrived, and I didn't think I had really missed anything.
The second and third times were a couple of weeks ago, when they were again opening for Modest Mouse. I had started to hear some positive things about their new record, "Oh, Inverted World", so I really wanted to make sure that I got to the club in time to catch their act. Trouble was, I hadn't bothered to buy tickets in advance, and the shows for both nights were completely sold out.
It wasn't until I got this record a week or two later that I realized just how big a loss this was. On "Oh, Inverted World", their semi-debut record (they've been around in one form or another for years), the Shins manage to sound like no one else by sounding a lot like a Chapel Hill bar band circa 1987 with a serious jones for the kind of oddball pop pioneered by the likes of Brian Wilson. The vocals of James Mercer, who is also the principle songwriter, float in the same rarified air occupied by Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips, Doug Martsch of Built to Spill, and Scott Miller of Game Theory and Loud Family: not quite ethereal enough to be considered a true falsetto, and with enough small mistakes for the listener to know that Mercer is singing with all his heart because these are HIS songs, and he couldn't bear to let anyone else sing them even if his pipes aren't the best ones for the job.
The biggest problem with this record is the uneven production. There are some well-recorded tracks, where each instrument occupies its own space while integrating seemlessly into the overall sound of the song. But on a few tracks, the instruments sound very muddy, and it's hard to tell one note from another. The intricate, organically complimentary bass lines are often lost in the confusing muddle of midrange tones, and the drums usually sound like a homemade drum kit made mostly out of cardboard boxes and the lids from the pots and pans in the kitchen. The treble on the vocals and guitars is sometimes turned up so high that it sounds like those parts were recorded in a near-airless studio on the moon while the rest of the instruments were being recorded underwater. The murky production, in combination with the often incoherent vocalizing of Mercer, means that the listener can't make out the lyrics too often.
Which is a damn shame, because the lyrics are one of the real strengths of this band. Thankfully, the CD booklet includes a full lyric sheet, so you can follow along as the disc is playing until you've memorized them. Because you will memorize them; these are beautiful fragments of prose cobbled together to form a very loose kind of verse. They don't need the kind of leeway that we often grant to rock lyrics; these words could stand on their own and still be impressive. They are so evocative that just reading the lyrics aloud will give you the same sense of emotion that is contained in the music that goes with them; the sense of regret, loss, and joy is so palpable that you can almost hear the songs in your head before you've listened to a single note.
But the music isn't just playing second fiddle to the words; there are some flat-out brilliant songs on this record. "One By One All Day" is a rollicking joyride tinged with sadness that contains the lyric from which the album gets its name; it manages to interweave memories of childhood afternoons spent on grandfather's farm with regret over a relationship gone wrong without sounding trite. "New Slang", a dreamwalk through the lost possibilities of unrequited love, relies on a simple acoustic guitar and a perfectly crafted bass line to invoke a wistfulness like that found in traditional country tunes like Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" and Patsy Cline's "Walking After Midnight". For once, Mercer's voice sounds perfectly at home, like this was the song that he was born to sing. The closing track, "The Past and the Pending", incorporates a trumpet and a ghostly piano, and is easily the longest song on the record, clocking in at almost 5 1/2 minutes. But you don't notice the time passing; every bar, it seems, improves on the one before it, adding some subtlety or nuance until the song builds to a soft crescendo that quickly dissipates into the tranquil emptiness of silence; if you're not paying attention, you won't notice that the song has ended until several seconds later. Not coincidentally, these three tracks also boast some of the cleanest production on the record; you get the feeling that if they had been able to capture this same sound on some of the other tracks, the Shins would have produced a truly outstanding record.
As it stands, however, we are left with a pretty good record whose greatest gift may be the promise of better things to come. This is one of the strongest debut records to come along this year (well, until the Strokes, anyway), and we can only hope that its sequel will live up to the expectations established by "Oh, Inverted World".