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Don't underestimate the influence of the Pacific North-West of the US in shaping the world you see today. It gave us Starbucks.... erm, ok. It gave us Microsoft.... hey, errr, great. And it gave us the fabled Seattle music scene of the late 80s, a scene that begat the likes of Nirvana, Soundgarden and Mudhoney, bands united by a love of howling and rumbling guitars, lumber shirts, and meaning it maaaan. And by a record label; Sub Pop.
In terms of influence, you can make a pretty good case for Sub Pop being the most important label of the last 25 years. Built on grunge, they diversified, and an important stage of their diversification was signing The Shins. The Shins didn't sound like a stereotypical Sub Pop band at all; nobody was howling and sounding liable to marry a psychonutbar before shooting themselves, or on an apparent career path that would inevitably end up with the recording of a James Bond theme. They were, whisper it, an indie guitar pop band, and don't even mention it, they were from Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Emerging from the ashes of a band called Flake (latterly Flake Music), the Shins formed in 1997. The first album 'Oh, Inverted World' came along in 2001 after a few EPs. The band was dealt a huge stroke of luck when the film 'Garden State' convinced a significant proportion of its male audience that humming 'New Slang' put you in with a chance with Natalie Portman; it and several other songs are featured prominently on the soundtrack. What convention demands I call "the sophomore effort" came along in 2003; 'Chutes Too Narrow' was even better, adding more production fidelity to OIW's occasional distance.
Actually, 'indie pop band' is totally accurate, yet somehow slightly unsatisfactory. Lead singer/guitarist/songwriter James Mercer tends to write words to evoke a mood rather than convey a literal meaning; tossing off metaphors and similes like Mark E Smith and Stephen Malkmus' busker brother. But he has something else too; a wonderful grasp of melody. It's often said that the bizarre thing about Shins songs is that they sound like the greatest thing in the world while they're on, and yet you can't remember them properly five minutes later. Normally this would be a minus, but for this band it works; it means the songs somehow keep surprising you a little even on repeated plays. Maybe the reason the tracks are so hard to pin down is the sheer amount of melodic and lyrical ideas on show in each just overloads the listener; Mercer usually stacks more tunes (be they vocal melodies, lovely guitar motifs, warm keyboard parts) into one song than many folk manage in an entire career. And because he doesn't simply go 'that's a good tune; I'll turn it into a massive crashing footstomper of a singalong chorus', they burrow their way into your head in an insidious fashion.
He's quite intense too; the Shins live were a slightly odd but worthwhile experience. The songs were very well reproduced, nicely played and gorgeously sung, and the band were hugely gregarious. Well, kinda anyway; I've seen them three times, and Mercer barely said a word (although he's quite loquacious when interviewed), while his more motormouthed bandmates (especially now-sacked keyboardist Marty Crandall and guitarist/bassist Dave Hernandez) often couldn't shut up.
Anyway, the third album is 'Wincing The Night Away'. Some have lazily described it as a splicing of the first two records, but it's quite a bit denser than that. And while the first two records could be described as 'melancholy', often WTNA goes 'dark'. Also, to this listener, it has a feel of being more of an album (especially in terms of the sequencing) rather than the first two's vibe of 'this is a collection of songs'. It sports more guest musicians and more ambitious instrumentation too. Despite not being quite as immediately cuddly as their previous efforts, it was a huge success on its release, becoming the highest first week charting Sub Pop album ever.
(Oh, and the lyrics are really fiddly to read off the inlay. If you're going to include them, INCLUDE them.)
1. Sleeping Lessons
A spacey keyboard idea starts the album, and shortly a similarly spacey James Mercer vocal starts going on about.... something; maybe it's an exhortation to do.... something. You can't be sure. He's hot on his metaphors, is James. And at no point in this song are you taught how to sleep, so you may feel short-changed if that's the reason you bought the record. It circles round, adding the odd bit of low-key underpinning instrumentation, before suddenly turning into a driving semi-acoustic rock song about 2:30 in. A song that eases you into an album, rather than tossing cold water unexpectedly on your face before demanding 'what d'ya think of this, then?'
'Time to put the earphones on.....'
A far more uptempo number, one that screams 'SINGLE!', which indeed it was. It might be more lyrically upbeat, but it's hard to tell (another metaphorical riot; it might be about Australia, because there seem to be references to being chained up and stuck in the ocean and dodos which sort of ties in with its history. But there's loads of other stuff that seems to have nothing to do with anything, and the subject of all that deadly wildlife never crops up). Anyway, deeply hook-laden, with a cracking twangy geetar break in the middle.
3. Pam Berry
Something of a doodle; a stream of repeating electric guitar notes goes up and down the scale, and Mercer, slightly indistinctly in the Michael Stipe fashion of yore, sings about a 15 year old girl, who's probably called Pam Berry but you probably wouldn't stake your mortgage on that. It's over inside a minute, and it segues rather nicely into....
4. Phantom Limb
Another single, but a rather more subtle one. Fuzzy, static-ey bass leads into a rather languid track of interlocking jangly guitars. The lyric sounds like a dream of an extract from a fairytale of an entire mythology; they scan nicely anyway, and soon enough you arrive at the eminently hummable 'oooh-aye-oooh' chorus. Probably the song that seizes you most first time round. (Oh, research reveals that the song is about a young lesbian couple. I can only assume someone out there is bloody good at cryptic crosswords).
5. Sea Legs
'Wincing The Night Away' is a reference to the sleepless nights James Mercer suffered writing this album, and he's said that he wanted an album that resembled a dream. Well, Robyn Hitchcock may dream of trains, but it sounds very much like Mercer dreams of the sea; in an album sporting many maritime images, this is one of the mainstays. Strings and flute flourishes support a largely acoustic song that might be about the end of a relationship, or the beginning; frankly I'm useless at interpreting songs. Nicely weird breakdown section.
6. Red Rabbits
By dialling down the drums to a very low key percussion of tambourine and dripping water, the mood is changed entirely. Largely driven by damp keyboards and bass, with gradual introduction of strummed guitar, this tune meanders, kind of builds, ultimately ends up where basically it started, but with more strings. I like it, though. I give up on the lyrics here; occasionally Mercer's strivings for imagery rather than meaning leave him perilously close to pretentious, and here I think he falls in. Bonus marks for following 'I don't know I might, just give the old dark side a try' with a musical equivalent.
7. Turn On Me
Back comes the pop, and very nice it is too. As is a comparatively easily understood lyric (an uptempo take on a rather dark subject); when Mercer marries his wordplay to a smidge of accessibility, he's deadly, because this is great. The intro twangs us into the sort of verse where the singer seems to be tripping himself up with his words, a glorious chorus follows, a cracking guitar solo, lovely backing vocals.... a standout.
8. Black Wave
An acoustic guitar picks over an embroidered ambient soundscape (including some of the world's most distant handclaps, like applause at the foot of the Grand Canyon heard from the rim). Mercer's voice is treated in an equally Eno-esque fashion, and the lyrics are possibly best thought of as freeform melancholia (when he dreamily sings about 'looking on the brighter side' he might, just might, be being ironic).
9. Spilt Needles
Another acoustic picking, swiftly accompanied by a slightly odd-sounding drum pattern, leads into a very dark pop song. Quite a bizarre pop song too; after several listens I've decided there's no chorus, just a pot-pourri of verses, middle-eights and a wonderful twice-repeated breakdown bit. There's a lot of beautifully judged background embroidery (guitar feedback, odd keyboard sounds) too. Another riot of freeform downer lyrics, it's still probably my favourite song on the record, even if I have no idea of what being 'pressed on the handlebars of a blind man's bike' might be like. No needles were spilt in the making of this song. Probably.
10. Girl Sailor
Pop again, but slightly more straightforward and all-round upbeat. Still midtempo, but with perky, almost country-rock guitars to ease it along, this seems to tell the tale of one of those 'make or break' conversations that all relationships undergo, sooner or later. Mercer sings it in a sad but hopeful fashion, so as not to give away the ending..... you should never give away the ending.
11. A Comet Appears
A very low-key ending, as if 'Sleeping Lessons's' first two and a half minutes demanded a similar closing bookend. Muted acoustic, electric and slide guitar are the main protagonists, although a horn does have a lovely cameo at the climax. A lyrical downer of which Morrissey (to whom he has lazily been compared) would be proud; apparently there's a numbness in my heart and it's growing. Here's hoping it's indigestion. At least the promised comet does actually appear.
Personally, I gave this record the most intensive road test imaginable; literally. I drove round Ireland for 10 days in February 2007 with this as the sole soundtrack. (Well, apart from the odd diversion onto Radio Kerry and its ilk, but they were just plain scary with their death announcements and programmes about the home lives of Gaelic sports stars). And come the end, I still wasn't fed up with it. Sure, it's slightly patchy, but it's patchy for the right reasons; the band are trying things out, and occasionally they don't quite work. So, I would drive around in the rain and wind with the Shins; I'd dare to venture out in the mountains in that same (actually rather worse once you get up high, I'll have you know) rain and wind, and my near-hypothermia would be softened by humming the chorus of 'Phantom Limb'. And time in the car was made to feel more palatable, which is no mean feat when someone's as gagging to get out and climb something as I was.
It's pretty good in other circumstances, too. Still is, four years on.
So, recommended. Right, where did Natalie Portman get to? 'Oooooh, eeeeee oooooh......'
(Previously on Ciao, I almost forgot to mention).
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Sleeping Lessons
3 Pam Barry
4 Phantom Limb
6 Red Rabbits
7 Turn On Me
8 Black Wave
9 Split Needles
10 Girl Sailor
11 Comet Appears