Category Archives: The Shins
Flake Music – When You Land Here, It’s Time To Return
1997 / 2014 (reissue)
It’s impossible not to think of Flake Music’s one and only album, 1997’s When You Land Here, It’s Time To Return, without thinking of the band they would become shortly after, The Shins. Considering the achievements of Oh, Inverted World just a few years later, it’s easy to assume this would fare considerably worse in comparison. And yeah, sure, you can look at it that way—the songwriting’s certainly not as distinctive (it’s worth noting that these songs are written by the band as a whole, not just James Mercer, as they are in the Shins), and the lyrics aren’t as sharp, even if Mercer’s style—twisting, complex rhymes in service of open hearts and open wounds—is mostly present.
Yet while it’s true that When You Land isn’t up to the quality of the band’s best work, When You Land surprisingly benefits from listening to it out of context of its release. (Mercer seems to know this too: He decided to remix, remaster and re-release the album in late 2014 on his own Aural Apothecary label.) See, Flake Music don’t sound like The Shins, not exactly anyway (one of the only tracks that does sound like that band is actually called “The Shins,” notably one of the album’s highlights). Instead, at this point, they are closer to a cross between Guided By Voices, early Apples In Stereo and the earnest crunch of post-hardcore and emo acts. It has its charms, but it’s also not entirely different than the ocean of music recorded by indie guitar bands in the late-’90s
So, while at the time, Flake Music came across as a particularly tuneful version of something that was already out there, now it reads like a crystal ball reading of The Shins’ career—”What if they decided to be a punky alt band instead?” The brighter, cleaner remix helps bring out the band’s natural gift for melody even from an early age. “Spanway Hits” and “The Shins” could easily slip into a Shins B-side collection unnoticed; “Blast Valve” and “Vantage” showcase a different, more expansive side of the group, while the brief, ramshackle instrumentals that pop up throughout suggest a certain poignancy and restlessness that would serve the band well later on. Mercer would soon grow tired of Flake Music and begin the Shins as a side project for himself and drummer Jesse Sandoval, but seeing its potential, the rest of the band joined too, and Flake Music soon just became a curio of ’90s rock. But “curio” it may be, that designation seems like a disservice to When You Land Here, It’s Time To Return, which is better than that label suggests, and it stands as a well-constructed, if inessential, record apart from and a part of the Shins’ legacy.
The Shins – Port Of Morrow
Who are the Shins? Are they the Albuquerque-born, Portland-based four piece made up of James Mercer, Jesse Sandoval, Martin Crandall and Dave Hernandez? Or is it just another name for Mercer himself, the sole singer and songwriter who just used other musicians to give the illusion of a collaborative band? Well, with Sandoval, Crandall and Hernandez replaced wholesale by new musicians, 2012’s Port Of Morrow attempts to finally bring an answer to this question. And with five years since the last Shins record, it’s certainly about time. Anyone worried that Mercer would push the band into more atmospheric territory after working with Danger Mouse on Broken Bells shouldn’t fear: Port Of Morrow is a Shins album through and through, with all the classic pop songwriting that entails. However, he’s picked up a few things from the time he’s spent on his other projects. From the moment “The Rifle’s Spiral” kicks in with its pounding beat, plinking pianos and menacing guitar groove, it’s clear that this is the group’s most densely and slickly produced album yet. Yes, Wincing The Night Away experimented with different genres, instruments and song structures, but everything still felt relatively stripped back. Here, the group (and producer Greg Kurstin) doesn’t so much experiment as pile arrangements and effects onto the Shins’ tried-and-true formula, which gives the songs a different feel. Even “Simple Song,” which is the closest thing to a typical Shins single here (and, not coincidentally, the record’s best track), feels like an epic, filled to the brim with jittery guitar, swelling backing vocals and a dreamy, keyboard-led coda. It’s true that this different vibe may partially have to do with the new, expanded lineup, which, if anything, proves that the original “Shins” did bring something distinctive to the table after all. But it hardly matters because, as it always does, the success of a Shins album falls squarely on Mercer’s songwriting.
Mercer’s great gifts are his wittily surreal words, his ability to write powerful melodies and his nimble, boyish voice. And when he lets those shine, the album does as well. “Simple Song,” with its ecstatic hook, is one of the group’s best singles; “Bait And Switch”‘s percolating pop showcases the album’s production perfectly, while the lovely, acoustic “September” feels like a lost cut from Wincing The Night Away. What keeps Port from reaching the heights of the other Shins records, though, is that it is top-heavy, with no highlights gracing the second side. Certainly, tracks like “For A Fool” and “Fall Of ’82,” whose chorus quivers with McCartney-esque pop-soul, sound fine as they play, yet they feel like factory seconds, hooky without ever truly taking off. Despite this, the fact that even the worst songs here are still pretty good is a testament to Mercer’s skills. The world may never know how all this would have sounded with the original band, but Port Of Morrow demonstrates that, either way, Mercer still knows his way around a tune and that even a sub-par Shins album makes for good music.
The Shins – Wincing The Night Away
It’s hard to believe now, but up until 2004, the Shins were relative unknowns outside of music critics and indie rock circles. Oh, Inverted World and Chutes Too Narrow might have garnered them a passionate following, but it wasn’t until the band featured in Zach Braff’s 2004 indie dramedy Garden State that their success really took off. See, the Shins’ music wasn’t just played as a transition between scenes or during the credits—it was the focal point of dialogue, with Natalie Portman declaring that “New Slang” will “change your life,” virtually ensuring anyone who saw the movie would give it a listen.
Between this and the over three-year wait between albums, the Shins faced unreasonably high expectations for the first time in their career. Lesser bands would crack under the pressure or, worse, release an overambitious mess in an attempt at justify the hype. Instead, James Mercer and co. simply moved on ahead as if nothing ever happened, and Wincing The Night Away feels like a natural progression from Chutes Too Narrow. It still uses the group’s same basic formula, matching dark, clever lyrics to sprightly, catchy melodies, but Mercer introduces a few new twists into the mix. Compared to the Shins’ past records, Wincing has a relatively slick production (courtesy of Joe Chiccarelli), and it both helps Mercer’s experiments to cohere and breathes new life into the band’s more well-worn territory. In fact, the quintessentially Shins-sounding numbers on here—namely “Phantom Limb” and the jangly “Australia”—not only don’t feel like retreads but actually stand up to some of the band’s best singles. By and large, though, the album is dedicated to the band expanding their palette. The liberating opener “Sleeping Lessons” begins with woozy keyboards before building to a rousing finish; the pensive, murky “Black Wave” and the bitter “Split Needles” succumb to the darkness of Mercer’s lyrics, while the fuzzy “Pam Berry” recalls past off-kilter interludes like “Your Algebra.” Elsewhere, “Sea Legs” grooves to a stuttering bassline, and “Red Rabbits” skips gently to what sounds like a steel drum merged with an electric piano. It’s not a classic like their debut nor is it as immediate as Chutes, but Wincing The Night Away proved the Shins were a band capable of evolving on their own terms, unconcerned with whose lives they were changing in the process.