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.
Various Artists – Garden State [Motion Picture Soundtrack]
When Zach Braff handpicked the tracks for the soundtrack to his directorial debut, the 2004 dramedy Garden State, he said he simply made a mixtape of the songs he had on repeat as he wrote the screenplay. Little did he know how much impact his little mixtape would have, eventually picking up a Grammy and selling a half-million copies (effectively going gold) in the US. Of course, this isn’t a groundbreaking number, even by soundtrack standards. But unlike the multi-platinum soundtracks to, say, The Bodyguard, Purple Rain, or Saturday Night Fever, the Garden State soundtrack didn’t have a single major pop hit to buoy it. Rather, it’s a collection of gentle folk, indie pop and coffeehouse electro-pop, designed as moody background music for cloudy days and romantic longing. As a soundtrack, it works well within the context of the film, illuminating the waywardness, introspection and self-discovery of the characters; apart from the film, it’s cohesive yet slight, downcast and pretty without leaving much of a distinct impression. The album has the reputation for being a hipster-lite playlist, which, with its inclusion of the Shins, Iron & Wine and Thievery Corporation, seems like an apt judgment. But Braff was shrewd enough to add in Nick Drake and Simon & Garfunkel to give the record some historical depth as well as some more straight-ahead tracks like Colin Hay’s mournful “I Just Don’t Think I’ll Ever Get Over You” and Cary Brothers’ swaying ballad “Blue Eyes” for some much-needed diversity. What’s far more important than this soundtrack’s content, though, is its success. Braff’s years of starring in NBC’s quirky sitcom Scrubs gave Garden State more star power than the average debut independent comedy, which in turn pushed this soundtrack to its unlikely gold certification, thus giving this music a larger platform than it otherwise would have had. Plus, because his music choices leaned toward ruminating, lovelorn pop, the soundtrack helped open up indie music for a whole new audience that was able to suddenly connect the dots from mainstream acts like Snow Patrol and Vanessa Carlton to more underground fare. (Of course, leading off with a Coldplay tune helps that transition too.) Despite its flaws, the Garden State soundtrack’s success profoundly influenced the commercial prospects for indie music in the 2000s, for better and for worse.
Broken Bells – Broken Bells
As much as he would like to hide it, The Shins is essentially a solo project for James Mercer backed by musicians so it appears to be a collaborative band. They play his songs under his direction. His firing of drummer Jesse Sandoval and keyboardist Marty Crandall only furthered this notion as well as the notion that Mercer was becoming bored with The Shins, at least for the time being. So, it doesn’t come as much surprise that Mercer formed Broken Bells with Danger Mouse (billed here by his real name Brian Burton) who specializes in productions with darker musical shades that don’t often characterize Mercer’s day job.
Burton’s previous excursions with rock musicians (Beck, The Black Keys, The Good, The Bad & The Queen) often explore murky atmospheres that darken the palette of an artist’s sound, and one may expect Broken Bells to follow suit. However, Burton’s production is closer in spirit to his work with Gnarls Barkley and Gorillaz, favoring big beats, soulful keyboards, and a heavier desire to experiment. This of course, is somewhat grounded by Mercer’s acoustic guitar and typically melodic vocals, which keeps the music rooted firmly in rock and not electronica.
This combination looks good on paper, and often enough, it works. “The High Road”‘s ascending chorus and “The Mall And Misery”‘s hip-hop infused pop are among the greatest successes here. Elsewhere, “You Head Is On Fire” takes the album in a different direction, tripping on spacey psychedelia to a greater extent than either of the pair has done before. There is no doubt the record sounds good, and it never is anything less than delightful while it’s playing. But much of the album is much too transient with only a few songs distinguishing themselves from Broken Bells‘ mellow melancholy. Because of this, it ends up being somewhat of a let down because Mercer and Burton, it seems, had the potential to create something really great and not just good. That’s splitting hairs though because that’s exactly what this is: a good album, and fans of either musician will not hesitate to eat it up.