Sleeping Lessons

I am sleepless again, so I thought I’d write something. Quick note: life is good and I’ll tell you all about it later. Right now, something else I’ve been meaning to write about.

The Shins are going to go down as my favourite band of the 00s.

It’s heartening and inspiring that, after all these years, I only just saw the greatest gig of my life. And that the next one around the corner may even be better.

I’ve seen the Shins a handful of times. And, they have been one of the worst live bands I have ever seen. To turn around and say they are now one of the best…well, that’s one big almighty turn around.

I love how a band can bookmark a life.

My first encounter with the Shins was through a band called Beachwood Sparks. In a lot of ways, the Shins stole their thunder. Out of nowhere, that dated grunge label SubPop had signed a pretty cool band. And then they signed this other one, one that people told me sounded like Love (the 60s band). Weird little indie album cover. You know, I didn’t even buy it. Someone sent it too me, when I was working at a community radio station.

The album is called Oh! Inverted World. I listened to it and liked parts of it. But it wasn’t as good as Beachwood Sparks…

Hanna really loved the first song, ‘Caring Is Creepy’. And it’s pretty good. I remember Craig and me at some girl we just met’s house, at around 2am on a random night, her trying to find some demo of some guy she used to go out (he wrote a song about her) And we were listening to something, and Craig and I discussing the Shins, and him quoting some lines I’ve never noticed before…

Lucked out, found my favourite records
Waiting for me at the Birmingham Mall.
The songs that I heard, the occasional book
Are all the fun I ever took.

I don’t think I ever heard lines that summed up my upbringing and teenage life so well before. The record still didn’t really hit me though. Yeah, it was VAGUELY Love-esque, but there was one more part of the puzzle I didn’t have to unlock that first album.

I don’t even know who it was now but some guest host on Rage introduced ‘New Slang’. And they just said that this clip was amazing, and how it referenced some 80s album covers. And did it ever. Oh my. Let It Be. New Day Rising. Double Nickels On A Dime. And other more random ones. Faithfully recreated in this silly little film clip with the saddest melody. By then the record was pretty old but yeah, I was all ears for the next one.

And for Chutes Too Narrow again, after a slow start, it won me over. And by won me over, I mean bowled me over completely. It was my early 20s album. To it’s raw and angry-ish sounds I felt my highest and my lowest.

But it was the songs itself. It towers over other albums that soundtracked that part of my life. The mystery of the lyrics, the weird chord changes and rhythms. That terrible/wonderful mix. The wisdom. The images. And the great record cover – so much better than the first.

It’s album for the early to mid twenties. It’s when life gets a bit more complicated, and you need a voice to reflect that. As the relationships in my life got more grown up, the more Chutes Too Narrow spoke to me.

The songs of love – ‘Gone For Good’, ‘Kissing the Lipless’, etc, just struck a chord so much more than say, the love songs of Oasis did for me 7 years earlier. There was a smartness to them, but also a maturity. Something that I call a gentleman-ness, that you can find in the music of Ray Charles. When Ray sings a heartbreaking ballad, you know he’s being a gentleman about it, and not being a whiny singer-songwriter.

But it was ‘Mine’s Not A High Horse’, a brilliant pop song about arguments and close-mindedness that really struck me. In ‘So Says I’, Mercer regretfully chronicles our own violent natures. For an optimistic kid moved out of home and living in the melting pot of cultures that is Newtown NSW and the indie rock scene, those songs meant a lot.

I remember pretty much killing that record. My girlfriend at the time used to listen to it all the time, and we would one-up eachother with the details we could find in it. She explained to me the line;

Just a glimpse of ankle and I
React like it’s 1805

It’s about perving on girls. We think. Anyway, we listened to that record as we drove through NSW that Christmas. Later, I got the record for a friend who knew all I knew about music and more. He later said it was his favourite album ever. And as much as I’m loving the new one, I think it’s my favourite too.

But like I said, it’s amazing that when you think you have all your favourite things worked out, a record and a band can come along and top your personal chart. I have been listening to the Shins every day.

The new record is fantastic, obviously. The lyrics are amazing. The production is very different, but hardly commercial radio fodder. Early highlights are’ Turn On Me’, which sounds like Roy Orbison, and ‘Girl Sailor’. That 50s backbeat is used in a number of tracks and apparently a big influence on this record. And the single ‘Phantom Limb’ – geez, what a song. If you’ve never heard of this band and decided to make your way all the way through my rambling and down to here, I suggest you seek out this track.

All I know is that it’s already the soundtrack to this part of my life. I think of my through those songs now. I’ve been sitting with Charlie Brown and working out the chords. And I’m in love with a band completely again. I’m starstruck. I’m 14. I want to join the fanclub. I want to play the record to all my friends.

I hope they get another record out before the decade ends. And when I look back at those ten years, the memories will sing with the voice of James Mercer.

Danny Yau
London

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