100 for 2000 – #71. The Shins – Wincing the Night Away

To end another wonderful decade of great music, I’m going to write about ten albums from each of the last ten years, that are either great, or hold some sort of personal significance. A musical kiss off to 00s.

2007 – #1. The Shins – Wincing the Night Away
(Sub Pop)

The ShinsWincing the Night Away. I feel like that’s all I have to say to explain how important this album is to me. Because I have such strong feelings about this record. This mix of anxiety, excitement, love, sadness, sense of self, poetry, transcendence and so much more. And when I mix those feelings into a soup and try to describe them, all I can say is the ShinsWincing the Night Away. This was my album of 2007.

I listened to this album a hell of a lot. The film clip for these songs in my head is London. Just walking around. If you walk along Kensington High Street near Royal Albert Hall, it’s an open sky. And the opening notes of Sleeping Lessons, at dusk, sounded like someone turning the stars on in the northern sky, one by one. This album got me through the winter and carried me through several years, a hell of a lot of Shins gigs and even last June, in New York, where I was lucky again, and saw them play with a new line-up.

Something about the open-ness of the lyrics that allows one to fall into their music completely. Well, it happens to me at least. It’s like a new pair of shoes that you put on immediately, and then wear all the time. The two bittersweet songs directly about girls – Girl Sailor and Turn On Me – shades of every girl I’ve ever known are hidden in those songs.

After Chutes Too Narrow, and album I loved so much, I was cautious about this new one. What if it wasn’t as good? But if anything, it’s better. And the weirder tracks that initially seemed cold and alien to me, and now amongst my favourites. Four years later, my favourite track is Red Rabbits, one of my least favourites to begin with. It will change again in six months I’m sure.

I loved this band all out of proportion. They are my band of the 00s. Their impact on me goes beyond quenching my musical thirsts. It’s wrapped up on how I live my life. As age continues to call, and blind passion fades, I wonder if I’ll ever feel this way about a band again. I hope I do.

I have danced to this record. I have moped to this record. I have loved to this record. I have been heartbroken with this record. I have lived a wonderful four years, with this record. And having said all that, any critical assessment on the music will just fall flat. I can’t be critical with this. I have chosen a side and that side is the Shins. So you can find that stuff elsewhere. The record got great reviews. I’m sure they wont be tough to find.

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100 for 2000 – #32. The Shins – Chutes Too Narrow

To end another wonderful decade of great music, I’m going to write about ten albums from each of the last ten years, that are either great, or hold some sort of personal significance. A musical kiss off to 00s.

2003 – #2. The Shins – Chutes Too Narrow
(Sub Pop)

This album is one of my very favourites. Yet, oddly, I came to the Shins very late. I owned their first album and liked bits of it, but with Chutes Too Narrow, I fell in love with them.

I think this one is an easy sell as well, right? This was a huge record at the time. Washed up in that whole Garden State publicity, this was a mega-hit record. Ubiquitous use in soundtracks, TV shows, bookshops and coffee houses – this is the soundtrack to the 00s. That jangly guitar, oblique lyrics, pretty repetitive melodies… seen a mobile phone ad on TV lately? Chances are it sounds like the Shins.

What set the Shins a step above all the other indie bands of the time (and now) is James Mercer. His unique expression – both vocally and lyrically – gives this band an extra trump. Because, at the end of the day, the guitar playing is not great, the drumming is not out of the world, the bassplaying is pretty bog standard. It is really, really, really, really an album about the songs.

So I have listened to this record hundreds of times (probably) and I still don’t know what half the album is about. But I know what it means to me. Kissing the Lipless is all about the end of a relationship. Mine’s Not A High Horse is about arguing philosophy with other bands. So Says I is a slightly un-Shins-y lyric about…um…the collapse of civilizations? These are all guesses, I actually have no idea.

The open-to-interpretation things is great. And so rare these days with everyone trying to make a point. For a songwriter who is obviously very clever, Mercer doesn’t make a point of it. He goes for mood, not brains. Oblique metaphors aside. But even lines like “Your sheets were growing grass out of the corners of your mind” – that sets a mood. You don’t think – great metaphor James! Good one! Clever lad!

This is another well lived record. I must have listened to this album several times a day for a year straight. It is, like all albums abused in such a way, wrapped up in girlfriends, friends and enemies I had at the time. High Horse in particular – fuck there was a lot of high horses in Sydney at the time. When Mercer sings about the girl “making tea in your underwear” in Those To Come, there is one girl that comes to mind. As for Gone for Good – I know who I wished would go back to their home town and stop fucking around. It’s that kind of record.

Sure, there are more highlights, but I will just be listing them. Turn A Square, Pink Bullets…there’s not a bad song on here. And there’s only 10 of them! I took that to heart very quickly as well.

Two last things about the Shins. I know I’m very much a lyrics guy, and Mercer is like the Hendrix of lyrics. He is just masterful, and taught me so much – when to be direct, when to be guarded, when to play with an image, when to say less. I still try to learn from him. Songs I wrote before this album seem somewhat – simple.

And lastly – when they finally toured, my friend Adrian’s band got to support them. I had guitar tech-ed a little for them. So I got to meet the Shins, they signed my records and that was a blast. But AMAZINGLY, they asked if they could use a guitar if one of theirs broke a string or something. And Adrian used my Fender Mustang as his spare anyway. So there was a wonderful moment when I saw this band play Saint Simon with my electric guitar. That is an odd, happy sensation.

3. A Thousand Different Versions Of Yourself

3. Wincing The Night Away – The Shins

This record came out at the start of the year, and I still listen to it. The Shins, I think, will go down as my favourite band of the decade. Their two previous albums, Oh Inverted World and Chutes Too Narrow have soundtracked the last six years. This continues with Wincing the Night Away.

I have good memories of this record. Walking around Kensington, middle of the night, listening to the opener, Sleeping Lessons, and looking at the open sky above Hyde Park. That keyboard line is the twinkle of stars. James Mercer, that brilliant man, screams out some brilliant nonsense over it.

There are a handful of classic Shins pop songs on here. First single Phantom Limb is the best of the lot, really. It reaches for the sky, with a sadness and again, beautiful nonsense. You kind of do, and you kind of don’t, know what Mercer is on about. Turn On Me, another highlight, is a lot clearer. A goodbye to someone you don’t get along with.

And again, there’s that soundtracking. Which pushes this record, and the two records ahead of it, above the pack. I will listen to this record and forever think of being in London for the first time. I did see them 4 times this year. So Turn On Me makes me think of someone I never got along with. And Girl Sailor, the third of the great pop songs, just nails something I’ve felt. By being wonderfully ambiguous about it.

The rest of the record has some nice slow haunting stuff, and some trippy sampling stuff. All of which is great. It’s a bit hypnotic, this record. Someone could come along and remix it. There are oddities, like the less than a minute long Pam Berry.

So I’ve listened to this record at least once a week since the start of the year and there are still things I’m learning about it. I think Chutes… might just edge it out, but if they come up with another great record before 2010, they will have ruled this entire decade for me.

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