Music News

A World Apart

Some bands trumpet their presence like a parade of angels. You know -- God's gift to music. The recent elevation of Bono to the status of world diplomat and would-be savior is just one example of the messiah complex rooted in the rock-star psyche. John Lennon spent the latter half of his career trying to downplay this very deification, only to have some Salinger-wielding crackpot forever fix his constellation in the pantheon of martyrdom. More abstruse groups like Radiohead take their own lonely, ascetic path to pop-cultural divinity. The Shins, however, appear to be the meek who shall truly inherit the earth.

"I think there are those bands out there that are just like 'We rule!' I never really seem to end up liking those bands," says James Mercer, the helium-voiced auteur behind the Shins. Riding a wave of popularity and music-press adulation, Mercer seems all too wary of the pitfalls of buying into one's own myth. "Our success is pretty limited right now, but it's still much more than I had really ever hoped for," he says. "A couple of years ago, I was pretty much resigned to obscurity and was fine with it."

Perhaps a lot of this modesty can be explained by the name of Mercer's band. Shins, after all, are much more likely to be kicked, skinned, bruised and broken than listened to. This same theory could also apply to the rather unassuming moniker of the Shins' prior incarnation, Flake. Begun in 1992 as a somewhat conventional, Pavement-slanted indie-rock combo, Flake labored away for most of that decade in the arid wasteland of Albuquerque, a city whose most lucrative cultural exports are turquoise jewelry and howling coyotes. The group released two full-lengths and a handful of singles during its seven-year existence; it played house parties and dive bars, and opened for the occasional touring group like Guided by Voices, Love as Laughter and even Denver's own Apples in Stereo.

"We played with them back in, like, '97," Mercer recalls of his first contact with Robert Schneider's band. "They were really cool. Robert is brilliant; he's amazing." The influence of Schneider's revered Elephant 6 collective is painted boldly across the Shins' aesthetic canvas. Besides the Apples' own spring-wound psychedelia, there are threads of Neutral Milk Hotel's narcoleptic grandeur and the Minders' power-pop acuity that unravel from the fringes of the Shins' sonic fabric.

When Flake disintegrated in 1999, Mercer and drummer Jesse Sandoval decided to focus their energies on a half-assed moonlighting gig they had formed called the Shins. "We mostly played unannounced shows in people's living rooms," Mercer confesses. A homemade, four-song, vinyl-only EP, Nature Bears a Vacuum, was the Shins' inaugural release in 1998. "We recorded that first seven-inch on an old cassette four-track. At first it was just a bedroom-side-project sort of thing. I had those songs, and they didn't really work with the Flake format." Bubbling with analog static and malfunctioning keyboards, Nature Bears a Vacuum was a crude, effusive, gloriously raw harbinger of what would eventually become the trademark Shins sound. Songs like "Eating Sties From Elephants' Eyes" and "My Seventh Rib" percolated like lysergic geysers, surging from new-wave surrealism to neo-psychedelic majesty.

Mercer still remembers the Shins' humble position at that point in their career. "We didn't get a lot of attention from that single. The one offer that we did get was from this guy in Tokyo who runs a tiny label called 100 Guitar Mania. He liked us and wrote me a letter, and then we started talking over e-mail. And then he just disappeared. He wanted to put out a record and everything else. It was the only sort of prospect we had at the time for a label."

For the jilted Shins, however, opportunity lurked just around the corner. After opening for up-and-coming indie-pop luminaries Modest Mouse, Mercer and company were invited to accompany that band on a U.S. tour. With former Flake-mates Marty Crandall (keyboards) and Neal Langford (bass) in conscription, the Shins became the right band in the right place at the right time. "Our signing with Sub Pop happened partly through Isaac [Brock] from Modest Mouse," explains Mercer. "I guess he just kind of talked us up or whatever. And then who really helped us out was this guy Zeke [Howard] from Love as Laughter. I guess Jonathan [Poneman, president of Sub Pop] asked him, 'Hey, have you heard any cool bands out there?' and Zeke gave him our CD. It was just this little demo we had burned. It had 'New Slang' on it and a couple of other songs."

In retrospect, it's hard to imagine anyone needing anything but "New Slang" as incontrovertible proof of the Shins' burgeoning genius. Released by Sub Pop as an advance single, the song instantly arrests the attention, pulsing with a melancholic delicacy. From the opening sizzle of tambourines to the final ebb of vintage-amp reverb, "New Slang" burns into the brain like a late-summer sunset. Cooing harmonies swoon; drowsy basslines sway; sad chords shiver with unrequited ardor. Underscoring everything are Mercer's lyrics, mumbled with slump-shouldered resignation: "I'm looking in on the good life/I might be doomed never to find."

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Jason Heller
Contact: Jason Heller