Happily, since there’s a new car in my life, I am driving hither and dither, near and far once again. However, this new car only has a CD player, which means I am rummaging through my past, my big folder of mix cds and actual cds and music that can’t even be played anymore because it’s too scratched up.
I am learning some things.
For one: remember The Shins? They were awesome! They totally changed my life way before Zach Braff ever thought of it! (Funny enough, I wrote something about Oh, Inverted World for Popmatters during an end of the year thing and wrote - this album will seriously change your life…but what I meant was “it will change your life because it’s like a gateway drug for Beach Boys melody aficionados.” God, nearly ten-year-old earnest writing. It’s the worst.) And that’s because “Know Your Onion!” was on the official Gilmore Girls soundtrack in late 2001/2002. From that, I started listening to Oh Inverted World, saw James Mercer play the second album’s tracks solo in a tiny club, and generally relied on The Shins to soundtrack my fall. An ex of mine pointed out a fine fact - if Oh, Inverted World is an album, of a piece, all the songs melting into each other excellently, then Chutes Too Narrow avoids the sophomore slump by having Mercer write “his Kinks song, and his song that sounds like the Beach Boys,” etc. It’s a really strong theory! And it’s why the album works. And it was made in a vacuum, really.
But then there’s Wincing the Night Away. The album after you get “big,” particularly that weird sort of big that involves some movie namedropping you and your music as something that will “change your life.” And to be frank, I blame Garden State for ruining the Shins. Wincing the Night Away has sweet songs and a good sense of melody…and it means nothing. It’s whiny. Mercer always had a petulant streak in his songwriting - remember that track on Chutes Too Narrow where he’s like, sorry baby, I’m a musician, this bird has to fly? But on Wincing, it got self-righteous. Just start with the title! And then there’s that song directed at the Shin who left, who wasn’t in the band anymore. Mercer actually wrote, “I’M A VICTIM TO THE IMPACT OF THESE WORDS.” Seriously?
This AV Club article sums up how Zach Braff changed the Shins’ life quite nicely, I think. I remember the first time I heard Wincing the Night Away; it was playing in the bookstore after Liz Gilbert read from Eat, Pray, Love in paperback. How was I to know that’d be quite the symbiotic pairing? (Although I hope and suspect that Gilbert - a fantastic journalist, whose work put me on the path to being a writer - will bounce back and keep going post Eat, Pray, Love-stuff. But, god, Committed was such a self-conscious piece of work!)
I also rediscovered my guilty pleasure band, Cold War Kids. I had one song, “We Used to Vacation,” on a mix. It’s a song about ALCOHOLISM with self-consciously poetic and literary lyrics. I really liked the lurch and rumble of the drums and piano, the weird voice of the main guy. I never listened to the lyrics. There’s one point where he tries to shoehorn in “I’m an honest man/provide for me and mine/I SEND A CHECK TO TAX DEDUCTIBLE CHARITY ORGANIZATIONS/TWO WEEKS PAID VACATION/won’t heal the damage done.” The awkwardness is quite funny - they’re trying for a specific milieu, and I’m sure they’ve read the poets I love, but in no way does that line work in the context of the song! One thing I’ve always loved about Okkervil River is that Will Sheff can rattle off a poetic line with ease, but he knows when the song needs a short cliche to go with the music. Because the music can do the work, not the words.