By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Steve Brennan
By Joseph Hess
By Allsion Babka
By Kelsey McClure
By RFT Music
By Christian Schaeffer
By Gabriel San Roman
Hailing from the musically mysterious city of Albuquerque, N.M., Sub Pop recording artists the Shins have released one of the most startlingly accomplished debut CDs of the year with Oh, Inverted World. Touching on a number of popular indie-rock subgenres (a hint of Modest Mouse's angular angst here, a splash of the Apples in Stereo's '60s pop there) without fully belonging to any of them, the Shins, one of a string of fine poppish bands Sub Pop has brought to the world since its grunge heyday, have managed to come up with a comfortingly familiar sound all their own. Their reluctance to be pigeonholed, along with the assured songwriting of bandleader James Mercer, should help the Shins appeal to a broad spectrum of indie-rock fans when they perform at the Rocket Bar on Tuesday.
The lack of a rigidly defined aesthetic for the Shins probably stems in part from their beginnings in Albuquerque, a city that, despite its stature as a regular stop for touring indie and punk bands, lacks a recognizable sound to call its own. "There's not too much of a scene, really," Mercer admits. "There're a number of good bands, but they seem to have a lot more success outside of Albuquerque, and then a lot of them move. They don't get a lot of support, and then it's, like, 'What are we doing here?'" Mercer recently followed the trend by relocating to Portland, Ore., although all his bandmates (drummer Jesse Sandoval, keyboardist Marty Crandall and bassist Neal Langford) still live in Albuquerque. Mercer will be returning to Albuquerque for a week or two of rehearsal before the band hits the road on the tour that will take them through St. Louis. Some members of the Shins have been playing together for going on 10 years now, having previously been part of the indie band Flakemusic; it remains to be seen how these geographical changes will affect the group's future.
Judging from the sounds contained on Oh, Inverted World, though, the Shins seem to be all over the map musically as well as physically. The opening track, "Caring Is Creepy," sounds like a less self-indulgently triumphant Sunny Day Real Estate; the next song, "One by One All Day," is firmly rooted in Elephant 6 territory; the third number, "Weird Divide," could have come straight out of the West Coast "Paisley Underground" psychedelic pop scene of the early '80s; and the fourth winner in a row, "Know Your Onion," is a dead ringer for the Kinks, circa ... Village Green Preservation Society. The whole album reflects this variety of influences: No two songs sound exactly alike, but every song sounds as if it comes from the same band, thanks to Mercer's rich tenor, his ever-present pleasantly strummed acoustic guitars and the odd bloops and bleeps that pop up in the background on a number of songs.
As broad and varied as his sonic creations are, however, Mercer cites a fairly short list of stated influences. "I love the Beatles," he says simply. "I guess it's kind of old, people talking about the Beatles, but I think they had a big influence on me. 'Girl Inform Me' [from Oh, Inverted World] is kind of like my attempt to write a song as well as the Beatles."
Mercer also cites a strong affinity for seminal British fuzz-punks the Jesus and Mary Chain, although that influence is somewhat less obvious. When recording the album, he says, he "wanted the mixing, some of the reverb, to sound like [the Jesus and Mary Chain's 1985 debut album] Psychocandy." Mercer adds Echo and the Bunnymen and the Cure to his list of influences before including current bands such as the Apples in Stereo, Beulah and the Beachwood Sparks. Although some similarities do exist between the Shins and '60s stylists such as the Apples in Stereo, the band's members have wisely chosen not to limit themselves by anything other than their own imaginations, picking and choosing from whichever scenes suit them.
The Shins do hope to tap into the relatively huge, fanatically loyal and financially lucrative Modest Mouse fanbase when the bands tour together later this fall. The band has already garnered praise from such high-profile sources as Rolling Stone and National Public Radio; all that remains for them is to take the music to the music fans, face to face and one at a time. By all appearances, the Shins are on the verge of breaking big, so lovers of '60s pop, '90s indie rock and every combination thereof should definitely catch them this time through town before they outgrow the friendly confines of the Rocket Bar.