Saturday, September 22, 2012

Certain Songs Part VI: Know Your Onion

And the beat goes on

The Shins
Oh, Inverted World

One of a few albums on this list from the 2000s. I came to Oh, Inverted Worlda couple years after it had come out, after having heard “Know Your Onion!” and “Caring is Creepy” on Radio Paradise in 2003. I liked both those songs almost immediately, but it was only a year later, when Zach Braff used a couple Shins songs in what is probably my favorite movie of the 2000s—Garden State—that I had to pick up the album. And it stayed on the iPod for a while. In fact, there is a scene in the movie, when Braff’s character Andrew meets Natalie Portman’s character Queen Amidala—I mean Sam—and she is wearing headphones. She tells him to listen to a song, saying, “It will change your life.” That song is The Shins’ “New Slang (When You Notice the Stripes),” which is perhaps a bit overstated, but I do like the song a lot.

The album is rather hard to describe, as it is a strange amalgam of all sorts of parts and pieces cobbled together from all over the history of rock and pop, which is probably why I like it. It’s somewhat reminiscent of 60s pop via Syd Barrett, but with a more modern indie vibe to it. The lyrics alternate between sweet and charming and strange and surreal, sometimes within the same song (as in the aforesaid “New Slang”—“And if you’d ’a took to me like/A gull takes to the wind/Well, I’d ’a jumped from my tree/And I’d ’a danced like the king of the eyesores/And the rest of our lives would ’a fared well”... and later, “God speed all the bakers at dawn may they all cut their thumbs/And bleed into their buns till they melt away.”) It’s one of those albums where you find yourself singing along to the strangest things.

The Shins’ follow-up, 2003’s Chutes Too Narrow, was in some ways better, but as I have said before, context is often what matters. As they have added layers of complexity to their music (and I still can’t make it through their third album, Wincing the Night Away, which kind of lives up to its name) one doesn’t want to disparage their continued development, but one misses the simplicity of Oh, Inverted World. 2012’s Port of Morrow sees The Shins as less of a band and more of a James Mercer solo project. It’s a bit of a return to the earlier sound, but just doesn’t have that je ne sais quoi.

The New Pornographers
Twin Cinema


The New Pornographers are a Vancouver-based collective (or “supergroup,” if you prefer) spearheaded by AC Newman and comprising alt-country diva Neko Case, John Collins (The Evaporators), Dan Bejar (Destroyer), and Kurt Dahle, among others. (I know, household names, all.) It should be born in mind that the band name is just a name and is in no way descriptive of its content, as all their songs are pretty Safe For Work.

Every two years or so, they come together, record an immaculate collection of pop-rock gems, and then return to their proper projects. 2003’s Electric Versionwas great, but 2005’s Twin Cinema was even better, with just about every track a gem (yes, on the iPod I do turn “Sing Me Spanish Techno” up to 11). This one stayed in the iPod throughout most of the latter half of 2005 and still gets a fair amount of play. (Actually, this, Electric Version, and 2000 debut Mass Romantic are great albums to work out to.)

AC Newman writes most of the stuff (“Two sips from the cup of human kindness and I’m shitfaced” is a good line from “Use It.”), while Dan Bejar usually gets a surreal song or two per album, in this case “Jackie, Dressed in Cobras,” whose title and refrain “On a train devouring the land/A girl’s going insane over her man” wouldn’t make this out of place on a Robyn Hitchcock record. Neko Case’s solo showcases, “The Bones of an Idol” and “These Are the Fables” have made me want to explore her solo records (good, but a bit too alt-country for my taste).

Twin Cinema has more hooks than a coatrack factory, smart writing, great harmonies, and loose yet flawless performances. I confess, the much mellower follow-up, 2007’s Challengers, was more than a bit of a disappointment, but 2010’s Together rekindled some of the old excitement.

Kitchens of Distinction
The Death of Cool

I first heard KoD on Long Island’s WDRE (previously, and later, WLIR) in 1990 when the fantastic “Quick as Rainbows” from their second album came out, so I had immediately picked up it and their first album, Love Is Hell. A kind of alternative power trio, they were poppy, rocky, and at times experimental, but were alas out of step with grunge and hip-hop that both emerged just as they were recording their best stuff. So they got completely overlooked, except by people like me who never really liked grunge or hip-hop.

One of their albums (they recorded four in the short time they were together) had to go on this list and Love Is Hell had been here for a while, but had to relent in favor of their third album, The Death of Cool, their best album, and one which stayed on my CD player and Walkman throughout much of 1992. Julian Swales’ guitar soundscapes perfectly complemented Patrick Fitzgerald’s romantic lyrics. The first portion of the album comprises concise songs—all of them strong, with “4 Men” and album opener “What Happens Now” two standouts. In “On Tooting Broadway Station” (which caused another flash of recognition many years later in the London Underground) Fitzgerald laments his “John of Arc” (yeah, that’s a bit of a reach). The real standout, though, is the protest against violent homophobia “Breathing Fear.”

The latter part of the album stretches into extended pieces that start slow and build in intensity, interrupted only by the should-have-been-a-hit “Smiling.” They did one more album in 1994 before calling it quits.

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