Over the last decade I’ve become less and less interested in new rock or alternative music – at least to the degree that I rarely anticipate new albums coming out. There was a time in college when I thought of Tuesday as being the day of the week when new records were released. Now it’s just the day after Monday.
However, this Tuesday brought the release of two new albums by people who have made my favorite music of recent years: The Shins and Damon Albarn. I’ve listened to The Shins’ Chutes Too Narrow and Gorillaz’ Demon Days scores of times, and continue to marvel. I also love Albarn's collaborative Mali Music album. And this Tuesday, I benefited from Valarie’s traipsing off to snatch both albums up: The Shins Wincing the Night Away and Albarn’s partnership with bassist Paul Simonon of The Clash, The Good, The Bad & The Queen.
This week has also been a stressful one. In particular, I was upset about how something I’d written had made its subject angry, even though the writing was very favorable and admiring. It happens sometimes, and so long as there isn’t any nastiness, I’m contrite or at least understanding and diplomatic about it. But this time there was nastiness. And I reacted to it by going for long walks, reciting an embarrassing amount of teeth-gritted lines by Emperor Palpatine (“Are you threatening me, Jedi?”) and Darth Vader ("I Find your lack of faith disturbing") while listening to my i-Pod.
The delicate beauty of The Shins and their ambitious new album was a perfect antidote for the anger.
The Shins craft wondrously simple but contemplative, personal pop songs. Too often in others’ hands this kind of music makes me cringe. I think this music is deceptively hard to do well if you’re name isn’t McCartney or Lennon. But singer/songwriter James Mercer and company are up to that challenge, with compellingly vivid, picaresque lyrics that also remain elusive enough to keep me coming back.
Wincing The Night Away gives Mercer’s songs a more layered array of textures and sounds. The album shows a newfound fascination with keyboards, and there are countless other peripheral instruments such as banjo that come and go to weave a more complex tapestry than either of The Shins’ previous efforts. This is a transformation that many rock bands go through if they become successful, from stripped down to elaborate. For some, it ruins the effect. But if a band can achieve that greater sonic sophistication while staying true to the songs themselves as foundation, there can be nothing better. I’m thinking Beatles again here. I mean, what would you rather listen to: A Hard Day’s Night or Abbey Road? I know some people actually choose the former, but for me it’d definitely be the latter.
I’ve read a few reviews of Wincing The Night Away, which takes its name from the insomnia Mercer experienced while making the album. Although overwhelmingly favorable overall, the reviews seem somewhat divided on how well the Shins have achieved that balancing act of simplicity and sophistication. I think they’ve done a great job. I’ve only had the record for three days, but in that time I’ve listened to it at least 10 times. I’ve continually broken a personal rule of not listening to the same album twice in one day—I’m on thirds with this one.
This is my favorite moment in the process of familiarizing one’s self with what seems to be a developing favorite album: the in-between stage. Right now I’m increasingly familiar with the songs and their sequence, but I still have a lot left to discover. It’s like walking in a pool: you’re not just floating aimlessly, and you’re in control. But the reduced gravity still makes the simple act of movement a surprising treat.
I also feel a couple special connections to this album. It was produced by Joe Chicarelli, who produced one of my two or three favorite albums from the ‘90s: San Francisco by American Music Club. There are several moments on Wincing that remind me of San Francisco, particularly the incorporation of outdoor sounds (birds chirping), a sort of industrial feedback-twinged acoustic guitar, the cheeky by resonant ‘70s-esque keyboards, and the pairing of anxiety and gloom with brightness and gloss. People don’t talk about album producers all that much, but in some cases these guys are my heroes almost as much as the artists. When I was in college, a musician friend and I used to be obsessed with Mitchell Froom, Hugh Padgham, Tchad Blake, Steve Albini, Brad Wood, Nick Lowe and several other producers.
My other Shins connection of course comes from their residing in Portland. A filmmaker friend of mine, Matt McCormick, used to be friends with them back in Albuquerque before they all moved up here. (He directed one of their videos, "The Past and Pending", which is superb.) I’ve never met any of them, but I had the good fortune last year to go to the recording/filmmaking of Burn To Shine, a DVD featuring performances by a host of Portland bans: The Shins, The Decemberists, Sleater-Kinney, Quasi, Lifesavas, The Thermals, The Gossip. It was fun watching the various band members hang out all day and let their guard down as we stood in a garage grazing over sandwich fixings, chips and cookies. The Shins came in an unassuming white Subaru. Sleater-Kinney came in a sweet new Volvo.
I’m further behind when it comes to familiarizing myself with The Good, The Bad & The Queen, but I got excited the first time I heard it. Damon Albarn started out in the ‘90s Britpop band Blur, which I was never a fan of, and then under the Gorillaz moniker made two records partnering with great hip-hop producers, first Dan the Automator for the group's eponymous debut and then, for Demon Days, with Danger Mouse. (Who also mashed The Beatles’ White Album and Jay-Z’s Black Album into—what else?—The Grey Album to brilliant effect.) The Good, The Bad is not a Gorillaz album, but it’s Albarn and Danger Mouse again, and that’s a great combination. (DM is another case of the producer being a collaborative partner.) Actually, though, that wasn’t what got me excited when I first heard the album: it was the influence of Simonon. Even though Albarn remains the principal author of this music, I could hear a twinge of The Clash, and, as Martha Stewart used to say, “It’s a good thing.” It also makes me appreciate more than ever Paul Simonon’s contribution to the band, which is easy to underestimate given the presence of Joe Strummer and Mick Jones.
There is an embarrassment of riches lately, because I haven’t even gotten to the new Decemberists album yet. (Coincidentally, my first purchased piece of artwork is a drawing by lead singer/songwriter Colin Meloy’s girlfriend, Carson Ellis.) They too were at the Burn To Shine filming. Can’t remember their vehicle make, but I do distinctly remember their accordionist wearing a dress made out of Star Wars bed sheets.