Under the Radar’s 15th Anniversary: The Shins’ “Oh, Inverted World”

Celebrating Under the Radar's 15th Anniversary and the Best Albums of 2001

Feb 13, 2017 Web Exclusive By Charles Steinberg Bookmark and Share

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Under the Radar's very first print issue came out in December 2001. In honor of our 15th Anniversary some of our writers are reflecting on some of their favorite albums from 2001.

The first time I heard The Shins, like many who weren't actively hip to the new millennium bands, it was in the film Garden State (I know, join the club right?), a full three years after their debut, Oh, Inverted World rejuvenated a recognizable cast of folk-pop. The film's soundtrack, which won filmmaker Zach Braff deservedly high praise, was heightening in the way the one curated by Cameron Crowe for Singles was—its presence in the storytelling so tangible that it actually became a principal character. Who can forget the all time on screen icebreaker between Natalie Portman and Braff delivered in the sharing of The Shins' folk masterpiece "New Slang" during their doctor's office meet-cute? At a time when edgy sexiness seemed to be the bent of alternative music and the prefixes of post and garage were regularly applied in descriptors of style, here were The Shins, with an album that was unabashedly rooted in the songwriting ethos of Brian Wilson and Paul McCartney.

It's no surprise that "New Slang" and the exhilarating album launcher "Caring is Creepy" were chosen by Braff for his soundtrack, songs equally resonant, though in contrasting energies. On the latter, the practically unique pitch of author and orator, James Mercer, entering on the ascending whirlwinds of neo-psychedelic elements, sent euphoric shivers, portending something magical. The good vibes continued directly into "One By One All Day" with its rolling surf rock drumming that embodied the reeling wave, providing the endless ride. "Girl On the Wing," with bang-on syncing of guitar and snare jabs, punctuated spine-tingling vocal melodies. This intoxicating formula was shadowed on the briskly marching "Pressed in a Book," each song offering an alternative handle of the same fabric.

As for that balance and harmony achieved between vocal and instrumental output, it was striking considering Oh, Inverted World was a debut record. Sure, The Shins had formed five years earlier, but originated as a side project from Mercer's band, The Flakes, and was simply a duo that included that band's drummer, Jesse Sandoval. The cohesiveness and continuity of artistry sounded of a group seasoned and tried. And the spontaneous wisps of organ, aquatic xylophone, and even autoharp were imprinted to revamp an aged motif, giving it the spring of youthful abandon. Contrarily, there was also a ghostliness to these spools, as if their rehearsals and recordings had woken the spirits of folk-rock's past to join in. This was achieved in great effect by the gentle and exquisite layering of Mercer's own backing vocals, rather imperceptibly bringing his tenor more dimension.

All throughout Oh, Inverted World, Mercer's voice co-mingles with his uncanny song arrangements. It glides like a sparrow and touches glorious peaks, to the edges of strain without breaking. He had once been naturally shy of projecting that voice, especially during the recording of the debut in a basement studio apartment, separated from his neighbors by a thin ceiling. This is the kind of anecdotal shading that, along with its cinematic propping, ties a work together, endearing the fan to the artist. Relatability imbues the absorption of the alternative character's tale with more meaning. You listen close to the marginalized romantic gesturing and suddenly find yourself in familiar settings, visceral and identifiable. While the story of scrapping a collection of songs together on passion and vision and courage and some tall boys during uncertain times has become cliché, it still makes it all more personal. Mercer remembers that Oh, Inverted World pulled him into the tier on par with the comfortable young professional thinking of settling in. Ironically, and predictably, the closer Mercer and The Shins' semi-alternating band members came to conventional stability, the farther away from that raw, corporeal inspiration they were pulled.

The measure of The Shins' debut album was not in its innovation, but in the steadiness of its demonstrative homage to their bohemian predecessors. You might find yourself humming along to each song, feeling the anti-gravity of tune and melody becoming a ballast for the implicit sorrow of Mercer's fluency. No subsequent album from The Shins quite captured the dreamy nostalgic quality of their debut. By the time 2007's Wincing the Night Away broke them out into universal exposure, you could already start to notice the foundations of Mercer's future work with Danger Mouse as Broken Bells start to form. This departure obviously isn't uncommon for musicians swept up by the wave of notoriety and maybe that's just the way it's supposed to be. Maybe it's so that the beauty of an inaugural creation can be appreciated on its own, free from comparison. Some 15 and a half years later, with the help of summer outings and fire escapes, Oh, Inverted World's traces have carried it to lastingly memorable status.


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