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Oh, Inverted World—8

 

Released: 2001

1) Caring Is Creepy  2) One By One All Day  3) Weird Divide  4) Know Your Onion!  5) Girl Inform Me  6) New Slang  7) The Celibate Life  8) Girl On The Wing  9) Your Algebra  10) Pressed In A Book  11) The Past Is Pending 

 

James Mercer started The Shins in 1996 as a side project to his band Flake Music.  Professionals since 1992 (but then known only as Flake), Flake Music had struggled around the Albuquerque, New Mexico scene for about three years, releasing a few unsuccessful singles, before making their debut album, “When You Land Here, It Is Time To Return.”  The album was well received and the band, consisting of Mercer on guitar and lead vocals, Neil Langford on bass, Jessie Sandoval on drums, and Marty Crandall on keyboards, seemed to be well on their way to becoming the new darlings of  Indie Pop, but it didn’t quite work out that way.

 

Instead, tired of the collaborative writing process, Mercer began writing songs for a solo album, inviting Sandoval along with him and began playing acts as a twosome under the name The Shins.  Mercer recruited bassist Dave Hernandez and drummer Ron Skrasek from the Albuquerque punk band Scared of Chaka to fill out the sound, but they soon left after the success of their own band.  Apparently it is difficult to find band mates in New Mexico, as Mercer asked his former keyboardist and bassist form Flake Music to join up with him and Sandoval and thus, Flake Music became The Shins.  The band released a few singles and went on tour with Modest Mouse, slowly building a reputation, and in early 2001 they went into the studio to record their debut album under their new moniker.

 

Mercer wrote every song on “Oh, Inverted World” and the album is an eclectic mix of styles.  Quite simply, it is Indie Pop at its finest, effortlessly incorporating that great Sixties sound of the Zombies and Hollies, but updating it with The Shins’s own Southwestern charm.  Mercer’s songs are friendly and quirky, with interesting melodies and the band is undoubtedly tight, sounding every bit like they have been playing together for nine years.  The lyrics, while not amazing, are never dull, but it is Mercer’s voice that propels the album to distinction, making it one of the best to have come out this decade. 

 

The wall of sound the band creates with just the normal rock instruments is impressive on the opening “Caring Is Creepy.”  The song seems so familiar, like it is a cover, with a great melody and vocal performance from Mercer.  There aren’t any wasted notes, everything fitting perfect—something like condescend progressive rock.  Undeniably, it is an excellent album opener and foreshadowing of what is to come.  The following track, “One By One All Day” has a much more country sound, and the band shows off their pleasant harmonies.  The middle instrumental section is dominated by a strange, underwater sounding keyboard excursion and the song kind of floats along in a dreamy stream of guitars and sound effects, with an interesting coda.  Weird Divide” is perfectly named.  The song is a quirky, slow-paced Mexican ditty under two-minutes long.  The harmonies and fine guitar-picked-fills are tranquil, perfectly embodying the lazy New Mexican landscape. 

 

Know Your Onion!” is a fun jaunt into easier on the ear pop.  This is the most accessible tune on the album, with a very distinct middle section, although, as a whole, it is a little trite.  Still, it is less than two and a half minutes of trite, and is still a pretty amusing little song.  Girl Inform Me” continues the poppy sound of the previous track, but is a much better effort, with a more creative backdrop and vocal hook, and the lyrics are the best on the album.  The single, “New Slang” follows and is absolutely tremendous, being the band’s signature tune.  The swirling, beautiful “oohs” in the background set the tone, and the band is tight and hospitable.  It is just a great, inviting track, particularly the “If you’d ‘a took to me” part of the chorus. 

 

The Celibate Life” is another cool, two-minute pop song, although this is a little more challenging listen.  The instrumental section is disjointed and loud, but it fits together snugly somehow.  Girl on the Wing” is more aggressive than the rest of the album, but still stays true to the soundscape.  It isn’t one of my favorites on the record, getting stuck in between rock and electric pop, but it is still a decent song.  Conversely, “Your Algebra” is one of my favorites, being a sinister, freaky, sound-effects-dominated horror movie.  It could easily soundtrack a child killer stalking their victim on the playground with its late night carnival mood, and harmonized, cult-recruiting vocals.  The ending features small children laughing and the sounds of someone pissing, which only adds to the eeriness.                                                     

 

Maybe trying to mellow you out after “Your Algebra,” “Pressed In A Book” tries too hard to be a good song: too many words crammed in each line, two many riding symbols, too many verses.  It isn’t terrible, and is under three minutes, but it just doesn’t have any type of attention grabber or memorable ear catch, and is the album's low point.  The closing “The Past and Pending” thankfully sends you out in style.  The song begins with a great folk guitar riff and eventually incorporates a heartfelt French horn solo, forming an uncharacteristically gloomy and dismal, but beautiful ending to a great album. 

 

On “Oh, Inverted World,” James Mercer creates an impressive debut and writes songs that are reminiscent of The Kinks in their "Village Green" period.  There are a few misses of course, but the album is overall a very intriguing effort and one of the best “debuts” of the last twenty years.  It will be interesting to see if the poor man’s Ray Davies is just a one trick pony, or if the band's next album builds on the impressive groundwork shown here.

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