I Am King Ed

Been there, done that, and here tell you all about it.

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Ed King has kicked around the outer fringes of the periphery of local scene for some time. He was there when Tuxedomoon played Revival. Ed likes all things great and some things good. Anymore, what falls short of those simple criteria gets harder to bear. He appreciates your respect.

Friday, January 05, 2007

The Shins, Wincing the Night Away

My first serious exposure to the music of The Shins was through that godawful Zach Braff student film, Garden State. In a film that aspired to be The Graduate minus the talents of Mike Nichols and Dustin Hoffman, The Shins provided the Simon & Garfunkel soundtrack minus the songsmithery and understated cool of Paul Simon. I didn’t want to kill the band based on their association with Braff’s first step toward the pantheon of TV actors done in by good fortune and hubris (see McLean Stevenson through Rob Morrow), so I kept an ear open toward their critically acclaimed releases. The Shins didn’t sound any more interesting without the grating images of Natalie Portman fumbling through the “gimme” Winona Ryder role, but too many people whose tastes I respect continue to go to bat for the band, so it was with great anticipation and a chance for redemption that I popped in the forthcoming Wincing the Night Away.

A few years ago a friend and I discovered that we’d had similar experiences with pipe smoking (the legal kind, mind you) in our college days. Each of us, independently, thought that smoking a pipe could be a worthwhile affectation. When you’re 19 years old and trying to figure out your place in the world, having an affectation or two around which to build an adult identity doesn’t hurt. I still recall loading up my pipe, leaning back in my chair just so, and puffing away. First, only alone and in the comfort of my room, but within a few days I was showing off my new bag to friends. Once I even took my pipe outside with me and lit up as I strolled across the campus. I felt cutting edge for a week or so until the pressure of living up to the image of a pipe smoker started to weigh on me: Was I wearing the right kind of sweaters? Was it OK that I didn’t wear glasses? Should I grow a beard? Has a guy who’s flunking friggin’ algebra for the second time earned the right to smoke a pipe?

In listening to these new tracks by The Shins, I can’t help thinking of the responsibilities that go with any affectation. Songs like the single “Phantom Limbs” and “Sea Legs” seem to be trying to get at “The Soul of ‘80s Synth Pop.” I thought this is what bands like Aztec Camera and Prefab Sprout were trying to do when those sounds were contemporary, and it beats me if there was much soul to be found, but that’s another matter. No, what troubles me most in listening to this heavily affected album is the band’s lack of commitment to the trappings of…anything, let alone ‘80s synth pop. Where are the asymmetric hairdos and shirt collars? Where are the coke-fueled dance beats? Where’s the hot, bleached-perm chick playing a Yamaha DX7 with her index finger?

The video for “Phantom Limbs”, with its visual references to REM’s “Losing My Religion” and that godawful Crash Test Dummies video, couldn’t feature a more boring, uninteresting band, and I’m not just saying that based on seeing the video. This band’s lack of commitment to anything but the broad outline of each song – some of which really aren’t bad, mind you – is there in the digital grooves. The production and arrangements sound like they were put together according to the Roy Clark Big Note Songbook for Guitar. Here’s how I envision the behind-the-scenes work on “Phantom Limbs”: After having placed drummer Jesse Sandoval on a steady diet of saltpeter (necessary for him to sublimate his desire to play anything more interesting and exciting than what could be programmed by a person with elementary skills with a drum machine), Shins leader James Mercer says, “Now watch me and wait until I hit the opening chord of each measure. I won’t play much beyond that opening strum of each new chord. Try not to step on my parts, OK? It’s important that the listener can process my lyrics. Braff’s gonna love this one!”

The more I think about those REM and Crash Test Dummies videos, I’m again taken back to the problem of affectations without commitment to the necessary trappings. Both the genius and the utter failure of The Shins is that they manage to affect so many styles while constantly bypassing the Asshole Factor. Even if you found yourself, like I did, having a soft spot for that “Losing My Religion” video, you were constantly confronted by the gesticulations of Michael Stipe. Crash Test Dummies rose and fell on the Asshole Power of that lead singer’s voice. What was I supposed to think, he picked up an extra set of balls from a castratto? Synth pop from ‘80s had asshole-driven hurdles galore to get past – gated assholes no less – if a meat-and-potatoes man like myself had any hope of liking a song here and there. The Shins wipe the Asshole Factor clean from their music. With it, they wipe clean any identity. I’m OK, You’re OK. Someone’s got to be better than that.


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