12 May 2005

Singin' Along with the Shins

Maybe I'm getting old. Or maybe I've reached a new level of elitist snobbery. A zealous nirvana of sorts. But last night, I should have reached a furious froth. I should have been kicking walls and pulling on earlobes. Last night, the Shins played to a packed house at the University of Utah's Olpin Ballroom. I'd guess there were close to a thousand bodies packed into the poorly set-up scene. And I'd bet all my Jennifer Garner refrigerator magnets that most of them were born after 1985.

A year ago, I would have fumed. I would have mocked and insulted the li'l grommets. I would have intentionally stepped on ankles and made jokes about parents waiting to pick them up out front. But last night, I just laughed.

The Shins are a good band. They write fine songs. And they perform them capably. I'm happy for the Shins. If they can make some cash and strike while the iron's hot, more power to them. If this lets them quit their day jobs, outstanding. There are certainly worse things that the Shins getting a li'l play and paying some bills. For crying out loud, Maroon5 has had like 7 top 10 singles. If I want to get raged, I'll think about that injustice and crime against humanity. But the Shins don't merit my wrath. They released a superb debut and followed it up with an outstanding sophomore record. They really can't be blamed for dropping a few songs on a soundtrack and then promptly blowing up. There are greater forces at work.

One of the most disturbing/amusing developments of the last year is the marketing of the indie dork lifestyle. It's been written about (read a superb article here), discussed endlessly in hipster blogs, and even self-referenced on the show that many blame for the mainstream-ization of indie-ness, the O.C. And last night it hit me: it's never been more to cool to be a dork.

As a life-long semi-geek, it's a little disturbing. I'm still getting used to the idea that glasses are cool, that people wear them as fashion accessories. Really? I was mocked from kindergarten through high school for wearing glasses…and now they're cool? Wow. And bad hair and skinny clothes and shirts that don't fit…they're cool too? Well… ok… I guess.

You can see why I might get upset. It's not just my musical tastes that have hit the Billboard Top 100. It's my clothes, my shoes, my spectacles, my hair, my lingo, my lack of peak physical fitness, my friends. I'm just waiting for an inexplicable attraction to bacon to become fashionable.

My sister-in-law has a theory about the people who stand in the front rows at concerts. It's simple: Most front-rowers don't deserve to be there. Last night, the theory became law. It was fantastic. These kids are youngsters, so they can't be faulted for a lot of things. Nonetheless, I've gotta break down the front-row behavior.

Because the house was packed and the sound was generally bad from any spot in the "ballroom," we (K and I) took a post at the side of the stage. The view was outstanding and the sound wasn't any worse than anywhere else. But mostly, we had an uncluttered view of the front-row kids. Mostly, the shaggy-hair boys and skinny, straight-hair girls pogo-ed and stared at each other. Yeah, the band was playing, but they were more concerned with their peer status. "Look at me! I'm at the Shins! Oh my heck!" It was kinda cute actually. But two things floored me: 1) A newspaper photographer was snapping a few band candids and made the mistake of turning the camera on the kids. After he went back to the band, the kids spent the next 15 minutes hassling and begging him to take their picture--hanging over the railing, waving, yelling, etc. And, yes, the band was still playing. They're 4 feet from the Shins and they're dying for buried-in-nowhere coverage from the Daily Herald. And 2) I'm still laughing about this, but I watched a girl form the universal rock'n'roll hand signal and then she spent a solid 30 seconds grooming it. No joke. Inspecting her hand and arranging her fingers just so before she thrust her "Rock On!" out into the open. You couldn't make this stuff up.

Despite the comedic crowd action (and completely unnecessary sing-alongs--what is it with kids and sing-alongs? I just don't get it. Who sings this song? The Shins. That's what I thought. Let's keep it that way.), the Shins were solid. Like I mentioned, they're capable fellows. Still, I've been trying to figure out the problem with the show. It's difficult to pinpoint the exact shortcomings, but let me say this: The Shins need to get off the road. They know their songs too well. They're too comfortable with them. And whether they lack the skill, mischief or adventure required to dismantle and rediscover their catalog, or they're just plain road-weary, they need to take some time and figure out where they stand. They plowed through song after song without any noticeable improvements or diversions. Nearly every song was album-quality. Some a li'l better, some a li'l worse--but no thrilling departures.

And that might be the underlying void--there's no tension at a Shins show. The crowd is pleased just to be able to tell their friends they were there (or to text-message their friends while the band is playing an encore--saw girls in the front row doing just that). And the band is content to play their hits and semi-hits and collect some cash. I don't blame the Shins for making a li'l bread and quitting their day jobs. In the end, a break is a break and taking advantage of it may make them a better band. But for now, there's no drama. I never felt like things might spin out of control. I'm a biased Wilco-head, but at several points in a Wilco show, I'm afraid that one misstep could lead to a full-blown implosion and that the roof might fall in on my head. Not so with the Shins. The closest thing to danger is the fear that the chubby keyboardist might keep on talking well into the night.

This isn't to say that there were no highlights. New Slang is still a great song. And I couldn't help but feel a touch jealous of the under-20 crowd to whom the song seemed to mean so much. They've taken Natalie Portman at her word and pretend to grasp the even the difficult lines: "Godspeed all the bakers at dawn/May they all cut their thumbs/And bleed into their buns." What's James Mercer saying? No one knows, but gee, it sure sounds pretty. And the blistering closer "So Says I" with the unparalled "Woo-hoo-ooh-hoo" payoff even had this leadfooted jerk tapping his toes and bobbing his head.

There's hope for the Shins. Mercer is a fantastic singer with a voice that creeps into what the Am Idol judges would call the "upper register" and the band plays a tight set. The keyboard player needs someone to stand behind him and whisper "Less talk, more rock, son" but that's a cosmetic fix. Worse bands have risen to greater heights. The Shins are still infants and perhaps I should cut them some slack. But it's no sin to hold an artist (or band) to a higher standard based on phenomenal studio work.

The Shins just need to be brave. They can cut away and build back up. They can rinse and repeat. If I can smile through a night of improbable indie marketing and shaggy-haired head flips (gotta keep the mop outta the eyes and perfectly flipped), then anything is possible.


A said...

Hey, I like your blog. I agree with what you say about the nerdiness suddenly becoming cool. I am so there and have been for years. Why couldn't it have become cool in 1987?

BM, The Necessary Movement said...

Yes cool blog I agree to the second power!! I am not a Shins fan but comapred to maroon5 i am a huge shins fan!!!!!!!!

Glasses part of a wardrobe when not needed scares me as much as primetime TV

people scare me.
i am now very afraid and I must go cower under someone elses bed

cool blog i say again!


Dainon said...

Wait, how do you do the Rock On sign again?