The Shins have been around in the indie circles for a few years, sending shivers down the spines of the serious-minded, and barely registering on the radar of those who believe that music which is not on the charts isn’t music at all. Many fans who were turned onto ‘New Slang’ by Garden State and Natalie Portman predicted a revival of shoe-gaze, but realized after they bought their 2001 album, Oh Inverted World, that slotting The Shins was no easy game. There was some Beach Boys there, some Bubblegum Pop, and to balance things out, an overlooked but consistent post-punk sensibility. Johnny Mercer sounds a lot like Pete Townshend, in that he sings like the air has been squeezed out of him (except, ironically, on ‘New Slang’, which is rendered in a beautiful offhand undertone). One thing everyone agreed on – they had a pre-natural grasp for melody, and a tendency to underplay things, qualities which as a combination had been missing from the music scene for a few decades.
Their follow-up album, Chutes Too Narrow, capitalized on these strengths, but also pushed the band’s sound in new directions with the startling loud-soft dynamics of ‘Kissing the lipless’ and the frantic rush of ‘Fighting in a sack’. But it was their third release, Wincing The Night Away, that truly showcased their willingness to experiment. Sandwiched between illegally sweet melodies were the spooky, rusted ‘Black Wave’, ‘Pam Berry’ and ‘Split Needles’, sounding like the aural equivalent of the tension that had always been lurking in their lyrics. Remarkably, they made all of it sound like a logical extension, instead of a departure from their normal sound.
However, if I had to pick a band can distract me from my Shins-worship, it would be Vampire Weekend. Sunny, utterly original and as smooth flowing as a stream, their sound was immediately (and correctly) compared to Paul Simon circa Graceland. But it hardly sounds derivative, you’d have to hear the actual songs to understand why this band has a sound all of its own. The lyrics are less crabby than those of the Shins, and have about an equal chance of being dismissed as bollocks. But their sound - the Afro Pop influenced singing, the clear beautiful lead guitar tone uncluttered by any extra rhythm - is the real triumph. Emphatically not ‘world music’, this Soweto via Manhattan vibe may be the most refreshing sound to hit the music scene in a long time.
(For more on Vampire Weekend, read Penfold, the first off the blocks when it comes to the indie scene)