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Have you seen the film “Garden State”? Yes? No?
If yes, great. If not, you should check it out. Written and directed by and starring Zach Braff, it is a semi-autobiographical, semi-absurd film about an actor returning home after the death of his mother. It was an indie darling at the festivals, garnering positive reviews, and a cult following. I mention it here because music features heavily throughout the film. Braff chose the music for the soundtrack himself, winning a Grammy for it to go along with his directing awards, and as he has explained ad nauseum, he simply used the music he was listening to while writing the film.
There are two songs by The Shins that are featured in the film and soundtrack but the one that changed everything for the band was the placement of “New slang”. The morning after his mother’s funeral (and a particularly debaucherous night out with old friends), our protagonist goes to see a doctor and meets Natalie Portman’s character, a delightfully quirky soul, wearing headphones. He asks her what she is listening to and she responds “The Shins”. When he admits that he has never heard them, she literally gushes (with perhaps an ounce of hyperbole): “You gotta hear this one song. It’ll change your life, I swear.” He puts on the offered headphones and we all hear the song at number seven on my Best tunes of 2001 list.
Of course, I had already heard of The Shins by the time “Garden State” was released and I got to see it on DVD. The band had already been around for close to a decade, had released its sophomore album just the year before (my own introduction to the group), and all of a sudden, there was all this interest in the debut album, “Oh, inverted world”, especially two of its songs. Natalie Portman’s line definitely worked. After slipping on the headphones with Zach Braff, I, too, had to go back and check out the rest of the debut.
“New slang” was written by frontman James Mercer before The Shins were even a thing. It fades in gently, easing us all in to the acoustic finger picking, light tapping on the tambourine, and Mercer’s falsetto humming. He then sings the song all non committal, like he’s testing out the lyrics for the first time as the song is being recorded. Indeed, the vocals are set very low in the mix, deep beneath this whole pile of gentleness. The whole thing reeks of basement studio, stale cigarette butts and warm beer, and a very late night. Then, the song slips off into the same dark shadowy corner from which it sprang.
I don’t know if it’ll change your life, like it did that of James Mercer and The Shins, but “New slang” is a fine song to immerse yourself in for a while.
For the rest of the Best tunes of 2001 list, click here.