Best tunes of 2012: #8 The Shins “Simple song”

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It has now long since rebranded and changed formats but around the beginning of the 2010s, back when I still had a cable television package with Rogers*, I discovered a channel that played music videos for a good portion of its programming. Yes, I know I’ve told this story before, but it’s been a couple of minutes (okay, perhaps more than a year) since I’ve referenced this relatively short fling of mine with AUX TV.  And the story bears repetition given the amount of songs and artists it availed me. Much like Miike Snow’s “The wave”, which came in at number twenty three on this list, it was the music video that caught my eye first, but it didn’t take long for the love of the tune to follow.

The video starts with a dead parent addressing his three adult children in one of those message from beyond the grave type video recordings and knowing that each “hated his guts”, he tells them that he didn’t bequeath the familial home to any of them. Instead, he tells them, the deed is hidden within the home and whoever finds it, gets everything. A chaotic, rough and tumble, and often hilarious treasure hunt ensues, interspersed with VHS home video type clips showing a dysfunctional family history. When the “deed” is finally found and after a bit of hair pulling and choking, it is read and discovered to be a joke, that the house is instead scheduled for demolition that very afternoon. A charming video is made more so by the fact that the principal characters in the video are played by members of The Shins, including a titular performance by frontman James Mercer as the dead father.

I didn’t know anything of this last fact the first time I saw the video, of course, and save for recognizing Mercer and his inimitable vocals, I might not have placed this song as by the same band that played the song that “will change your life”, featured on the “Garden State” film soundtrack. And this is because for the most part, it wasn’t. The Shins hadn’t released any new material for five years up to this point and when Mercer
resurfaced with “Port of morrow”, it was with a completely new band.

“Simple song” was the first single released off this new album and it was anything but a simple song. Starting with haunting organs and ghostly guitars wavering in the attic cobwebs and banging around in the walls, it quickly becomes jubilant and upbeat and hopeful. Mercer wrote it in the comforts of his home, shortly after his marriage and birth of this first child and he was reflecting on everything to come.

“Well this will be a simple song
To say what you’ve done
I told you about all those years
And away they did run
You sure must be strong
And you feel like an ocean
Being warmed by the sun”

“Simple song” dances and frolics in pure happiness and I swear if you don’t have a smile on your own face by the end, one might surmise that you don’t have a soul.

*Remember cable television?

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2012 list, click here.

Live music galleries

Ten great Ottawa Bluesfest sets: #6 The Shins – Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

(This year’s edition of Ottawa Bluesfest has been cancelled, for obvious reasons. In previous years, especially on my old blog, I would share photos and thoughts on some of the live music I was enjoying at the festival throughout the duration. So for the next week and a half, I thought I’d share ten great sets, out of the many I’ve witnessed over the years, one for each day on which music would have be performed. Enjoy.)

The Shins performing live at Bluesfest 2017

Artist: The Shins
When: Wednesday, July 12th, 2017
Where: Claridge Stage at 7:55pm
Context: This set by The Shins in 2017 marks the most recent performance to make this list and it also marks the only one for which I didn’t have any notes to which I could refer and pilfer to write this post. For all the other sets in this series, I was diligently making notes during them so that I could post reviews of sorts to my old blog ‘Music Insanity’. By the time 2017 rolled around, I had stuck a fork in that old blog and had just started this one and I decided to spend less time making notes and taking photos during concerts and just tried to enjoy the live experience more.

Interestingly, this particular Wednesday was the only day I got to Bluesfest in 2017. I was going to skip the festival altogether that year but the one day lineup that included Phantogram, The Shins, and LCD Soundsystem was too good to pass up. I had seen The Shins five years earlier with my wife Victoria and remembered that they blew us away, despite the rain storm that had swept up during their set. Still, leading up to that day, I was considering them and Phantogram icing on the cake to finally seeing LCD Soundsystem. That all changed when James Mercer and his players hit the stage.

The particulars are rather fuzzy, given that it was three years ago, again, I don’t have any notes from the day, and of course, I had enjoyed a few pints beforehand with my friend Jean-Pierre. However, I was totally engaged and enrapt during the set’s entirety. James Mercer and The Shins definitely know how to rock. They pulled out tunes from all of their albums, right back to their 2001 debut, “Oh, inverted world”, and didn’t focus solely on selections from their newest, 2017’s “Heartworms”. Yeah, I was there singing along to all the tunes right there with the rest of the crowd. And the smile never left my face the whole time.

Casey Foubert, Yuuki Matthews, Jon Sortland, and James Mercer
Patti King of The Shins
Casey Foubert of The Shins
Mark Watrous and James Mercer
Yuuki Matthews and Jon Sortland of The Shins
Yuuki Matthews, Jon Sortland, James Mercer, and Patti King
James Mercer of The Shins

Caring Is Creepy
Name for You
Mine’s Not a High Horse
Girl Inform Me
Saint Simon
Kissing the Lipless
Painting a Hole
The Rifle’s Spiral
Half a Million
Phantom Limb
Simple Song
The Fear
New Slang
Sleeping Lesson


Best tunes of 2001: #7 The Shins “New slang”

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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.