Shins + J. Mascis
McCarren Park Pool
August 23, 2006
There’s a lot of stuff I don’t particularly like about the Shins, but most of that stuff isn’t the band’s fault. If we’re going to talk about the music and nothing else, they’re really good. The band makes comfort-food power-pop, pure and simple, and they’re total pros at it. Their production has a sort of amber warmth, and their hooks lazily snake their way directly into your brain. As Zach Baron pointed out to me today, Oh Inverted World is pretty much a perfect soundtrack for cleaning up your apartment the morning after a party. They’ve only released two albums, and both of them are throughly satisfying minor slices of blissy indie-pop. They’re a good band. The only real thing wrong with them is that their live show is a thoroughly average affair; nobody in the band has the sort of charisma that registers when you’re standing more than a hundred feet from the stage. And even the live show thing isn’t anything new. They’ve always been a bit listless onstage, and people still come out in droves to see them. A few thousand people came out to McCarren Park Pool last night and paid $36 plus service charges to get in, so good for them.
What really bothers me about the band is that they’ve somehow, through no fault of their own, become standard-bearers for the nebulously defined genre of music called indie-rock. I am definitely not the first person to make this observation, but indie-rock is an entirely different beast from what it was ten years ago. Indie-rock was once desperate music made and consumed by awkward and obsessive types who often had to comb through zines and mail-order catalogues to find shit. Ideologically and aesthetically, most of it was an outgrowth of punk and hardcore, the sort of thing that happened when people got sick of the rigidly defined boundaries of those scenes and went off to do some crazy shit on their own because they absolutely had to do crazy shit or they would die. This is all romantic nostalgia, of course, and it’s not like 80s or 90s indie-rock was free of careerism or derivative bullshit. And there didn’t used to be too many bands in the underground who could write hooks as potent as the ones on Shins tracks; hooks are generally a whole lot more important than social positioning anyway. But things have changed a whole lot as the internet has made indie-rock a lot easier to find. It’s a less obsessive pursuit now, and that’s been reflected in the music. If indie-rock dudes are taking their musical cues from mid-90s bands, those bands are less and less likely to be Fugazi or Bikini Kill or Today is the Day and more and more likely to be, like, Buffalo Tom or Tripping Daisy or Better Than Ezra. There’s not a whole lot of passionate squall out there anymore, and most of it has moved off to the periphery or to weird little subsidiaries like the noise scene. Indie-rock’s center, if such a thing can even be said to exist, has moved more toward the sort of stuff you listen to as background music for when you’re on the internet. And that’s made for some great music: Spoon’s Kill the Moonlight, Mirah’s C’Mon Miracle, the Postal Service’s Give Up. But it’s also made for a depressing sense that there’s nothing much at stake.
The Shins are really good at the sort of fuss-free indie-pop, and that’s why Natalie Portman leaned over to Zach Braff in that one movie and told him that they’d change his life. It’s hard to imagine that the Shins’ label, Sub Pop, would’ve fucked with this life-changing music ten years ago. The band made it known in their “New Slang” video that they completely revere the fucked-up desperation of the past to the point where they’ll pose for pastiche recreations of the covers of Zen Arcade and Let It Be and Spiderland, but they don’t have a whole lot to do with those albums either musically or culturally. The craziest things about their songs are the occasional spacey keyboard bits they sometimes work in. They’re prim and controlled and safe, and they’ve stayed indie and taken their warm-fuzzy-pleasant music to something that vaguely resembles rock stardom. And so thousands upon thousands of people came out to see them at McCarren Park Pool last night. The Pool might be the perfect venue for this band; it’s maybe the most remarkably pleasant place to see bands in the city. It’s huge, big enough to get a whole lot of people inside without making us feel like lobsters crawling over each other. And it has a sort of decrepit majesty in the way its old brick walls rise up through the trees and the under-construction condos around it. When the breeze is blowing in the right direction, the smell from the barbecue pit in the corner drifts across the entire venue. It’s hard to be in a bad mood in a place like that, and the Shins’ crowd was ready to lap them up; the couple in front of me actually squealed in glee and hugged each other when the band played the opening notes of “Know Your Onion.” It’d be nice to say that the band stepped up at the opportunity and gave a performance that captured everyone’s imaginations, but no; they’re nice-enough everydudes, and they don’t have the sort of outsized personalities that a trick like that requires. The stage-patter was all stiff and awkward: “Stay out of the deep end!” And they completely fucked up their first attempt at playing “New Slang”; they had to ditch it completely and then try again during the encores. But they have good songs, and those songs still sound good when the people onstage playing them don’t look entirely comfortable. If anything, they’re set to move even further into the realm of tidy pop; one of the new songs they played quoted the opening chime-riff from the Chiffons’ “Then He Kissed Me”; another was vaguely Killers-esque. And if they never actually get around to changing anyone’s life, it’ll probably just be because they aren’t the sort of dudes who do that stuff.
It was a bit weird seeing one of indie-rock’s old-guard warriors, J. Mascis, opening for these guys, and it was even weirder seeing him sitting on a folding chair in the middle of the stage and playing completely solo and acoustic, no huge bank of amplifiers towering behind him. These days, he’s looking something like Garth from Wayne’s World if he discovered punk and then got really old: frizzy white hair, pot-belly, Wipers shirt, big glasses. Every once in a while, he’d mash down on an effects pedal and launch into one of the gloriously tattered guitar solos that he’s been doing almost as long as I’ve been alive. When he wasn’t doing that, though, he could be damn near any singer-songwriter with a reedy Neil Young voice and a gift for diffuse, serpentine guitar lines. He barely said a thing to the crowd. It was like he’d willfully relegated himself to background-music status for all the people wandering around and looking at the graffiti on the walls.