The Albuquerque, New Mexico, band the Shins pair bubbly folk-pop with sincere, intelligent lyrics and in the process have created one of the most endearing debut albums in recent memory. Connecting the dots between the autumnal melodies of such groups as Belle & Sebastian and the indie eccentricities of bands like Modest Mouse (with whom they have toured), Oh, Inverted World is an album about "the untied shoelaces of your life" -- not only the misgivings that trip you up romantically but also the frustration over things left undone or unsaid.
Singer-songwriter James Mercer's subject matter -- adolescent confusion, romantic wounds, stinging regret -- may not be altogether original, but his approach is exceedingly personal and complicated. The rollicking "Know Your Onion!" recounts that oldest of teenage concerns: not fitting in. "Shut out, pimpled and angry/I quietly tied all my guts into knots," the narrator recalls, before revealing a true passion: "Lucked out/found my favorite records lying in wait at the Birmingham mall." It's a prickly memory, but Mercer generously avoids any bitterness or blame: "When they're parking their cars on your chest/you've still got a view of the summer sky."
Musically, Oh, Inverted World boasts a broad sonic palette, as the band provides lush, eclectic backing that matches the spirit of Mercer's lyrics. On "One By One All Day," they chug along with clockwork precision until they hit a wittily psychedelic coda. And on "Girl Inform Me," they summon up the Beach Boys better -- and with much less affectation -- than most indie bands.
Part of the appeal of Oh, Inverted World might just be its length: The album clocks in at just over 33 minutes, which is long enough to make it exceptionally cohesive and to maintain its focus but short enough to leave us wanting more and anticipating a follow-up. -- Stephen Deusner
The Shins will be at the Young Avenue Deli on Monday, September 24th.
A celebration of the nonviolent, political resistance of activists and artists the world over, Witness, Dave Douglas' newest album, stands as a cosmic testament to the eventual, manifest triumph of truth in the face of dark, ephemeral power. Probably the most original trumpeter/composer of his generation, Douglas is hard to pin down: The expressive control that he wields over his instrument and the improvisational nature of his work ground him in the jazz tradition, but it would seem that Douglas borrows something from every musical idiom. One might hear John Zorn, Charles Mingus, and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov all straining to break through in a single Douglas piece.
For Witness, Douglas has assembled a veritable who's who of the modern avant-garde scene and drafted singer-songwriter Tom Waits for a very subdued reading in one piece. Besides Douglas' sometimes mournful, sometimes ecstatic trumpet, some of the "instruments" you might hear over the duration of this powerful album are AM radio, marimba, glockenspiel, electronic percussion, and sampling. But the most moving voices accompanying Douglas are those of the clarinet, tenor sax, tuba, cello, bass, drums, trombone, and violin (used to heartbreaking effect over what seems to be looped, backward vibraphone).
"Witness," the title piece, sounds like the sonic fallout from an epic, celestial contest in which Ornette Coleman referees between Miles Davis' band circa 1969 and a young Duke Ellington and his orchestra. "Child of All Nations," as it races by, summons images as disparate as belly dancers and bombs. "Kidnapping Kissinger," while bereft of any overall melody, is manic like no one but Warner Bros. Merrie Melodies composer Carl Stalling could be (just throw in the sound-effects crew as well). In all, Witness comprises a complete vocabulary of dystopian despair and artistic joy while at times seeming to seethe with anger for the plutocratic juggernaut in power today. -- Jeremy Spencer
Nick Lowe's early achievements simply cannot be overstated. After dissolving the mod-psychedelic pop band Kippington Lodge in the late '60s, he formed Brinsley Schwarz with fellow Lodge guitarist Brinsley Schwarz. Schwarz, the band, was a leading proponent, if not the leading proponent, of Britain's pub-rock scene. Pub rock blazed a straight line into Britain's punk- rock Class of '76 by establishing a credible simplifying of loud rock music and a string of venues to play across the country. Leaving Schwarz in 1976, Lowe embarked on his greatest accomplishments as co-founder and house producer of Stiff, Britain's first high-profile indie label, where he would helm the controls for the country's first full-length punk-rock record: the Damned's Damned Damned Damned. Lowe would save his best solo creation for the first-ever Stiff single, 1976's "So It Goes" b/w "Heart Of the City" -- largely regarded as the birth of Britain's late-'70s power-pop explosion. He then landed a multi-LP deal with Columbia that would produce the British Top 10 hit "(I Love the Sound Of) Breaking Glass" and later the worldwide Top 40 hit (his only to date) "Cruel To Be Kind."
Lowe wandered about the '80s and early '90s producing a swarm of adult contemporary releases for other artists, spitting out unnoticed solo record after unnoticed solo record and flirting with every genre under the sun while battling (and eventually winning) a serious dependence on alcohol. After joining the thankfully short-lived supergroup Little Village, Lowe experienced what most songwriters in their waning years pine for: He became a millionaire from royalties. An R&B version of Lowe's "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" appeared on the highest-selling soundtrack album of all time: The Bodyguard.
All this time, Lowe was embracing Americana as his primary musical direction and picking up a modest following among the alt-country movement that blossomed stateside during the late '80s and early '90s. The Convincer provides closure to a trio of albums that began with 1994's The Impossible Bird, and all three albums are a mixture of minimal vocal numbers, country rock, and covers. The Convincer opens with "Homewrecker" -- a torch number that sounds as if it were sung by an artsier Bob Seger -- and then commences with assured and competent rootsified singer-songwriter fare (peppered with two covers and another torch song or two). The Convincer is obviously not the place to start but may be worthwhile for longtime fans who have stuck with the 52-year-old Lowe over the past two decades.
Labour Of Love: The Music Of Nick Lowe, on the other hand, is a tossed-off tribute album that utilizes the "house band" concept rather than a different artist for each track. The rotating cast includes several of Lowe's contemporaries/former business partners (the lesser Marshall Crenshaw and Graham Parker, the superior Elvis Costello) and a slew of session hacks (SNL's G.E. Smith, Joe Clay). And I shouldn't forget Tom Petty and Sleepy Labeef's contributions, because you no doubt will. Saving my review of this album from being two words in length ("half-assed" comes immediately to mind) is Costello's wonderful six-minute version of "Egypt" -- a Brinsley Schwarz tune from 1972.
-- Andrew Earles
Grades: The Convincer -- C+; Labour Of Love -- C-