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Columns > Jesse Jarnow - Brain Tuba

Published: 2007/02/20
by Jesse Jarnow

Ye Shall Be Changed (Gimmie Indie RAWK!)

BRAIN TUBA: Ye Shall Be Changed (Gimmie Indie RAWK!)
On Valentine’s Day, in Greenpoint, an improv comedy group performed cookie-cutter yes-and short-form before the Akron/Family’s fantastic two-hour blow-out. One cast member interviewed a very nice looking couple about the history of their relationship, after which the other two mugged their way through representative scenes.
"When did you first confess your love to one another?" the interviewer asked. The happy couple laughed, and told him that it was a night they stayed in and watched Garden State. The 20something crowd awwwed, knowing exactly what it signified.
"That’s the one with that Shins’ song, right?" the host asked, as if it needed to be said. The scene happened, ending with the lights going down and "that Shins’ song" — "New Slang" — cued up from an offstage iPod. Neat trick.
"You gotta hear this one song, it’ll change your life, I swear," Natalie Portman coos early in the film, a line whose collective misremembering as "the Shins will change your life" is fast becoming the "play it again, Sam" of the hipster set. Either way, James Mercer & co. couldn’t ask for a more deeply fetching endorsement. Like the Beach Boys’ surfing songs, used whenever some hack television producer wants to cue beachtime fun, the Shins (or perhaps director Zach Braff) have synthesized their own cultural needledrop for significant moments. Life changing moments.
But… really?
The Shins are great. I love 2003’s Chutes Too Narrow, a lot. In the same manner as R.E.M.‘s Automatic for the People and Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, I memorized it syllable by syllable, not really knowing what the songs were about, until I could sing along in a half-unconscious gobbledygook. Which is to say: the song’s melodies lodged themselves in a deep, non-verbal part of me that goes way beyond lyrics, and feels really good to exercise. Yeah, I dig me some Shins.
But that’s what music is supposed to do, right? Or something like it? That’s what I signed up for, anyway, when I started copying my parents’ vinyl to tape, collecting albums, trading bootlegs, and the like. The Shins are really good at that, at least for me, but it still seems like they’re only doing their jobs. As much as I love them — except in that everything (including typing these words) has technically changed my life — The Shins have not changed my life. They’ve enhanced it greatly, no doubt. The Grateful Dead changed my life. Nirvana changed my life. The Shins make me happy.
And I guess I’m hesitant to see how The Shins do anything but that to anybody, except as a byproduct of the aforementioned Garden State needledrop. They’re not a radical departure from anything (in fact, they’re pretty retro), and — so it seems to me — not that type of band to inflict any major paradigm shifts in its listeners. I’ve seen them make other people really happy, too, but nobody I know has veered into the Peace Corps or the Krishnas or anything too different owing to James Mercer.
Come to think of it, I was introduced to "New Slang" and their Oh, Inverted World debut by my friend Paul on a pretty epic cross-country road trip not long after I graduated college, exactly the place for an album to reach for some kind of life-changing claim. None was forthcoming. But they were pretty good driving music, I guess, and wonderful fodder for an argument that extended through most of Arizona and inland California about what constituted Platonic indie rock (The Shins, I argued).
But who am I to disagree with anybody who claims that a band has changed his or her life? There’s nothing objective about it. I’ve got other friends who can’t stand the damn band. But I’m not sure if I like that, either, because it maybe means that I’m past the point in my life when I discover albums that, y’know, change it. It’s just how it goes. In that regard, maybe Chutes Too Narrow is just that special, after all: music that reminds me that I love music. As a fan, that’s not life changing. But it is life affirming, and that might be better. Or maybe I’m just biding my time until some random band inspires me to become a yak herder.
Jesse Jarnow blogs at

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