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Columns > Patrick Buzby

Published: 2008/01/24
by Pat Buzby

Phantom Limb

Another new year. And, with it, there are the usual things that surface again and again on December 31st: promises to keep a diary, become more physically fit, get rid of one annoying habit or another. For a music writer, the years-ten-best list is as inescapable at the end of the year as Christmas songs.
Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune announced his choices for a 2007 mixtape, which he centered around the theme of people escaping from their small towns. He led it off with the Shins Phantom Limb. This got me thinking about that song for the first time in a few months.
A year ago, Phantom Limb arrived on the radio. One DJ on WXRT commented that he was surprised no one else had taken the title Phantom Limb by now. Another, possibly on All Things Considered, linked this song to the legions of others with wooahh choruses. I learned that the Shins were the band Natalie Portman promised would change your life in Garden State (which seems a terrible responsibility to place on any band). I borrowed the CD from the library, but the other songs didnt grab me as much. I didnt find out why they called the song Phantom Limb. Until I get the CD again, I also wont know what the song has to do with escaping from a small town.
What got to me about Phantom Limb was its melody. The stately beginning, going straight up the major scale; the uncertainly as the same pitch (C#) that is consonant over the opening A chord becomes an uncertain second over B minor two bars later; the minor/major back-and-forth in the bridge. The big, guitar-based production that used to be behind multiple big statements a year and has become increasingly rare now. And, finally, the aforementioned wooahh chorus. Being a critic, and writing years best lists, means forcing yourself to know everything about every new release (or at least a lot about many), and if someone had asked me to review the Shins CD I would have learned all of the details. For an ordinary music listener, though, sometimes one song, or one aspect of a song, provides all the information a CD needs to give.
This song will bring back the winter of 2007 for me each time I hear it: the struggle against the same short days and cold, wet conditions that we Midwesterners are also slogging through now, the gigs that took me from Elgin to Chicago, the promise that warmer, more fun days lay ahead.
This promise proved true. Spring arrived. My wife and I kept one of our resolutions and started looking for apartments in Chicago when it got warmer, and made the move at the end of April with a little help from friends. (Okay, a lot.) Baseball season started and ended. Wilco answered my curiosity about how a studio album by the Nels Cline lineup would sound. Amy Winehouse transformed from a star-in-ascendance to an out-of-control gossip column staple. Kanye West sold CDs, although few others managed to. Radiohead, Sir Paul McCartney, the Eagles and Madonna provided further evidence of the imminent demise of the conventional music industry, even as it managed to get through one more year without a complete collapse.
Meanwhile, Phantom Limb is my 2007 song. Now, I am waiting for something to announce itself as a 2008 song. Please, no more wooahh choruses for a while, though. The Shins have claimed that one for the time being.

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