The Shins: Oh, Inverted World (2001)

Damn you, Zach Braff, damn you to hell.  

I’m sure he’s a perfectly decent guy.  But that one scene is a monumental pain in the ass.  You know the scene I’m talking about.  The one in Garden State, where impossibly quirky manic pixie dream girl Natalie Portman hands Braff’s emotionally detached protagonist her headphones and insists, “You gotta hear this one song, it’ll change your life forever, I swear.”

The scene, like the movie itself, is highly divisive: either celebrated as a compelling depiction of the transformative power of one perfectly-timed song, or (per more recent revisionist appraisals) derided as a hopelessly cheeseball effort to shortcut true character and relationship development through a carefully selected, universally palatable yet still just slightly left-of-center indie rock track.  Take your pick.

To his credit, at least Braff enlisted the Shins’ “New Slang,” an undeniably awesome song, for this scene.  If Natalie Portman had handed him the headphones, made those great big doe eyes of hers, and then queued up Starship’s “We Built This City” or the Black Eyed Peas’ “My Humps,” I’d undoubtedly have a much dimmer view of the exercise.

Anyway, count me among those who was actually perfectly content to see the Shins get their cinematic due.  I don't remember how I first stumbled across this album, but for whatever reason I bought it upon its 2001 release, maybe 3 years before Garden State brought it to the masses, and loved the hell out of it.  Still do.  James Mercer and his revolving cast of Shins have released a lot of great music since (I'm a sucker for the music-lover autobiography "Mildenhall" on 2017's Heartworms), but I'm particularly smitten by the band's debut (or second album, if you count the one recorded by Mercer as Flake Music). 

The music is a nice mash-up of emotionally rich yet understated indie rock (file alongside Death Cab For Cutie) and lush, Brian Wilson-inspired beach-friendly atmospherics.  And while the hushed jangle of "New Slang" is sheer perfection, the album has no shortage of fantastic stand-alone tracks, including opening track and call to arms "Caring is Creepy," the rollicking "One By One All Day," the chipper pop of "Know Your Onion," and the directly Wilson-esque "Girl Inform Me."  It makes a nice package start to finish, one which captures that early 90s indie vibe but is just a plain old solidly great album that would hold up well even if it had never had that zeitgeist moment.  It's one of those rare finds that works equally well as a soundtrack for introspective bedroom angst and blast-through-open-car-windows sunshiny anthems.

Here's the "New Slang" video:
...and "Know Your Onion":
...and how about a live take on "Girl Inform Me":

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