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The Shins - Know Your Onion!

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Artist: The Shins

Album: Know Your Onion!

Label: Sub Pop

Review date: May. 22, 2002

In 2001, the Shins were the indie rock equivalent of Ichiro Suzuki. Sort of. Stick with me here. Having already released a number of singles and albums as Flake Music, The Shins weren't technically "new." However, Oh Inverted World, their first album under the Shins moniker, was the first that most people had heard from James Mercer and his New Mexican friends. It wasn’t really their first album per se, but they sure seemed like a new band, and a great one at that. It wasn't long before music fans stopped debating the semantics of whether or not the Shins were technically "rookies" and came to agree that, new or old, they were still a most valuable band. And Sub Pop is in Seattle. Since the release of Oh Inverted World much of the scarcer Flake Music (most of which is available on Omnibus Records) material has become more widely available, but little of it lives up to the nastily sweet pop found on the Shins' full-length. The Know Your Onion! EP, their first release since Oh Inverted World, is a curiously satisfying interlude; curious because of the brevity and the lack of truly new material, but satisfying because even after a year of heavily repeated listening, the same songs (granted, some in different forms) are still among the finest that the rock world has offered in years.

The "EP" (more of a "single," really) begins with the original album version of "Know Your Onion!" Innovative production submerges singer Mercer's vocals, but doesn't bury them entirely, resulting in a dirty, Kinksy sound that nicely matches the gritty and simple chord progressions. Tambourines, call-and-response vocals, angsty lyrics and messy cymbals provide a shot of nostalgia for an ambiguous era that probably pre-dates the actual memories of most Shins fans. Regardless the song is as strong on its own as it was when it was first released exactly one year ago.

The second song, "My Seventh Rib," is the only truly new song on the album, and was recorded live in Seattle last year. Its two and a half minutes fly by with little suspense or build, but with plenty of action. While the Shins are surely a fine live band, their live recordings lack the precise instrumental mix that set the Shins apart from their legions of indie pop contemporaries. "My Seventh Rib" does not suffer from poor songwriting, but its live manifestation is noticeably nice but not any more striking than much modern indie pop fare. The third song, a live version of "New Slang" taken from the same concert suffers from similar problems. However unlike "My Seventh Rib," "New Slang" has more than enough strength on its own to succeed in this less precise setting. And while the opening coos aren't quite as haunting as the album version's, the sparse arrangement and late-breaking keyboards still make for a fine recording.

The last song, "Sphagnum Esplanade," was originally released last year on the "New Slang" 7" and is one of the least congruent and best Shins songs to date. Here singer Mercer's high-pitched vocals are buried and echoed to an extreme degree as droning keyboard, a metronomic Casio beat, and a barely audible toy(?) guitar carry most of the melody. It is pop in only the loosest sense, but lovely in the strongest sense. Although it has already been released (on another single no less) it's a fine end to the EP as it offers exciting promise toward innovation and new direction on the Shins' new album, whenever it arrives. After a full year of waiting the Know Your Onion! EP is certainly less than it could be, as far as new material goes, but again it's not disappointing in the least. Going back to the Ichiro thing (no I didn't forget), this EP is a bit like spring training: Even though it doesn't really count for much, it sure is nice to have the Shins back on my mind, and they sound like they haven't missed a beat. It should be an exciting second season.

By Sam Hunt

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