There are two Broken Bells albums out there, so hearing James Mercer make dull music isn’t the novelty it used to be. Fortunately, that’s not what we’re promised on When You Land Here, It’s Time to Return. Flake Music’s only full-length LP, originally released in 1997, didn’t hit the same high marks of Mercer’s subsequent work with the Shins, nor did it really sound like it aspired to. But unlike the discofied dullardry of his collaboration with Danger Mouse, Mercer’s earlier band’s inability to offer the same pleasures as his more famous group offers something charming in return. Namely, the sound of potential unfulfilled—the retroactive promise that the people involved here were headed towards something great.
Flake Music get tantalizingly close on “Spanway Hits”, the song where you can most cleanly separate the qualities that would become definitive artistic tics in the future—even more than the thing here that’s actually called “The Shins”. Over 15 years after the fact, it’s hard to hear it as the work of anyone else; beyond Mercer’s piercing tone which distinguished him from more mumbly peers, there’s still the slight gap between his vocals and the wonderful melodies he writes for them. It lends an appealing degree of human error in his exquisite craftsmanship and he decorates these songs like ornate dioramas, both compact and highly detailed. There’s a directness on “Spanway Hits” that Mercer would later forego—it’s a youthful reminiscence of Big Wheels in the driveway and a poster of Simon LeBon in the bedroom, and how little they eventually mean—”Cut these ties and you’ll see how far apart we are.” This also hints at the subtle bitterness that would seep into the Shins’ Chutes Too Narrow in particular, though the poison is more potent here (“You’ve got the words to defend/ every bias you’ve learned while being human”). Is it on par with any of the songs on Oh, Inverted World? That’s a matter of taste. Would it fit on Oh, Inverted World?
Not at all, as “Spanway Hits” is also the song that most clearly demonstrates what separates Flake Music from the Shins, which is the real, weird divide between “indie rock” and “indie pop” that becomes more apparent as When You Land Here levels out after its initial peak. While the earliest incarnation of the Shins had basically the same lineup as Flake Music, the major shift was Mercer taking full command of the lyrics. It was not long before the Shins were revealed as more or less him. But from the outset, they had a singular aesthetic, more sourced from the bedroom than the garage—Oh, Inverted World was the next to take the baton in the soft parade of Elliott Smith, the Elephant 6 collective, Belle and Sebastian, and other songwriters who weren’t opposed to copping from Simon & Garfunkel. There was not a single edge to it, and while there were guitars, bass and drums, they never once rocked.
Conversely, Flake Music is Mercer’s pimpled and angry record collector from “Know Your Onion!” in real time, and When You Land Here functions as a state-of-the-art indie rock mixtape where he’s the curator rather than just an inclusion. Seeing as how Mercer and Beirut’s Zach Condon are the only rock musicians of note to ever come from New Mexico, one doubts there was ever an “Albuquerque sound.” So inevitably, Flake Music reached out in all directions to establish their neighbors, becoming de facto Californians and residents of the Pacific Northwest.
As with most guitar bands in the late ’90s, they’re in the shadow of Pavement and Mercer’s lyrics can often crib from Stephen Malkmus’ coding system for legible thoughts and feelings. Relying more on lyrical guitar leads than percussive strumming, “Mieke” (which was later included in Shins live sets) and “Blast Valve” owe a huge debt to pre-Perfect From Now On Built to Spill, albeit with a much higher ratio of twee meekness to heroism. It’s for the best, as the most jarring moment occurs when Mercer stomps on the fuzz pedals for the chorus of “Structo” and pissily enunciates the words “high school”. Meanwhile, if Sub Pop had released When You Land Here in 1997, the fractious rhythms of “Deluca” might have tipped them as a passable scion of Sunny Day Real Estate.
It’s all delightful in a scattershot way that betrays the fact that Flake Music had been around for five years at that point. But as with every reissue, the intent seems to be as much of a subject for appraisal as the content. When You Land Here isn’t widely considered a lost classic or ahead of its time, or really much beyond a very good album serving as a reminder of what indie rock sounded like in 1997. With all that said, it’s now been reissued twice. The first time can actually remind you of when reissues were a protracted decision that required balancing financial risk and reward. Oh, Inverted World was a rainmaker for Sub Pop after an unsteady few years and while Flake Music may have been dutifully namechecked in reviews, there’s a good shot that new Shins fans hadn’t heard of them and were unlikely to find the original Omnibus release in stores.
While the Shins are celebrating their fifteenth year of existence, none of their albums nor When You Land Here is celebrating a round number anniversary, which is usually the only requirement for reissue. That said, even if you’ve somehow owned this record twice already, the 2014 version ensures you get something out of this. Both the new artwork and the production do the best job possible of removing everything timestamped from 1997. Kennie Takahashi and J.J. Golden’s respective remix and remaster ensure it has some of the gleam and pop of Broken Bells, though they still maintain the vocal filters and grainy guitars whose subsequent absence made the Shins sound so novel. They’re not the only vestiges of a time when Mercer and company erred towards indie’s defense mechanisms. When You Land Here is a short record as is, one that shrinks even more due to a couple of early instrumental scribblings that level off momentum rather than establishing continuity, to say nothing of “Vantage”, a five-minute guitar workout that should be closing out a record of other shambling, five-minute guitar workouts.
That might not sound like much of an endorsement for the people who may have actually caught those shows Flake Music did with Califone or Modest Mouse back when they were both merely up-and-coming indie rock curiosities. But consider that an 18-year old who’s just discovering the Shins right now was six last time When You Land Here was in stores. And most of those stores have probably closed down by now. Or maybe think of it this way: here we are making our year-end lists with some kind of assumption that we’re creating a time capsule of what mattered and what it foretold for the future. In doing so, take a second to think about the records you came across this year that seemed promising, pretty good or “not quite there” and a couple of years from now, there’s a good chance they’ll be revealed as a transition towards greatness. It happens all the damn time and while When You Land Here is a fine reminder of a bygone time in indie rock, its current status is also a reminder of our inability to predict the future.
from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/1tODjeB