Monday, April 2, 2012

Port in a Storm

The Shins are no longer cool, but Matt Domino explains why "Port of Morrow" is still a fantastic record.

I didn’t really like college. I know that sounds like blasphemy, but it’s true. I had my fun times like anyone else; I made lifelong friends; I slept past noon; I hung out with the wrong people; I ate terrible food; I did terrible drugs; I liked the wrong girls; and I punched a life size hole in the wall of my dorm’s hallway that I later urinated in. Like anyone else in this world, I had all the normal, latter day college experiences. And despite all that, I still didn’t like college.

To this day, I’m not exactly sure why I didn’t enjoy myself. Perhaps it had to do with the fact that as soon as I got to my school I looked around and thought, “this is it?” It looked and felt like “college” as it was advertised to me in brochures and on TV and in the movies, but it wasn’t what I wanted; it was less than some ideal in my head. I still have no idea what I wanted that ideal to be and that ideal could be what I’m always searching for in some way or another and may never find. All I know is that my cruel, independent nature wanted nothing to do with dorm activities and all the open-eyed innocence and shoulder shrugging of what a college freshman was supposed to be. I suppose what I always wanted was to be what I am now: an independent, creatively active, over-the-drinking-age young adult with a place of my own. Of course, I had no tangible idea of that desire back then.

In my first semester at Skidmore, I had to take a course called Liberal Studies 1. Anyone who went to Skidmore from 2003-2009 knows about the dreaded LS 1 requirement. Liberal Studies was a freshman requirement where a room of overconfident eighteen and nineteen year olds would sit around as professors from different departments from all over the college would attempt to distill the “liberal arts” education with one semester full of readings and essay assignments. Needless to say, this resulted in plenty of eighty-minute sessions of bullshit. I’d sit silently through each class while privileged kids like me from Massachusetts, Long Island, Connecticut and New York City would wax on about something, some kernel of knowledge they held close to their chests to keep them unique throughout high school, and I’d feel overwhelmed. I didn’t think that I was better than any of my classmates; I just felt no desire to speak the way they did.

So, my first semester unfolded and autumn fell on Upstate New York. And my daily routines began to take form. On Tuesdays and Thursdays I’d eat an unsatisfying lunch a the dining hall around noon and then come back to my room while my roommate had class and try to take a short nap before my 2:10 LS 1 class. And each time I laid down for a nap, I would put on the Shins’ first album Oh, Inverted World, which had just come out. It was arguably the album of my freshman year. This was pre-Natalie Portman/Garden State endorsement and the Shins were just a new band that represented the accumulation of indie rock’s ongoing rediscovery and reappropriation of the genius of Brian Wilson throughout the mid to late 1990’s; and they made pop music that was heavily indebted to those melodies. I’d lie on my bed in my dorm room, with the window open slightly, listening to people talking out in front of the building and in the adjacent quad. I’d think and imagine the fun they were having—if they were falling in love; I’d think about how much beer I would have to buy for my dorm at Wal-Mart with my fake I.D.; and I’d think of girls, always the wrong girls that didn’t care about me. The sky would be grey and James Mercer’s voice piped and strained for high notes while Beach Boys harmonies and organ melodies floated out of the speakers attached to my Dell laptop—which was bought at the college freshman bargain special low-price—and I’d feel terribly sad. Not out of homesickness or some indie sensitivity, but because I was unsatisfied and I didn’t really know why.

My suitemate, who was a year older, had turned me onto the album. He turned me onto a lot of different albums and artists that year. He had an old hi-fi system set up in his single room and he’d blast music out from the narrow window that looked onto the main path to the dorm building. I’d come back from class on a Friday to the thick sounds of some late-60’s or early 70’s Elvis record; or then it was “Isis”; or then “Friends” or “This Whole World” by the Beach Boys. It was a learning experience and simple pleasure I could always rely on. And so, through my suitemate and my longing grey afternoons, I got to know all the hits and intricacies of Oh, Inverted World. By now, they are well entrenched in the indie rock canon: the spooky opening of “Caring is Creepy” that gives way to classic 60’s guitar and drum sounds; the Top of the Pops melody of “Girl, Inform Me”; the meditative, peak-Zombies sounds of “Past and Pending”; the undeniable pop of “Know Your Onion”; and of course, the impossible, longing and epiphany of “New Slang.” Oh, Inverted World perhaps more than even Is This It? set the aesthetic for indie-rock and the indie sensibility of much of the ‘00’s. And that sensibility has only recently shifted with the recent/no-so-recent achievements of Animal Collective and the undeniable influence of Kanye West’s ego, vision and ambition. So, whenever I think about my emergence as an “adult” or of my sad dorm room or my initial college experiences, I think of laying on my quilt and listening to Oh, Inverted World and dreading going to LS 1.

*          *          *          *         *

As my freshman year ended and the good weather could do nothing but keep you in a good mood, I decided that I would stay at my college for the summer and work and take part in the Summer Writer’s Institute. So all my friends moved out of the dorms and left me their stashes of beer. One friend left me his George Foreman grill. I was left in my dorm room, which now felt incredibly large, alone with nothing but beautiful May weather and more than sixty beers and a Foreman grill. And so I proceeded to walk to the grocery store and buy steak and vegetables with sunlight filtering through all the trees. There was no one around that I knew, so I was merely an eighteen year old in upstate New York. I grilled the steaks back in my dorm room on my George Foreman grill and started to make my way through the beer. I left the windows wide open and played Sunflower and Friends by the Beach Boys at full blast, paying full tribute to my suitemate’s and the Shins’ influence on me over the year. I’d listen to the music and think about the friends I’d made; about the girls I fell in love with, but shouldn’t have; and about the girls I blew it with. I thought about a one-night, fleeting romance I had with a girl from Mount Holyoke at Lake George in March. Soon night was falling, crickets were chirping and the Timberwolves were playing the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals on TNT and I was buzzed.

My phone rang and my friend Miles was on the line. He said he was still in town because his mom had a friend who lived near the school and he wanted to know if I wanted to hang out. I was fighting off loneliness so I told him to come by. When he arrived, though it had only been a day since we’d said goodbye, I was completely happy to see him. We drank beer and he brought a flask of whiskey. We watched Kevin Garnett battle Shaq and Kobe and talked about basketball and girls and what we would do in the summer. Somehow we got word of a Senior Week party at one of the off campus houses, so we proceeded to gather ourselves and walk drunkenly along the back roads behind campus, towards the school stables and made our way to the house party.

When we got there the party had died down so all the seniors could go to the bars. There were a few people still drinking and hanging out. They admired our gumption as exiting freshman to come to a Senior Week party and gave us beer. They were grilling chicken and offered us some. I was drunk and hungry and took some immediately. Miles, who was a vegetarian, accepted a piece too. He hadn’t eaten meat in almost a year, but he was drunk and tore into the chicken. After a while, it seemed like our welcome had worn out, so we proceeded to walk back to campus. Along the way back, the chicken, whether it was cooked well or not, started to disagree with Miles and his vegetarian stomach and he got sick. I managed to get him back to my dorm room where we both passed out.

When I woke up, Miles was gone. Nobody texted back then so I just assumed his mom had come to get him. I left it at that and continued on with my solitary time in the dorm, finishing left behind beer and cooking food on my Foreman grill while the beautiful May sun shone out my dorm window, reminding me that the summer would be long.

The other night, I went to Miles’ twenty-seventh birthday party at a bar in Williamsburg. I saw a lot of people that I went to college with, people that I see all the time around Brooklyn and Manhattan in this post-college world that we’ve been living in for the past five years. My class’ Fifth Year College Reunion is coming up in May and some people will be going back up to the school to take part in the festivities; I probably won’t go, but I find it funny that the Shins have just released a new album and that I have been listening to it non-stop for the past few weeks.

*     *      *      *       *       *

Port of Morrow, like many have already said, won’t, in the words of Natalie Portman, “change your life.” Instead, over its forty minutes, Port of Morrow just shows you how to write good, enjoyable pop songs that you want to listen to over and over again. The craftsmanship on the album is nothing short of top-notch. The production sounds good everywhere. The songs build in the right places; there are obvious hooks that you remember and that make you come back to the album, then there are subtle hooks that you discover on the second or third listen that make you really want to turn the album on again. And that is the mark of an album or any piece of art that is done correctly. “Simple Song” has guitars that remind you of “Caring is Creepy” but instead of being symbols of some inspired youth, they are now just inevitable sounds of knowledge. “40 Mark Strasse” is a true stadium anthem that Oh, Inverted World-era James Mercer would never have been able to pull off. And even though it is a stadium anthem, it never feels like it. “Fall of ‘82” has slight vocal hooks that you only hear on Thin Lizzy songs and a tight, nonchalance that the best Ryan Adams songs all have. Meanwhile, “For a Fool” is Songwriting 101 straight out of the book of McCartney and I love every second of it.

It’s not cool to like The Shins anymore and that’s OK. It’s not cool to like or do a lot of things when you live in New York and are making your way through your mid-20’s. All I know is that when I listen to Port of Morrow it not only reminds me of all the things I loved about The Shins when I first listened to them as freshman in college, but it also reminds me of all the things I love about good pop music from the 1960’s up until today. This is an album that will probably be played live somewhere, but none of that will ever matter, because when I turn Port of Morrow on years from now, it will be one of those records that only matters in its recorded form. Because it’s a record you put on while you clean your apartment or decompress after work, or use as a shield on your way to work. It is a record that lives in all the corners of your mind and nothing about a live performance will make it any better than it already is. It is studio craft, it is the pop-artifice, and it belongs in the places those kinds of albums stay—in your imagination.

*        *           *         *          *

The night of Miles’ 27th birthday, I went to see another friend of mine play a show. He played well, like he usually does, and his songs were great; they are assembled with a great attention to the pop music form. After he played, we talked about his music and about my writing. We talked about how there must be a lot of good writers trying to make their way in New York.

“I mean,” he said, “it can’t be that hard to write something that resonates with twenty-something New Yorkers in the Internet age.”

I thought about that for a second and bought another beer before heading out to Miles’ party. At the bar, I saw all the people I went to college with and even new friends we had made along the way. Those friends were there with their significant others, some long-standing and some recent, welcome additions. The bar was a new gin distillery by the BQE, so we drank expensive cocktails and good beers and ate cupcakes with candles in them. I talked to a new friend who had decided to leave the party at 11:00 because he had to wake up and work on his artwork. He was having an art show with Miles and his girlfriend in late April and wanted to be on top of everything. I told him I was excited for the show and patted him on the shoulder of his worn denim jacket.

I got a chance to talk to Miles at the bar and he introduced me to a co-worker of his as well as this co-worker’s wife. Miles tried to tell the story of the grilled chicken and how he got sick at the end of our freshman year, but he was drunk and the bar was loud and people were coming and going, so we let the story just fall apart. We talked about Miles’ paintings and he told me there was one he wanted to give me and I thanked him for that offer, an offer to give me a gift on his own birthday.

Miles got up to go to the bathroom and I sat at the bar, looking at my cocktail, and thought of how I’d known most of the people at the bar for ten years. And some were married or going to get married and we all had different jobs. Some people just wanted to go home so they could get work done or so that they could wake up on Saturday to go to work, or just so that they wouldn’t have a terrible headache. I thought of Port of Morrow and how I’m sure none of my friends would even listen to it or like it, even though I loved it—the Shins aren’t cool. And then I realized I had to go to the bathroom too and that I should go home.

As I left the bathroom, I noticed it was pouring outside. People were making plans to go another bar, but I didn’t want to go. It was almost 2:00 AM and I didn’t know what else I would find at another bar. So, I said goodbye to everyone. I gave Miles a big hug and thanked him for talking to me and for offering the painting. I wanted to make sure he knew I appreciated it. I walked toward the door, knowing that I was about to get soaked by the rain, but that when I finally got home after a long, late night subway ride, that I could sit in my apartment, where it was warm, and listen to Port of Morrow, even if it wasn’t cool. Because sometimes there is something valuable in a warm, well-lit place—there is something valuable in something well made and solid.

Then I pushed the door open and took off running along the Williamsburg streets—streets I knew so well—in the pouring rain, sucking in the damp, cool March air as deeply as possible.

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