Saturday, October 15, 2005

Now Playing: The Shins, "New Slang"

There's a scene in Zach Braff's melancholy indie flick Garden State where the impossibly cute and perky Natalie Portman character slips her headphones over Braff's head and whispers, "This song will change your life." And out of the screen pours the Shins' wonderful masterpiece "New Slang." And for at least a minute, you have to agree that she's right.

Now, I'd owned the Shins' Oh, Inverted World disc for some time by the time I saw the movie (which my wife, who is from New Jersey and whose sister apparently went to school with Braff, insisted we rent as soon as it came out on DVD). But "New Slang," a hushed, largely acoustic track, had never been a stand-out for me, as I'd been more taken in by the more upbeat off-kilter pop songs like "Know Your Onion" and "Girl Inform Me." The movie changed that, and ever since -- and it's probably been around eight months since I watched it -- I've had the song in constant rotation: on my stereo, on my iPod, on nearly every mix cdr I share with friends, and in my head. When's the last time a movie (or a song) did that for you?

The flick itself is only above average. While I'm generally a sucker for angst-ridden talky indie flicks with great soundtracks, this had just a bit too much of a post-Graduate vibe going, and the epiphanies and revelations seemed just a bit too obvious (though I appreciated the cast of cute Jewish suburbanites, who had a nice familiarity to them). But in an age where every cynical producer throws a crappy, popular song into the background of a needles montage scene in order to cash in on a parallel Official Soundtrack release, Braff's use of music in Garden State was simply superb. Plucking one obscure but truly great indie rock song out of a million truly great indie rock songs and finding a way to make it not just unforgettable, but simply perfect, is pretty damn rare. And while "New Slang" was the signature track of the film, either because of Portman's bold declaration or just because it's a wonderful song that just needed someone to call attention to it, it wasn't even the only example. Another Shins song, "Caring Is Creepy," is used to fine effect in the movie as well. As is one of my favorite oldies ever, Simon & Garfunkel's "The Only Living Boy In New York," one of the most beautiful uses of harmony ever recorded and a song I'd been extolling the virtues of to whomever would listen long before Braff thankfully validated my taste. (Though the use of S&G may have been a factor in making Garden State seem somewhat derivative of the Graduate.)

Obviously, there a few other decent movies where the soundtrack is more than just an excuse to push a crappy compilation record. The new wave soundtracks of various 80s films are in some ways inseparable from the movies themselves (think Valley Girl or Breakfast Club); more recently, Donnie Darko comes to mind -- hard to even think of Echo & The Bunnymen without thinking of the opening title sequence. Still, it's a rare art, and one that should be practiced with more care by more directors/producers.

Incidentally, if you've read this far and still don't own the Shins' Oh, Inverted World disc, you're really missing out on an amazing piece of work, a handful of Brian Wilson-infused, striking, introspective but warm pop songs that stand out from a crowd of like-minded artists. (And its follow up, Chutes Too Narrow, was no less excellent.)


At 11:07 AM, Blogger bfagel said...

"Those To Come," from "Chutes Too Narrow", is a great S&G-esque tune (and featured in the movie In Good Company, along with "Gone from Good").


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