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Are the Shins still relevant? It may seem like a straightforward question, especially for a band whose appeal stems from their simplicity and non-experimental approach towards songwriting, but there are several factors to look at when considering James Mercer and companies’ new release.
While “indie-pop” is perhaps the most general name conceivable for a genre today, it’s really the only way to convey the Shins’ sound, and that’s not an accident. The landscape of Born Ruffians and New Pornographers that we see today was paved by Mercer (with a little help from Natalie Portman’s headphones in “Garden State”). All the band incarnations of the current high-voice/jangly-guitar sounds owe a large debt to the straggling troupe of New Mexico quirk-rockers, the Shins.
But now that the market has not only been saturated with copy cats, but has taken that indie sound in new directions beyond the sun-pop musings of the Shins, it begs the question that if the Shins were to come into being today, would anyone really care?
Unfortunately, while “Port of Morrow” makes a solid case for Mercer as a producer and aging songwriter, the transcendent quality present on previous songs like “Sleeping Lessons” and “The Past and Pending” is nowhere to be found here.
The album plays like many other late-career releases before it; about half of the songs showcase great melodic ideas supplemented by the advantages of increased production quality, while the other half falls flat with the sound of a songwriter too content to let a half-baked song idea sit as is. Fortunately, the opener of the album stands with the former. “The Rifle’s Spiral” bounces along with guitar riffs aplenty and dreamy keyboard flourishes, propelled by jungle-y dancehall beats (courtesy of Modest Mouse drummer Joe Plummer) and Mercer’s acrobatic vocals. “Simple Song” is a fairly forgettable ditty compared to previous hook-loaded singles like “Phantom Limb” and “Saint Simon,” but it has enough drive to justify a summer playlist spot.
The highlight of the record arrives halfway through with the ecstatic “Bait and Switch,” which charges along on an addictive vocal melody and bubbling keyboard sounds. Standing with the faster-paced catalogue of the Shins’ work such as “Fighting in a Sack” and “So Says I,” “Bait and Switch” is the closest the album comes to having a danceable rock beat, and sounds like the perfect soundtrack for jumping off a waterfall into some kind of tropical paradise.
Alas, the album fails to attain this level of excitement again throughout its 40-minute runtime. Songs like “September” and “Port of Morrow” move along at a pleasant enough pace with catchy enough vocal hooks, but even during quieter moments like this it feels like there is too much going on. Mercer’s recent endeavors with Danger Mouse in Broken Bells have no doubt taught him a thing or two about buffering simplistic songs with cool sound effects and shiny production, but at times “Port of Morrow” feels as if it’s relying on the production to carry the album, as opposed to the songwriting. This contradicts what made the first three Shins albums classics. Even on the slightly experimental “Wincing the Night Away,” the increased use of effects never took presence over the man at the front of the stage with an acoustic guitar.
James Mercer has proven himself to be an important figure in the alternative community, but the new album on the whole feels like an aside, were it not for the name behind the release. The heavy focus on production ends up stripping away some of the charm that the band has curated over the years, not to mention the fact that Mercer fired his whole band before beginning work on this album. While the latter shouldn’t be a huge factor for a project like the Shins that revolves entirely around one person, when you’re known for pioneering the indie movement with the same three guys you were playing with back in each others’ garages, it comes off as pretty dickish when you abandon them all in favor of more talented studio musicians.
That aside, “Port of Morrow” accomplishes enough whimsical hooks to keep naysayers of the band at bay (except for the cringingly sentimental “It’s Only Life”), however those looking for another intimate headphone jam would be better off keeping their eyes open for the next band to come along and change their life.
Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Sam Goldner at Samuel.Goldner@colorado.edu.