Mercer’s Got a New Set of Shins

Courtesy of Aural Apothecary

I’ll just get something out of the way now: I don’t believe that The Shins will change your life. For me, they never have and never will. As much as the movie “Garden State” occupied some place in my teenage heart, its whiny insistence of some manic pixie dream has long since passed its use in my life.

I’ve never been a huge fan of The Shins in general. This bias of mine has only ever been deepened by news of frontman James Mercer’s categorically unmerciful firing of the entire Shins group, the most painful example of which is former drummer Jesse Sandoval, whom Mercer fired over the phone, subsequently becoming the operator of a Portland taco truck after he was unable to keep up with Mercer’s new material. It’s strange to think that The Shins, whose music has always been so sweet and silken, are guided by such an unforgiving hand.

I thus approached their latest release with valid skepticism, but despite these misgivings, I was surprisingly charmed by “Port of Morrow.” LP4 for The Shins provides the same kind of cute, listenable indie pop ear candy that we’ve become used to, but the difference in The Shins is salient. James Mercer may have fired his bandmates, but one can’t quite argue with the results.

Though it’s painful to praise the instrumentation on this album because Mercer’s hired band of mercenaries filled in the gaps left by his departed friends, it’s also undeniable that these newer tracks are handled by more nuance and experience than The Shins’ previous albums.

“Bait and Switch,” the dynamic climax of the album, swells in on Joe Plummer’s (of Modest Mouse) work on the drum set, accented perfectly by Mercer’s guitar hacks and Dave Hernandez’s sliding, irreverent lead riff. (Though Hernandez, a longtime Shin, plays lead on three of the tracks on “Port of Morrow,” he is no longer part of the band either.)

“No Way Down” provides a similarly dynamic, slower experience but stays afloat on steady drumbeats and bass rhythms, Dobson’s leads reverberating in the background and Mercer’s signature Shins vocal style. Synth noise rounds out this and other songs on the album, reminiscent of The Shins’ past but never as upfront and present as former keyboard player Marty Crandall’s part in shaping songs like “Sleeping Lessons” from 2007’s “Wincing the Night Away.”

Though tracks like “Bait and Switch,” “The Rifle’s Spiral” and “Fall of ’82” handle a very welcome new side of The Shins’ sound, the album dips into an older sound with the songs “It’s Only Life” and “September.” Though these are all pulled off well, they don’t quite measure up to the dynamism in the new sound, and end up lacking real worth in the album. Whereas “For a Fool” and “40 Mark Strasse” offer worthy Shins ballads, “It’s Only Life” and “September” sound too similar to one another and end up getting lost in acoustic guitar.

The titular track of “Port of Morrow” closes out the album by drawing on Radiohead-esque falsetto to produce a slow, almost psychedelic groove. Fluctuating synth and Plummer’s shuffling beat plays into Mercer’s ethereal moan as the record fades into silence; with complex instrumentation and layers, “Port of Morrow” creates a mystifying highlight of the album.

It’s strange to watch The Shins play Mercer’s music; it’s less apparent live, perhaps, but if you watch videos of the band closely, the disconnect between Mercer and his hired members is hard to ignore. Harsh policies akin to Mercer’s have paid off with bands like The Smashing Pumpkins, but for music as outwardly cuddly as The Shins make themselves out to be, the process behind the recordings seems disingenuous and false.

“Port of Morrow” might be an artist’s creative sacrifice in action, but it might also be a lucky stroke on terrible band dynamics. Mercer has behaved like an absolute dick, but he’s pulled this one off, so we’ll just have to see how (and with whom) the next album fares.

Rating: 4 out of 5