Let's be real: bands don't change your life more than, oh ... once.
So if we were lucky to get two excellent albums from James Mercer and whoever
happens to be with him, it's no slouch that a third pretty-good album added
three more perfect tunes to the canon: "Australia," "Phantom Limb," and "Girl
Sailor." So while we're living down perfection, let's see how many new bonuses
we get five years later, on Port of Morrow. (Official release date: March 20.)
"The Rifle's Spiral"
So his new band has some kind of glockenspiel player! This
is already worth the trouble. Rhythmic, too -- sort of a chunky, interrupted disco
stomp, with kind of intense minor chords (!), a rare and juicy enough thing
coming from these prim and proper tweetotalers even without the line about a dagger
straight to the heart.
Absolutely lovely melody, smashing new dynamics, one of the
year's best surprises so far. Earns the "return to form" cliché, even the band
members who weren't part of the form in the first place. And I'll have a word
about the video too: it's the most calculated PR shit ever that Mercer's doing
these dark- and absurd-humored bits, like that Funnyordie.com video, after
firing his entire band and generally looking like a perfectionist asshole. But
he's totally beating the odds. The song's great and his comedic talents kick
the shit out of Carrie Brownstein's.
"It's Only Life"
Ahh, now we kind of run into a problem. They did this one on
SNL and it's totally indicative of what another editor of mine warned me made
this album "very adult." He meant it as a compliment, but this is exactly the
kind of idly swooning ballad they can competently play but don't need at all.
In the vein of Mercer's last disappointment "Turn on Me," though, I'd like to
take it up on its title.
"Bait and Switch"
Another weird one, with a vague hippie vibe to it. Some
tropical percussion, cute chords, and like "Simple Song," a subtle piano spine
beneath the real action holding it together. Falsetto's still strong; my only
issue I suppose is that this one sounds like the musical break on a Scooby-Doo
spinoff. Nice slippery guitar solo at the end. If anyone's an underrated
guitarist, it's James Mercer. I don't know if he played the solo, but he's still
See like, it would be hard for anyone to follow up "New
Slang" from the first album or "Saint Simon" for the second. This is pretty,
kind of like a drifty cross between "The Past and the Pending" and "Red Rabbits"
with more of a Burt Bacharch retro-lounge bent. Love the ghostly "woo-ooh-ooh"
hook, just wish they didn't favor production that sounds like it came out of a
toolbox on this record.
"No Way Down"
"Keep your head in a hollow log," sings Mercer, along with "lost
in an oscillating phase." So more quasi-mystico Haight-Ashbury stuff on this
one, and yes, it sounds like Jabberjaw's on drums again jamming with Shaggy and
Scoob. But slicker and funkier. I can't tell if I like it; it's too combed.
"For a Fool"
A borderline soul ballad, spare and dry, but with elements
soaked in echo. Pretty easily the best of the slow songs here, and kind of
reminiscent of that last Ryan Adams album people wanted to call the next Heartbreaker. This album sounds nothing like the other Shins
albums; in fact it's kind of remarkable how discrete they are. Oh,
Inverted World was a paisley-fringed thermal spring, Chutes
Too Narrow the songsmith's roots-rock funhouse, and Wincing
the Night Away the prog-synth special. Port of
Morrow is kind of the uncool, awkward-dad flipside to all the retro
mush that Mercer helped re-popularize.
"Fall of '82"
Whoa, this bounces like the Jackson 5! With a trumpet solo!
It's easier to come to terms with this record once you hear it in vignettes and
"40 Mark Strasse"
...Thing is, Oh, Inverted World had those qualities along with
songs to match, tunes you want on the setlist. I can imagine nodding my head to
this neat soul-folk hybrid with its indie-corporate-pop savvy -- it resembles that
perfectly pleasant Fruit Bats album last year. But remembering half these
titles? Very cool climax ("But are you gonna let these American boys put another
dent in your life?") despite the fact I just realized who Mercer's turned into:
Super Furry Animals.
"Port of Morrow"
Well now we're just weird. Alien, tuneless falsetto of the
Damon Albarn stripe follows a female-spoken intro, settles into a lilting
whine. Is this even Mercer singing? This sounds like Of Montreal. And I didn't
much like their cover of "Know Your Onion!" either. Nothing on this album was
bad, really; at worst it turned "interesting." This song was "interesting."
Epic piano ballad with a jousting, battlefield tone to it -- and
a bit about reclaiming "the womb of love." But Mercer's writing like a loon. "Everything
in your crooked life ends up rolling out the door" -- how can crooked things roll?
But it's his good-no-longer-great melodies, not his metaphors, that I wish he'd work
on ultimately. You know, in the six years between Port of
Morrow and the next Shins record.