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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Shins' Port of Morrow: A First Listen

Posted By on Wed, Mar 14, 2012 at 7:46 AM

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.

"Simple Song"

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 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

pastiche. Buuuut...

 "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."

"Pariah King"

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.

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