For better or worse, Mercer runs The Shins on 'Port of Morrow'
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
Until James Mercer sent the rest of the band packing, I had never thought of the Shins as a one-man operation. I’d seen them live, listened to them since the beginning with Oh, Inverted World, and they struck me as a versatile bunch. At the very least, they felt like a band.
But following 2007’s Wincing the Night Away and subsequent tours, Mercer let the rest of what the world knew as the Shins depart, recording side projects in the meantime.
Mercer unveiled the new Shins in 2011 with a small tour and the clear message that this was his project, and musicians would come and go as needed. Reports were solid, the new band sounded like the Shins, thankfully, and that soft opening was completed recently with the release of the band’s fourth album, Port of Morrow.
Appearing on Mercer’s own Aural Apothecary imprint, Port of Morrow is a welcome return for a band that so humbly turned the world of rock and roll on it’s ear a decade ago. There are some interesting textures, new rhythms and a sense of starting over with this second wave of the band.
There are also clues to the fact that Mercer was, indeed, the architect of the first three Shins albums. “Simple Song” is the catchiest in a batch of songs geared more towards the pop side of life, with the right kind of inventive backing that made the Shins stand out from the pack.
But the very next song, “It’s Only Life,” betrays that a bit. Undercutting the lyrics is a production style that’s surprisingly lightweight, with guitar breaks that remain firmly in the middle of the road. The vocals are bright, front and center, and with that decision, all mystery is removed.
Perhaps that’s the biggest flaw with Port of Morrow. In their best work, James Mercer’s voice, always flying sweet and sentimental, had been given the proper bed to be lifted beyond the majority of mere pop. The songs had a haunting depth that made them instant classics.
When there are stretches in studio experimentation, the results are mixed. The horn part (or synth mimicking a trumpet) on “Fall of ’82” is a dud. The closing “Port of Morrow” features some vocal gymnastics that show Mercer in a higher tone, but in the end it’s more a distraction than a success.
It’s not that this record is completely bereft of those type of songs; indeed, “Bait and Switch” and “September” team up with “Simple Song” as highlights. And the lowlights aren’t all that low. This is a good album, all things considered; it’s a solid collection.
But considering the weight and substance of the last three Mercer records to fly the flag of “The Shins,” it’s not the statement expected after a five-year break in recording. It’s good, the band is sturdy and Mercer is better than most. But to those who think he made a mistake in changing the band, Port of Morrow won’t do much to convince them to reconsider.
E-mail Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org