4:57 pm Mar. 8, 2012
Boy, did a lot of people talk during the Shins’ new songs last night at Le Poisson Rouge.
I wasn’t the only one who noticed, either. “They talked a lot,” said a colleague afterward, as we both wondered whether we should hang around, or what.
Sometimes a show isn’t really a show, it's an event. You finish with a set at the Bowery Ballroom, let’s say. It’s 1 a.m.: Time to hit the bars or go home. Exits flood. Simple. But the Shins in the basement of LPR was an event—one I got into because I freelance for the show’s sponsor, National Public Radio. And at events people do a lot of chattering rather than listening. The occasion: no, not the upcoming new Shins album, but the unveiling of a new iPad app. But aside from two machines set up in the basement lobby for people to play around with the app, no hard-sell went on, fore or aft, unless you count James Mercer’s hard-sells of the band via repeated mentions of when the songs were from the new album.
He sounded a little embarrassed to be doing so—the part of the job he doesn’t like. He obviously likes his work to speak for itself, and it does, in its circumscribed way. Despite the entreaties of a lot of smart people, chiming guitar pop of the Four B’s school (Beatles, Beach Boys, Byrds, Big Star) isn’t necessarily universal. Sometimes it can be hermetic, and take many listens to fully place.
That’s how I’ve always felt about the Shins. They largely leave me lukewarm—but I always like them a little more whenever I give them a chance, and last night was no different. That’s partly because last night exposed the drama that is generated whenever a band whose early music is particularly well-loved makes a public gearshift.
The basement show was there to boost the Shins’ visibility to its obvious core constituency two weeks ahead of the release of the band’s new album, Point of Morrow, their first since jumping from Sub Pop to Mercer's own Aural Apothecary label (via Columbia). It’s not surprising that they’ve made the leap upward, even as late as 2012—Mercer’s collaboration with Danger Mouse, Broken Bells, released its debut on the label two years ago.
(Danger Mouse was in the audience; so were Paul Rudd and Parks & Rec’s Adam Scott, both shorter than my five-foot-seven plus-one would have preferred: “I don’t have a crush on them anymore,” she lamented.)
But five years is a long time to wait between albums, especially five years in which the cultural landscape has shifted as decisively as in these past five—even in indie rock, where not changing is just fine with a lot of people, especially the sorts who tend to be Shins fans.
But Mercer obviously likes change—hence Broken Bells, hence a Sparklehorse collaboration, hence hints and rumors of a solo career, not to mention people just figuring that would be next. Nope.
"It feels good to be back with my band,” Mercer said proudly after the set’s second song, “Caring Is Creepy,” noting that he’d been doing “solo promo stuff."
Put it on a button: The Shins Are a Band.
Or don’t. From the Shins’ official site: “The new band backing Mercer on this tour include singer/songwriter Richard Swift, Modest Mouse drummer Joe Plummer, Yuuki Matthews of Crystal Skulls and Jessica Dobson.” Not one original Shins member, Mercer aside.
Mercer placed the new songs into the set with obvious care. Take the final two. “One by One All Day,” from their 2001 debut Oh, Inverted World—excuse me, their highly beloved debut—has a lot of spacey synth whorl and a stop-start structure. It led neatly into “Point of Morrow,” the title song from the new album, which is slower, has more organ, and has an almost-bluesy coda that put me in the mind of mid-’70s stoner rock. It wasn’t bad—as an old Seattleite I liked the line about the Fremont Bridge, and the atonal piano at the end. The audience had thinned by then, though. All that yakking and they can't even last the whole set.
The new tunes are a little askew compared to what's come before—which isn’t to say the group was unrecognizable as the Shins (even if, physically, they are mostly unrecognizable as the Shins). My favorite was “It’s Only Life.” Swift’s piano was out front, and its deliberate pace and declamatory melody were reminiscent of "Ziggy Stardust." Good tune—kind of shocking, right?
It said something that the biggest applause of the night, by far, came right before the final song, when Mercer thanked NPR. This time he didn’t seem embarrassed.