Posted by: Jeff | March 27, 2012

Album Review: The Shins – “Port of Morrow”

The Shins – Port of Morrow [Buy Here]

Columbia Records
Release Date: March 20, 2012
Grade: B+

The Shins – “The Rifle’s Spiral”

Conversations attempting to define ‘indie’ as a genre label are as inevitable as they are pointless, but the one band most frequently named as typifying the genre has to be The Shins.  Their prominent place on the wildly popular soundtrack to ‘Garden State’ ensured that the band is ubiquitous enough to be commonly known (and loved), and the strength of James Mercer’s song-writing and slightly off-kilter pop constructions makes the band appealing to fans of disparate niches.  It’s no wonder then that a release from a band verging on commercial breakthrough from the underground (a la The Black Keys or Vampire Weekend) is highly anticipated.  Add to the fact that this is the first proper release from The Shins since 2007, and it is safe to say that fans were eager for the return.

In the intervening years between today and 2007’s excellent ‘Wincing the Night Away’, Mercer teamed up with Danger Mouse on their critically-tepid but commercially-successful Broken Bells side project, and the remainder of The Shins’ lineup has been shuffled somewhat.  Mercer has always resided alone at the core of the band, but on ‘Port of Morrow’ he stands as the lone remainder of the group that debuted with 2001’s jangly ‘Oh, Inverted World’.  Some change is thus to be expected on ‘Port’, as Mercer goes it alone on much of the writing and absorbs some of the R&B influences at the core of Broken Bells.  The result is a bit of a mixed bag.

Side A of ‘Port’ is vintage The Shins, full of exemplary song-writing and ridiculously catchy pop songs.  “The Rifle’s Spiral” features a funky beat as synths soar above the groove.  It’s an earworm designed to get the toe tapping, an update of the more upbeat synth-pop found on ‘Wincing’.  Mercer enlisted a plethora of friends to play on the new album, and the subtle layering of these many layers is evident throughout.  On “Simple Song”, the lush instrumentation forms around some wonderful power chords, with piano, guitar, synth, and drums all working in unison as a warbly guitar cuts through it all – the typical unusual flourish that prevents Mercer from ever becoming predictable. “Well this is such a simple song / to say what you done” Mercer sings, and you get the feeling his tongue is planted in cheek.

This sleight of hand is The Shins at their best, offering songs that sound simple in construction but that are varied and unusual enough to always keep the listener on his toes.  “It’s Only Life” is a straight-forward ballad that features some of the best lyrical writing on the album (“I’ve been down the very road you’re walking on / it doesn’t have to be so dark and lonesome / it takes a while but we can figure this thing out / and turn it back around”).  “Bait and Switch” shuffles along with pleasant aplomb, and features some remarkably catchy guitar work.

While the first half of the album is a stellar addition to The Shins’ catalogue, the second half meanders a bit.  “September” is a bit of a change, a simple alt-country track that never really goes anywhere but sounds most similar to some of the band’s very early offerings.  “For A Fool” treads the same territory but is somewhat better, with a hook that is at least quite memorable.  “Fall of ‘82” probably owes more to the rock of the seventies (think Chicago, ELO) than any of Mercer’s previous work.  “No Way Down” doesn’t do much to distinguish itself from late 90’s adult contemporary, but isn’t altogether unpleasant.  And that’s the thing – there’s no real misstep here.  After all, the entire album is eminently listenable.  But the bar set by the album’s first half is so high that the back end feels a bit disjointed – good pop songs all, but as a cohesive whole they leave something to desire.

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