The Shins – Port Of Morrow
The Shins – Port Of Morrow
Who are the Shins? Are they the Albuquerque-born, Portland-based four piece made up of James Mercer, Jesse Sandoval, Martin Crandall and Dave Hernandez? Or is it just another name for Mercer himself, the sole singer and songwriter who just used other musicians to give the illusion of a collaborative band? Well, with Sandoval, Crandall and Hernandez replaced wholesale by new musicians, 2012’s Port Of Morrow attempts to finally bring an answer to this question. And with five years since the last Shins record, it’s certainly about time. Anyone worried that Mercer would push the band into more atmospheric territory after working with Danger Mouse on Broken Bells shouldn’t fear: Port Of Morrow is a Shins album through and through, with all the classic pop songwriting that entails. However, he’s picked up a few things from the time he’s spent on his other projects. From the moment “The Rifle’s Spiral” kicks in with its pounding beat, plinking pianos and menacing guitar groove, it’s clear that this is the group’s most densely and slickly produced album yet. Yes, Wincing The Night Away experimented with different genres, instruments and song structures, but everything still felt relatively stripped back. Here, the group (and producer Greg Kurstin) doesn’t so much experiment as pile arrangements and effects onto the Shins’ tried-and-true formula, which gives the songs a different feel. Even “Simple Song,” which is the closest thing to a typical Shins single here (and, not coincidentally, the record’s best track), feels like an epic, filled to the brim with jittery guitar, swelling backing vocals and a dreamy, keyboard-led coda. It’s true that this different vibe may partially have to do with the new, expanded lineup, which, if anything, proves that the original “Shins” did bring something distinctive to the table after all. But it hardly matters because, as it always does, the success of a Shins album falls squarely on Mercer’s songwriting.
Mercer’s great gifts are his wittily surreal words, his ability to write powerful melodies and his nimble, boyish voice. And when he lets those shine, the album does as well. “Simple Song,” with its ecstatic hook, is one of the group’s best singles; “Bait And Switch”‘s percolating pop showcases the album’s production perfectly, while the lovely, acoustic “September” feels like a lost cut from Wincing The Night Away. What keeps Port from reaching the heights of the other Shins records, though, is that it is top-heavy, with no highlights gracing the second side. Certainly, tracks like “For A Fool” and “Fall Of ’82,” whose chorus quivers with McCartney-esque pop-soul, sound fine as they play, yet they feel like factory seconds, hooky without ever truly taking off. Despite this, the fact that even the worst songs here are still pretty good is a testament to Mercer’s skills. The world may never know how all this would have sounded with the original band, but Port Of Morrow demonstrates that, either way, Mercer still knows his way around a tune and that even a sub-par Shins album makes for good music.