Port of Morrow is The Shins’ fourth album and the first on leading man James Mercer’s own label, Aural Apothecary, after satisfying their three-album Sub Pop quota. I gave numerous listens to their first two albums Oh, Inverted World and Chutes Too Narrow including but not limited to: rides to school, proper party soundtracks and one-man party soundtracks. After high school I weathered the overplayed Garden State storm and remained a Shins fan.
Aside: I probably saw Garden State five or more times from 2004-05 and all I can remember about the movie to this day is The Shins being on the OST more than once, Zach Braff being annoying (but not nearly as annoying as I found him to be in Scrubs) and Natlalie Portman being gorgeous. Years later I’m still listening to The Shins, Zach Braff might as well have his face on milk cartons and Natalie Portman is still gorgeous (and sans helmet).
After Chutes to Narrow, Mercer separated from his original bandmates (Dave Hernandez had replaced bassist Neal Lanford by this point) citing an aesthetic rift. Original drummer, Jesse Sandoval, insisted in an interview that he was “fired.” Some fans weren’t aware. Others were, and they were underwhelmed when The Shins (Mercer) released Wincing the Night Away in 2007.
Wincing the Night Away was a point of contention that created two types of Shins fans. There are the conservative Shins purists who miss Mercer’s original bandmembers (Jesse Sandoval, Marty Crandall and Neal Langford) and their “indie” appeal. These fans, who I will refer to from now on as Shinnites (not to be confused the Shiite Muslim sect), refuse to believe that “The Shins” as we know “them” today will ever reproduce anything as good as Oh, Inverted World or Chutes to Narrow.
There are also progressive Shins fans who are not turned off by big league production or “the mainstream” and view The Shins as singer/songwriter James Mercer and everyone else. These fans, who I will refer to as Mercerites, did not dismiss Wincing the Night Away as mediocre at best (or lose interest) and remain Shins enthusiasts. Shinnites are typically more pretentious and clearly the bitterer of the two, but until Port of Morrow, I was a practicing Shinnite.
The Shins today is comprised of Mercer, Modest Mouse’s drummer Joe Plumber, Crystal Skulls’ Yuuki Matthews, Richard Swift and Jessica Dobson (at least while touring). A band, or perhaps musical “artist” is more applicable in this case, must continue to evolve. If an artist sounds the same as they did a decade ago, they are doing something wrong. James Mercer is a more than competent songwriter as evidenced by his earlier works. Wincing the Night Away bored and explored. It didn’t have the first listen grabbers of the first two albums (think “New Slang” and “Mine’s Not a High Horse”). With his latest release he chose, like some of his more successful contemporaries (The Black Keys, Girls), to revisit/spin the past four decades of pop/rock and explore production.
The album’s opener, “The Rifle’s Spiral,” has a traditional Shins sound with darker, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club overtones. ”Simple Song,” the first single released, is as if Echo & the Bunnymen tried their hands at power pop. ”Bait and Switch” recalls mid-80′s XTC. Mercer’s delivery on “No Way Down” is rather Bono-ish. The horns on “Fall of ’82″ recall Chicago…except Chicago pisses me off.
With regard to production, Mercer co-produced Port of Morrow with Greg Kurstin, production veteran, and each track (like it or not) is packaged with appropriate instrumentation and a glossy, but fitting bow. Despite the fact that tracks like “Bait and Switch” and “No Way Down” scream “put me on the radio!” each song maintains a compositional sincerity. Diehard Shinnites are probably clenching their teeth by this point, but they can sit and spin. “September” is a pretty recollection of The Shins early success.
I still think that The Shins’ freshman album, Oh, Inverted World, is their best record to date, but Port of Morrow pushed a barely ajar fan door open once again.
Noteworthy Tracks: “The Rifle’s Spiral,” “September,” and “For A Fool.”