A Buyers Guide to The Shins

Initially an offshoot of Flake Music, The Shins were a solo side project for bandleader James Mercer to dabble with during the downtime of his main band. At some point in the mid 90s, Flake Music basically morphed into The Shins, and initially consisted of vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Mercer backed up by Flake Music’s Jesse Sandoval on drums. A short while later, another Flake Music veteran, Marty Crandall was recruited on keyboards, along with Dave Hernandez on bass and suddenly The Shins were a full band.

The Shins’ first album, Oh, Inverted World was released in 2001 on the legendary Sub Pop label. The band had already replaced Hernandez with Neal Langford (thus ironically giving The Shins exactly the same line up as Flake Music) during the recording sessions and the album itself was a relatively low-key release that gained popularity by word of mouth.

Kicking off with “Caring is Creepy”, Oh, Inverted World’s jangly guitars were bedded in an oddly ageless indie-rock sound that quickly found favour with the music press. The whole album was a demonstration of how modern indie music could sound both traditional, yet surprisingly fresh. Tracks like “Know Your Onion” and “Girl Inform Me” were great guitar pop tunes, whereas “New Slang” showed that The Shins could do broody too. My personal highlight of the album though is “The Celibate Life” a tune driven forward by Sandoval’s propulsive swinging drumming in a way that cemented him in my mind as one of the great rock drummers of the modern era. “The Past and Pending” closes the album in such a definitive manner, that it’s easy to forget that this was The Shins’ debut, a matter muddied by the fact that three quarters of the band had been in Flake Music.

In typical Shins style, the band responded to Langford quitting the band by replacing him with the guy he himself had replaced. Hernandez was back and The Shins adopted a flexible approach to instrumentation, with Sandoval’s drums underpinning their sound. Sophomore album, Chutes Too Narrow, was a slightly brighter sounding advance from their debut, with their loose and easy sound still very much at the core of The Shins’ music. If anything, Chutes Too Narrow was even more bright and confident and the individual songs even more accessible. Although boasting upbeat numbers like “Kissing the Lipless”, “Fighting in a Sack” and “So Says I”, for me the best track on the album is the considerably more downbeat “Young Pilgrims”.

In the space of two albums The Shins had established a sound which chimed with a generation of rock music fans that had found little to appreciate in the retro-obsessed 90s and had been left frankly baffled by the clumsy and uncouth excuse for rock music that was nu-metal. The Shins had tapped into a sound that was simultaneously both comforting, and exciting enough to give their fans the impression that they were listening to something that was pushing the envelope a little as well.

The Shins sales were given a healthy boost by way of their music featuring on soundtracks, but the biggest push of all was Natalie Portman’s character in The Garden State waxing lyrical about them in one of the film’s key scenes. The subsequent interest in The Shins found the mainstream press taking an interest and expectation for a third album of their life-affirming jangly indie-pop was ratcheted up to perhaps unreasonable levels.

When I first heard 2007’s Wincing the Night Away I was deeply disappointed. Where previously I had found them a thrillingly technicolour swirl of sound, after the first third of this album they suddenly seemed somewhat tired and monochromatic. After two albums I embraced without a second thought, I was suddenly confronted by an album I struggled to find any sort of connection with. It just sat there in my music collections, daring me to play it, to try and digest it. I had no choice but to dismiss it as indie rock by numbers and as much as it hurt me to admit, The Shins had lost it. Or so I thought.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

There are some albums that take a while to sink in, that will only reveal their brilliance in the fullness of time. As The Shins themselves had advised on their debut, you have to “Know Your Onion”. Personally, I can’t think of another album about which my opinion has changed so dramatically over the course of just a few short months.

Wincing the Night Away was the album I clung to as my dad was diagnosed with a spinal tumour, that I lost myself in as he underwent impossibly invasive surgery and that I sought solace in as I came to terms with my girlfriend unceremoniously dumping me a week later. It was the album I continued to play as my dad slowly recuperated and we all came to terms with the fact that he had lost the use of his legs.

Wincing the Night Away is not an album that changed my life when I first heard it, instead it is an album that I was able to lose myself in the subtlety and detail of when I needed something to reassure me. The key track that unlocked the final two thirds of the album for me was “Turn on Me”, with its simplistic riff and irresistible chorus. I can’t explain why I hadn’t fallen for its charms before, but as soon as I did, words were no longer adequate to explain quite how amazing it was. They still aren’t. Then it happened again two months later with equally stunning “Girl Sailor”. Suddenly the whole of Wincing the Night Away made sense and as a result I came to the realisation that it was now by far and away my favourite Shins album and that I resolved to never dismiss any of their albums out of hand in the future, or question the creative genius of James Mercer. However, following his enjoyable Broken Bells collaboration with Danger Mouse, and a change of record labels, Mercer suddenly did something that I didn’t expect. He got rid of the rest of The Shins.

While it’s unarguable that as primary songwriter and vocalist, Mercer was the creative keystone of The Shins, for me the rest of the band were equally as vital to the band’s sound as Mercer. All four band members had previously blended together to make The Shins the band I knew and love, and now here Mercer was once again challenging my status as a Shins fan. Frankly I had my misgivings about the whole thing, but hey, I had been wrong before.

Port of Morrow has a considerably more polished sound than any of The Shins albums that preceded it. The maturity that had been a signature of their previous album was still present, as was Mercer’s unmistakable voice and lyrical ability. While I undoubtedly missed Sandoval’s swinging drums, this was still a Shins album and Mercer was still a superb songwriter. Lead single, “Simple Song” put paid to any fears that many had that The Shins simply weren’t as good anymore and the album boasted career-best tunes like “For a Fool” and “Fall of ‘82”.

Port of Morrow was exactly the sort of album that was needed after such a seismic shift in the line-up of the band. It was reassuringly good and to a point even justified Mercer showing the rest of the band the door in order that The Shins would continue to evolve as a creative unit. In the intervening years it had been easy to forget, but The Shins had originally been a solo project for Mercer and the fact that it is effectively that again seems oddly apt.

To date there have been no compilations of The Shins material, just the four studio albums. If you fancy exploring the pre-history of the band, Flake Music’s ,When You Land Here, It’s Time to Return, is an interesting listen, but it’s not as fully realised as the four Shins albums. Mercer’s collaboration with Danger Mouse, Broken Bells, has resulted in a pair of albums worthy of exploration, and looks like it will continue in parallel with The Shins for the foreseeable future.

How long The Shins keep going seems to be purely down to how long James Mercer wants them to. I for one will keep listening as long as he’s willing to release music.

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