The thing about this band is that they can't make a bad record, either, and thank god James Mercer took a break from Broken Bells to assemble, record and tour as the Shins again.
Despite a frequently-changing lineup (the most recent incarnation features constant frontman James Mercer with drummer Joe Plummer, guitarist Jessica Dobson, bassist Yuuki Matthews, and keyboardist/sound engineer-ish person Richard Swift), a relatively slim body of work (only four full-length albums in more than ten years), and an unfortunately Zach Braff-penned assertion in "Garden State" that the band would change your life, the Shins' albums have been not just good, but consistently better.
Last night's sold-out show at the Pageant featured supporting acts Deep Sea Diver and the Antlers. Deep Sea Diver performed as a five-piece of dapper gents plus guitarist/keyboardist/vocalist Jessica Dobson, who also plays guitar in the current Shins lineup. Deep Sea Diver had a mostly funk-lounge quality primarily driven by a brooding bass rhythm, smashing keys, vamp vocals and a drummer (Peter Mansen) who might have been having the time of his life.
The Antlers, a foursome of Floyd/Buckley fanboys, were all cloak but no dagger and a major comedown after Deep Sea Diver's energetic set. Awash in moody, shimmering guitars and spacey sound, their blue-lit songs were constructed with falsetto and haze; ideal as make-out music at the cool kids' prom, but quite a few people used this time to run to the bathroom before the real show started.
The Shins performed a neat 20-song set without extraneous flourish or banter, but one that didn't feel perfunctory in any way. In addition to a few selections from this year's "Port of Morrow" and the livelier tracks from 2007's "Wincing the Night Away," Mercer leapt at his old material from 2001's "Oh Inverted World" and 2003's "Chutes Too Narrow" with enthusiasm, never once explaining its age to the audience or making adjustments to the songs in order to make them new. He knows his stuff is good. Why mess with it?
The stage was dressed in a backlit image of the "Port of Morrow" album cover, a spooky "Watership Down"-meets-the zombie-apocalypse-wererabbit sort of creature on a moonlit hill. Presiding over an energetic show full of polite thank yous to the audience, this image was similar to the juxtaposition present in many of the band's songs; upbeat and gorgeous melodies are frequently married with dark, sometimes gruesome lyrics (take "A Comet Appears" as an example, a prettily lilting song in which Mercer asks the listener to carve his face into pieces with a knife).
Mercer remained unassuming but serious throughout the show, looking more like a middle-school math teacher than one of the biggest indie rock stars so far this century. Leading shakily with "Phantom Limb," the band found its footing in the chorus and seemed fully confident by the time Richard Swift's baroque keys accentuated the structure of "Caring Is Creepy."
"Simple Song" was next. An infectious single from "Port of Morrow," it most definitively welcomes the Shins and the new album back to recording as an ornate, banner-waving pop song, like "Gone for Good" injected with bombast and stripped of self-consciousness. Mercer is a fan of bridges and constructs them well, and grinned at the infrequent sound of his own baritone murmur in this one. This was followed by one of the only conversational interludes of the evening, during which the band named the artists they'd cleaned out of local records stores during the past 48 hours (in case you were wondering, St. Louis record stores are now apparently bare of Ike and Tina Turner, Gary U.S. Bonds, and Creed records).
Another skill of Mercer's lies in his ability to write poetically sharp couplets, which he detonated perfectly during "Australia" while backed by Jessica Dobson's brief guitar solo. It's worth noting that the Shins first emerged from an indie landscape of noise with bona fide musical skills such as technical instrumentalism and serious vocal chops. Mercer has made plenty of connections during two decades in this industry, but always makes sure to assemble the best possible musicians for each of his projects as a means to an end. His own smooth arpeggio in "Saint Simon" was chilling, as was James Plummer's thumping percussion during "No Way Down" and Yuuki Matthews' gloomy bass in "Sphagnum Esplanade," a "One Is the Loneliest Number"-style song that is the Shins' best interpretation of a power ballad.
The official set closed with favorites "Girl Sailor," the lovely classic "New Slang," and an extended instrumental break during a frenetic version of "Sleeping Lessons." A brief rest preceded the tight three-song encore dominated by new songs, most notably the title track from "Port of Morrow," a sultry neo-soul tune that deals with themes of death and existentialism.
As an album, "Port of Morrow" dialed down the atmospheric quality of its predecessor in favor of reveling in the intricacies of pop and its evolving possibilities. Released on Mercer's own Aural Apothecary label in March 2012, "Port of Morrow" was a triumphant return for a band that could have gone gently into that good, critically-acclaimed night, but instead chose to continue defining what it means to be one of the best acts in indie music today.
The Shins set list:
Caring Is Creepy
Bait and Switch
Know Your Onion!
The Rifle's Spiral
No Way Down
So Says I
Mine's Not a High Horse
40 Mark Strasse
Kissing the Lipless
Port of Morrow
One By One All Day