The Shins – Port of Morrow

I have two different CD’s I’ve been listening to a ton over the past week or so.  In an effort not to look too much like I drink all the time, I wanted to get one music review in this week.  So I rolled the mental dice and decided I would go with The Shins.  Are you actually interested in what the other album is?  Well it is Bruce Springsteen’s new one.  I love that one too, but I had to pick one and The Shins won.  I’m downloading about 4 new albums as we speak, so there is a chance I’ll have another new one ready to go soon, but I still might have to do Bruce.  I’m originally from NJ, and I love the Boss!

Recently I feel like I keep talking about bands that I’ve found somewhere in the middle of their career.  The Shins is a totally different story.  I have been listening to them for a while, and I have definitely been missing them these past few years.  They released albums in 2001, 2003, and 2007, but it has been five years since we have heard anything else from them.  While I’m not sure what the entire band has been doing during that time, I know James Mercer (lead singer) has been keeping himself busy with some other projects. Since The Shins haven’t been around for a few years, you may not quite remember them.  I suppose that is depending on your age; however, Mercer is also known as the front man for the two man band Broken Bells.  Mercer’s equally successful side project is slightly more electronic based, and it is done with the widely known Danger Mouse.  You know the guy from Gnarls Barkley.  Broken Bells managed to release one full-length and one EP over the five years The Shins were on hiatus.

The Shins have been a band since 1996; however, the band that you’re hearing on this new album might as well be a new band with Mercer as the lead singer.  Since the last record, they have replaced basically every single other member in the band.  These new musicians have a lot of different musical backgrounds they come from.  Their new female member, Jessica Dobson, is a former solo artist, while two of the other members come from the bands Modest Mouse and Crystal Skulls.  Of course the band still has a lot of similar sounds to earlier Shins material.  They have the same lead singer, which I think can carry a band who has gone through so many different line-up changes, especially with the iconic sound of Mercer’s voice.  Maybe The Shins purists will be mad about all of the changes, but I was happy to get a hold of this album for some listening.

Going back and listening to the older Shins’ albums helps to show that Mercer’s voice is perhaps the most important component of the band.  There are plenty of bands that are reliant on the sound they achieve with their lead singer.  If they came back as the same band, but the voice sounds different, people talk about how their older stuff was better.  People connect with the tones and inflection of a great voice, and Mercer has that great voice.  It is somewhat iconic.  When you heard him sing on Broken Bells, you knew you were still listening to the lead singer of The Shins.  Thankfully, despite the rest of the band changing around, Mercer’s voice hasn’t.  He can accomplish such depth and variety with his voice as well.  His voice works with poppy songs like “Simple Song”, slower reflective songs like “It’s only Life”, and slightly more ambient songs like the title song “Port of Morrow”.

I love the recording of this album.  It sounds incredibly crisp and clear, which really helps to bring out the full scope of all that is being done musically on this record.  I tend to listen more to a record that has a lot of variety to it.  These slower records that tend to have a similar sound throughout the entire album tend to leave me wanting something else halfway through.  This album isn’t that way at all.  “The Rifle’s Spiral” is a really good poppy opening track for the album.  There is a consistent bass and guitar line to drive the central song along, while the drums provide a lot of the pop, and the keyboard gives the song a complex full sound.  They can really slow it down later on in the album with a song like “Fall of 82”.  The opener has a ton of different things going on, while this track later on is much more stripped down.  It fills out in the chorus for a slightly Chicago feel to it.  Mercer’s vocals still help to drive it along while the music complements it great.

There are a few really stripped down songs on the album as well.  “40 Mark Strasse” slows things way down to just an acoustic guitar, drums, and occasional ambient keyboard fill.  Once again they manage to fill it back out during the chorus, but the slower tempo really allows you to focus even more on the melodic pop abilities of Mercer’s voice.  “September” starts with just Mercer and an acoustic guitar.  Once again, I think these slower songs really manage to have you focus on the vocals more than the music.  You almost miss all the ambient guitar and keyboard material that enters in later in the song.  The only song I’m not a very big fan of is the title song “Port of Morrow”.  It closes out the album and is the closest thing to the Broken Bells material Mercer has been working on for the past couple years.  I like how clear and clean the entire album is, and I feel like this song may be slightly overproduced.  There is a lot of electronics and effects on the vocals.  I would have preferred one that is slightly more Shins and slightly less Broken Bells.

I picked up this album already a fan of This Shins, so I don’t know if this is an entirely unbiased review.  I would think after 5 years of waiting for this album to come out, this album could also have been a huge disappointment.  They went through line-up changes, and they could have tried to adopt more of the styles that are becoming popular now a days.  Thankfully the Shins stuck to what they do well, and I am really happy they did that.  If you’re already a fan of The Shins you’ll be really happy; however, if you haven’t tried them out yet, you’re really missing out.  I may have the first entry for top ten albums of 2012!

Teacher Grade: A

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1 Comment

  1. I too have been listening to the Shins for a long time. I remember seeing them open for Modest Mouse almost a year before their first record was released. “New Slang” is still one of my all-time favorite songs. I miss the band’s sound from those first two albums, a sound Mercer has abandoned for better session players and slicker studios.

    Honestly, I have to give this record more time and your review confirms this. What beer would you drink with this album?


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