Sunday, September 23, 2012

Port of Morrow - The Shins

Port of Morrow
The Shins
Columbia 88691-926701

It is mid-September and I still haven't blogged about a record from this year.  I'm so far behind on my backlog that I haven't even blogged about all the records I liked from last year.  I've been sitting on this one for months already.  It is one of my favorites of the year so far.  I guess the Shins never changed my life, but they did definitely make it better.  "Oh, Inverted World" and "Chutes Too Narrow" have long been two of the handful of albums that I turn to when I'm feeling down and need a lift.  The Shins were a band I strongly connected with on an emotional and intellectual level.  Thus I was really unhappy a few years ago when I heard that James Mercer had fired his band mates in the Shins or chose to go in a different musical direction depending on whose perspective you believe.  Nonetheless there was no question that Mercer was the creative force in the band and I had high hopes for his new projects which his excellent music with Broken Bells confirmed.  I was surprised and a little dismayed when I heard that Mercer had signed with a major label (Columbia) and formed a new version of the band.  My initial thought that it was kind of a dick move akin to Axl Rose and his version of Guns N' Roses.  I have a lot of respect for Mercer's talent so I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.  I think that this album is as good as the other Shins albums although admittedly only one of the new Shins actually appears on the album, drummer Joe Plummer, who appears on about half the tracks.  Mercer's principal collaborator on the album is Greg Kurstin of the Bird and the Bee who co-produced the album and plays multiple instruments on it.  The album begins with "The Rifle's Spiral" which appears to be about a suicide bomber.  Mercer is one of the best lyricists in alternative rock and this song's brilliant imagery and language is proof of that.  With Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss pounding the skins the song has a lot of drive and Kurstin fills out the song with loads of synth sounds.  The whirling force of the music and the space age sound effects running through it reflect the frenzied thoughts of the terrorist in the song.  "Simple Song" is a charming and romantic love song.  The line "you know things can really get rough when you go it alone" makes me think of the break-up of the original Shins although in the context of the song, it is more likely a reference to being single.  Weiss' muscular drumming again forcefully propels the song along its course and it has a soaring, upbeat melody that made it the natural choice for the single off the album.  Mercer's vocal is very passionate and uplifting.  It is anything but a "simple song," I think it is one of the best songs Mercer has ever done.  "It's Only Life" offers the title advice to a friend going through some problems.  I don't mean to make light of anyone's existential crisis, but if your biggest worry is that "time will wash every tower to the sea," you should count your blessings.  The song shows off Mercer's great range as a vocalist.  He starts out low and then takes off into the upper register where he is so effective.  "Bait and Switch" picks up the pace again with a highly propulsive tune about a guy whose peaceful solitary existence gets disrupted when he takes up with a wild girlfriend whose allure he can't resist.  The song's potential misogyny is leavened by Mercer's typically clever descriptions and metaphors.  Side one ends with "September," another lyrical love song in which Mercer acknowledges his shortcomings and his appreciation that his lover perceives his good qualities and that she brings him happiness.  This slow, romantic song with a slight exotica flavor is the tune on the album that most resembles the classic Shins sound.  It would fit comfortably on any of their previous albums.  "No Way Down" is surprisingly political and polemical in its tone.  Mercer addresses the economic inequities in the world.  With pointed references to Asian wage slaves and the upper crust elite over here, Mercer doesn't beat around the bush.  The song sounds like it was inspired by the Occupy movement.  It has a strong beat and is sonically rich, it really jumps out of the speakers.  It is one of my favorite songs on the record.  "For A Fool" in contrast is slow and languid as Mercer describes the aftermath of a bad relationship and trying to get over the resulting heartbreak and humiliation.  The song features some of Mercer's most emotional and soulful singing.  "Fall of '82" is a song in which Mercer expresses his gratitude to his sister for helping him get over a dark period in his life in 1982 and helping to make him the person he became.  It is a remarkably personal and revealing song that I find very touching.  In keeping with its theme, the song has a retro flavor that brings to mind 1970s era pop to me.  "40 Mark Strasse" is about a German girl from an unhappy home who sleeps with American soldiers and a boy who wants to save her from that life.  This song features a complicated multi-tracked vocal performance from Mercer that gives a lot of beauty and depth to an otherwise ordinary tune.  The album concludes with the title cut which is a grim song about the evil in the world and the falseness of perceptions that we as humans are different from the rest of nature.  I think he is directing his observations towards religions and other beliefs emphasizing the moral superiority of specific people.  Mercer sings in two different octaves so it sounds almost like a duet.  It is a remarkable song that ends the album in a majestic manner albeit one that I find a bit depressing with lines like "there are flowers in the garbage and a skull under your curls."  I agree with Mercer's perspective but I don't really want to be reminded about "the bitter mechanics of life."  I consider James Mercer to be one of the major talents in contemporary rock and I'm happy to report that my worries about him stumbling on some ego trip have been alleviated by this excellent album.  It is clear that despite signing to a major label, Mercer's vision is uncompromised and his music is as strong as ever.  Long live the new Shins whoever they are!  Recommended to fans of the old Shins.   

No comments:

Post a Comment