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The Shins: Port of Morrow
The Shins’ last release, Wincing the Night Away, confirmed the band's success in the underground world with a collection of songs that were both eclectic and humanly relatable. The soft, enchanting musicality of the album is part of what came to identify The Shins. Returning after five years with Port of Morrow, original member and now the only one left, James Mercer, collaborated with production guru Greg Kurstin on his latest endeavour.
The Shins found their extent of mainstream success after Natalie Portman promised that ‘New Slang’ would change Zach Braff’s life in the film ‘Garden State’. Since then, the band has been reduced to front-man Mercer on his own. The newly released album invites several guest characters to complete its overall pop-rock sound, however it is Mercer that does all the singing and song writing, as well as playing most of the instruments. Different from previous releases, Port of Morrow, is the first album to be produced by a large-scale record label (Columbia) and as a result the sound is just that; more produced.
The opening track, ‘The Rifle’s Spiral’ gives us Mercer’s signature, utterly recognisable voice but you can immediately tell how different this album is going to be. Unmistakably a mesh of pop, rock and distorted riffs, the overall sound is The Shins but in a different dimension; their psychedelic tendencies echoing in the background. ‘Simple Song’ is equally piled up with instruments and lyrics that give us advice like ‘you sure must be strong when you feel like an ocean warmed by the sun’ or he reassures us that ‘I know that things can really get rough when you go it alone’. Guitar riffs run back and forth, evocative of an 80s pop anthem; a piano appears jangling in the background before the whole song takes a step back; Mercer’s voice deepens, calms, and speaks more than sings. There’s an influx of sounds and varying musical approaches, switching from one to the other in no specific order or logic.
The hungry sounds of rock and pop infused together take a back seat with songs like ‘It’s Only Life’ where the beat is slowed and his singing almost romantic, with backing vocals oohing and aahing; as though someone is swaying a lighter side to side. ‘I’ve been down the road you’re walking now, it doesn’t have to be so dark and lonesome’ are more words of guidance, however it crosses the line of sweet and endearing to almost become cheesy.
‘September’ speaks much of The Shin’s original language; mellow with wispy riffs and soothing strumming. Mercer sings in a much more attractive deeper key and their signature psychedelic nuances speckle the undertones. Having gotten married over the past few years, this track seems to speak of that experience, sounding much like a love ballad with lines like ‘love is the ink in the well when her body dries’. In a similar fashion ‘For A Fool’ is also more relaxed; rich in lurching riffs and reflective melodies.
There is no question that the official Shin, James Mercer, has an unequivocal sound and musical personality. While we would have to concede that his previous albums were more endearing and ultimately hooking, Port of Morrow is still a nice reminder that even though they’ve been under the radar for several years, there is always hope for a comeback.
Just ask Guns ‘n Roses’ Axl Rose or try and listen to any recent Korn album without cringing. Many bands quit (R.E.M., Sonic Youth), others tone down their sound (Metallica) and some keep regurgitating what they’ve been doing for decades (The Rolling Stones).
Kim Thayil’s guitar traditionally wails around on the dissonant side of the spectrum and singer Chris Cornell still deals out high-pitched screeches like a rock version of Celine Dion – but they have audibly matured. And considering that the grunge kids of two decades ago have aged with them, many will appreciate this more grown-up, adult sound.
After 52 minutes, one question remains: now that Soundgarden seems to have arrived at their definitive sound, will they become one of those established bands that don’t evolve anymore? Like fellow Seattle-ites Pearl Jam, or grandfathers of rock Aerosmith, for example. Or will they continue to develop their sound, like Muse or Radiohead?
Formed in 2009, the Broken Bells is the name given to the collaboration between the Shins’ front man, James Mercer, and Grammy award winning producer, Brian Burton, aka Danger Mouse.
Hailing from significantly different musical backgrounds, their sound features a subtle fusion of genres and styles; while Mercer brings a rustic singer-songwriter approach to the album, Danger Mouse – whose contributions have been extended to popular groups such as U2, Gorrilaz, Gnarls Barkley and the Black Keys – incorporates elements of electronic and indie-pop.
Their self-titled debut album in 2010 earned both chart success and acclaim, but was criticised for bearing a notable inconsistency; while proving capable of binding their creative efforts, it sounded more like a Mercer-Burton compilation, as oppose to a definitive Broken Bells sound.
Having refined their pursuits and pinpointed their artistic direction, their newest album, ‘After the Disco’, sees the band bring a stylistic cohesion to its eleven tracks. At least for the time being, the duo has put their fingers on a sound that can define the Broken Bells.
As its title suggests, the album sounds like a product of the late 70s, reaching out to the sounds of the next decade. A master of tone, Danger Mouse makes use of his wide palette through elegant, catchy riffs that possess a futuristic, fantastical sound. The vintage quality is harmoniously defied by the timbre of Mercer’s vocals, which remain firmly rooted in his rock origins; a constant reminder that the songs were recorded in 2014.
The opening track, ‘Perfect World’, sounds like a curious trip into space, drenched with meandering synth lines, fuelled by a hypnotic bass line and a simple punk beat. While not exploring space, the song’s lyrics suggest a young Londoner’s desire to elude the daily routine of the big city, and embrace a life of vagabonding.
Impressively, the album creates a fine balance between electronic and acoustic instruments; an indicator that both Mercer and Danger Mouse have brought their identities to the mix without overpowering one another. For instance, while dominated by Mercer’s voice and guitar, ‘Leave it Alone’ incorporates a sporadic synth squiggle in the background.
A complete string orchestra is employed on five of the eleven tracks, which adds a seemingly organic quality to the album, whilst further highlighting the contrast with the electronics.
Lyrically deep and playful, ‘After the Disco’ is an album that will treat its listeners to plenty of dichotomies; from serious and quirky, artsy and geeky, to retro and contemporary. The band has elaborated and improved on their debut and proven that there is still plenty more to come.