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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?
Ever since the 2012 release of their double a-side single, ‘Flying To Berlin/Husbands’, Savages have occupied an interesting space in the musical spectrums. With a mixture of old school post-punk and noise rock, they appear to be the perfect cross-section of Siouxsie and the Banshees and Swans. Their frenetic, dark, and sinisterly beautiful style has been receiving rave reviews the world over from critics and fans alike and their latest EP Adore Life is more of the same.
This is an album about love, but one would hesitate to call any of the tracks traditional love songs. Instead of falling into classic song writing tropes about how amazing love is, Savages instead approach the subject matter from a much darker perspective. This is an album about the true power of love, nd how that isn’t always a good thing.
The opening track, ‘The Answer’, heaves with energy from the get go, telling the story of an almost obsessive infatuation, with frontwoman Jehnny Beth (real name Camille Berthomier) repeating the words “If you don't love me/You don't love anybody” throughout the song just to drive home the fact that love can be a dangerous force. The hectic instrumentation provides a binary opposition to Beth’s sweet tones and is the perfect start to the record.
That is not to say that Adore Life is unrelenting in its aggression. This album is a mixture of forceful distortion, British post-punk and torch songs, and nowhere is this more apparent than on the song ‘Adore’. It’s slow, it’s bassy, it’s reverby (is that even a word?) it’s dark, but above all, beautiful. Concluding with a lyrical coda accompanied by a slow crescendo, it sounds like something you would hear in a smoky Paris café at 3AM. Make no mistakes, this is an early contender for one of the best songs of 2016.
Even towards the end of the album, they manage to keep the energy up. The penultimate track, ‘T.I.W.YG’, is almost a sequel to ‘The Answer’ in terms of style and narrative. The instrumentation provides an organised cacophony to truly drive home the fact that, this is what you get when you mess with love.
For what is only a second album, Adore Life shows a surprising maturity from the London-based female foursome. The lyrics are emotive without being contrived, the instrumentation is varied without being schizophrenic and the style is classic without being clichéd. This is more neo-post punk as opposed to post-punk revival and thank god it is, because the last thing we need is another attempt to revive a past genre. Remember the comment about the band being perfect cross-section of Siouxsie and the Banshees and Swans? This album hits the nail on the head, being equal parts a love song to the past and an ode to the fuzzy future.