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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?
At only 19 years old, English singer-songwriter, Jake Bugg, has achieved more than most would dream of; he’s the British indie scene’s Justin Bieber, but with more talent and less obsessive fan-girl hype. Having released his first self-titled album last year, Bugg is back with his second release, Shangri La.
The album was produced by Rick Rubin, and named after his home studio where it was recorded; perhaps a name-dropping exercise of sorts by young Bugg. Featuring 12 tracks, the majority barely hit the 3-minute mark, making Shangri La an easy-listening choice that won’t challenge the ears.
The album’s first single, ‘What Does Not Kill You’, addresses the UK’s troubled street culture – car park stabbings, public binge drinking and general disorder. Riddled with heavy, punkish guitar sounds, the chorus sums up the philosophy; “What doesn’t kill ya, what doesn’t hurt/Sometimes you feel you’re up against the world/This life it seems, to bring you to your knees/you try you bleed then finally you breathe.”
On its own, the track might suggest to an unfamiliar listener that this album is a fast, to-the-point, rock epic. This is far from the case.
The album at times remains too calm for too long. Bugg rarely revisits the loud, rebellious spirit that the album opens with; possibly in an effort to keep Bugg’s sound marketable to as wide an audience as possible in both US and Europe.
Instead, Shangri La’s overriding tone is a mesh between old school 70s punk and the watery guitar tones of grunge. More often than not, the album wanders into folk, as heard in opening track, ‘There’s A Beast and We All Feed It’, as well as ‘Me and You’ among others.
It’s easy to pin-point the extent of Bugg’s – and several hired song-writers’ – influences; Johnny Cash, Donovan, the Beatles and Oasis are all definite inspirations.
Despite the derivativeness, credit must be given to Bugg’s vocal efforts. His voice is reminiscent of a young, nasally Bob Dylan – especially on closing track, ‘Storm Passes Away’ – though slightly mellow in comparison.
And so in the end, Shangri La has few characteristics to distinguish itself from the cascade of similar sounding, mainstream releases over the past decade that have treaded across the en vogue, indie-folk rock phenomenon; don’t expect anything fresh or enriching with Shangri La.