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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?
You've got to love Kurt Vile. Whether or not you like his songs or general aesthetics, no one can deny that he has mastered the ‘like, I’m just an ordinary dude’ artistic ethos exceptionally well. And not only has he been able to carry that grungy/punk torch into the modern world of indie music, he’s been able to do it as himself; a solo guy, a ‘singer-songwriter’, in a time when the very notion of such is enough to make one cringe.
On Wakin on a Pretty Daze, not much has changed since Vile released his debut album with Matador Records, Childish Prodigy, back in 2009. Vile is still creating acoustic guitar, ‘singer-songwriter’ songs punctuated with beautiful guitar lines and lazy but seductive melodies. Vile’s also still singing half-pedestrian/half-stoned-out lyrics about the people he meets, the bars he frequents, the planet he lives on, or the squalor of his apartment that tend to turn everyday banalities and words into epic events – at least in the eyes of a stoner.
Comparing Childish Prodigy’s lead single ‘He’s Alright’ with Pretty Daze’s ‘Wakin of a Pretty Day', it’s clear that Vile’s still trying to say: “Hey Guys. Chill out. Life’s alright. If I can do, it you can do it – right? Oh, yeah, and thanks for listening.”
There’s an instant soothing that comes from Vile’s sound; especially in Cairo, when one has to hop into a car twice a day to join the static rush hour traffic – it’s the perfect music to zone out to.
But unlike many of his contemporaries, Vile is a slow burning candle. Even before his debut album, the songs he released were pretty similar just with lower production quality. In a recent interview, Vile explained that “I know what to do to become the next big thing, but I have no interest in doing that. I want to do this my whole life.” The slow and subtle evolution of Vile’s albums – noticeable to probably only the most voracious listeners – is testament to this.
However, this desire to just cruise through his career on his own terms removes that element of surprise and heavy experimentation from Vile’s work that would really help make it stand out album to album. But at the same time, this aesthetic loyalty is also a large part of his charm.
Therefore, as a result, none of the albums really have any peaks, or troughs, and Pretty Daze is no different.
The entire album is one long, approximately 70 minute, beautiful moment, but there are no real fireworks, no explosive flashes. Stand out tracks are certainly the opener and title track, ‘Wakin on a Pretty Day’, as it sweeps the listener off their feet straight away and plunges them into the world of Kurt Vile.
Another notable track is ‘Shame Chamber’ which uses a steady head-nodding groove in order to bouncily deliver lyrics about mankind’s shortcomings as a finger pointing, shame inducing species. “Shame on you, shame on me, and shame on us, for feeling bad in the best way,” says Vile.
But as said, there are no money shots on Pretty Daze, only one long smooth, sensual session. Pretty Daze has also arrived just in time for spring, when hopefully, the daze that Cairenes have come to wake up to becomes a little brighter.