Frank YangIf someone were to start one of those, “Who the eff are The Shins?” Tumblrs, there’d be no shortage of content to start with. They were once called Flake Music. They were the band who got a song with lyrics about having “dirt in your fries” to soundtrack a McDonalds commercial. They were the band that helped establish Sub Pop as the sensitive pop label for the new century rather than the sweaty grunge label for the last one. They were the band whose keyboardist was a hero to indie boys for dating one of the contestants on the first season of America’s Next Top Model and then a villain to all when he was arrested for assaulting her. They were the band that would change your life. And following the 2007 release of their third album Wincing The Night Away, which almost topped the charts worldwide (#2 in the US and Canada), they went into hiding and almost disbanded.
Or to be more precise, bandleader James Mercer opted to assert his bandleadership and essentially dismissed the rest of the band, then rather than release a new album went and worked with Danger Mouse on the largely unremarkable Broken Bells instead. Only this Summer did any concrete news about the status of The Shins emerge with a promise of a new record in 2012 and a run of tour dates through this Fall – including this past Thursday night in Toronto – with a new lineup of not-nobodies. Singer/songwriter Richard Swift, Modest Mouse drummer Joe Plummer, Crystal Skulls bassist Yuuki Matthews and singer/songwriter Jessica Dobson are clearly billed as the touring band for this jaunt and with no permanence implied. For the time being, these would be The Shins but for future reference, The Shins would essentially be a pseudonym for Mercer.
Boston-based openers Faces On Film knew a thing or two about one-man multi-member bands, being the project of one Mike Fiore. It took a few songs to pin down exactly what their slow-burning jangle-pop reminded me of but once I did, it was hard to hear anything else; if you imagined My Morning Jacket or Band Of Horses coming out of a northeastern college rather than the south, you’d have a pretty good sense of what they were about. Fiore has a big voice – far bigger than you’d expect to look at him – and perhaps more importantly, a penchant for interesting and structurally ambitious songwriting without being too obtuse about it. Cribbing a bit of either of those bands’ facilities for big moments wouldn’t hurt – some of the songs were heavy on build, light on payoff – but they were both interesting and entertaining and judging on audience response, left the stage with a few more fans than when they took it. And that’s really all an opener can ask for.
Reaching back in memory to the few times I’ve seen The Shins live – that’d be Summer 2002 at The Rivoli, April 2005 at The Kool Haus and Lollapalooza 2006 – the prevailing recollection was that James Mercer didn’t ever really seem to enjoy being onstage, and was perfectly happy to stand off to the side and let the more gregarious Crandall handle most banter and fan interaction. This jives with the sense that Mercer is a sort of cipher whose intensely catchy pop instincts help disguise the fact that his oblique lyrics, filled with odd and wonderful imagery actually offers little insight into the man himself. Which is not to say that songwriters owe their listeners a piece of themselves in their work, but success to the degree that The Shins achieved usually doesn’t come with the amount of privacy that Mercer has maintained.
None of which is really salient to this show, I suppose, and there’s plenty more relevant points of interest surrounding it to discuss. Like how, even though it’s only been four years since The Shins have been through town or toured to any great extent, that span is akin to a lifetime when your fanbase is on the cusp of adulthood as much of their post-Garden State demographic was when they broke out. Woud a Shins fan circa 2007 still identify as such in 2011? That was answered by the fact that there were enough interested to sell out the Phoenix and most were indeed still pretty young, though sadly most people look pretty young to me these days.
Whether they were diehards or nostalgists, they were all thrilled to hear The Shins live again (or finally, as the case may have been), no matter who was actually in the band. And why not? Whatever there might be to say about James Mercer as a boss, there’s little debate that he’s a gifted songwriter who has penned more than few tunes that are as catchy as they are quirky, and which have endured nicely – even the ones that hadn’t been heard in years and whose existence may even have been forgotten came instantly back within a few chords. Being veteran players all, there was no doubt the new lineup would be able to deliver exactly what was demanded of them and all were performed impeccably, if a bit louder and faster than on record, and with nice multi-part harmonies thrown in for good measure. Mercer was animated and affable in the frontman role, but you couldn’t argue he’d upped the charisma levels to fill Crandall’s absence; he and his crew were there to play the songs and that’s all.
The set included a couple of new songs which sounded identifiably Shins-y though didn’t jump out as instant classics and otherwise balanced equal contributions from Chutes Too Narrow and Wincing The Night Away – four apiece – with a lot of Oh Inverted World filling out the rest. And it was this earliest material that still had the most nuance, even when busied up some by the rhythm section, though it was hard to no remember that back in their salad days, the greatest charm of The Shins was their simplicity and sincerity. And a fixture of past Shins shows, the cover song, not only remained intact but was doubled upon with the encore closing with faithful covers of both Bowie’s “Ashes To Ashes” and Pink Floyd’ “Breathe” – and apparently the latter’s massive upcoming reissue/revival (but not reunion) is well-timed because the indie kids seem primed and ready to get their Floyd on.
If The Shins were using this tour to gauge how much of their audience remained, then based on the Toronto sample group it’s still pretty significant though it was a room half the size of the one they played their last couple times through. Still, it felt like more of a reminder that the band wrote some great songs and was still around rather than a forceful declaration of their continued relevance. Not that forcefulness has ever been The Shins’ forte – it’s been the songs. And if Mercer’s next batch of songs measure up to the work he’s done in the past, then it won’t matter who’s playing with him or even if he wants to be up there playing them at all. He’ll be able to point at the album and say, “this is what matters” and he’ll be right.
The National Post and Exclaim also have writeups of the show and Twentyfourbit has a nice piece on both The Shins’ performance at Outside Lands last month and their transformation from a band into a “James & Someone & Someone & Someone & Someone” t-shirt.
Photos: The Shins, Faces On Film @ The Phoenix – September 22, 2011
MP3: The Shins – “Australia”
MP3: The Shins – “Phantom Limb”
MP3: The Shins – “Kissing The Lipless”
MP3: The Shins – “So Says I”
MP3: The Shins – “Know Your Onion!”
Video: The Shins – “Australia”
Video: The Shins – “Phantom Limb”
Video: The Shins – “So Says I”
Video: The Shins – “Turn On Me”
Video: The Shins – “The Past & Pending”
Video: The Shins – “New Slang”
Video: The Shins – “Kissing The Lipless”
Video: The Shins – “Know Your Onion!”
Video: Faces On Film – “Manitoba”
The Drums’ show at the Mod Club this Saturday night has apparently sold well enough that they’ve added an in-store engagement earlier in the evening to satisfy demand (or do some shopping). They’ll be at Sonic Boom in The Annex at 7PM on October 1. Admission free, canned good donation encouraged.
MP3: The Drums – “Down By The Water”
The band that people initially thought was a Michael Cera project but is really a Man Man/Islands/Modest Mouse (and Shins, if you count Joe Plummer’s hired hand gig) spin-off – Mister Heavenly – have put together a tour in support of their debut Out Of Love and will be at The Great Hall on November 16. Examiner.com talks to Nick Thorburn, the Islands half of the band.
MP3: Mister Heavenly – “Bronx Sniper”
MP3: Mister Heavenly – “Pineapple Girl”
The Baltimore Sun profiles Fleet Foxes.
The Des Moines Register talks to John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats.
NPR can’t get enough Beirut, roping the band in for both a Tiny Desk Concert and World Cafe session. Zach Condon is also chatted up by the likes of The Guardian, The Independent, and The New Zealand Herald.
Stephen Malkmus talks to Pitchfork about choosing the cover art for his latest Mirror Traffic, to The Hook, hour.ca, and Metro about the contents of said album and The Vancouver Sun about Nirvana and R.E.M.
130BPM talks to Dean Wareham about revisiting the Galaxie 500 oeuvre.
The Los Angeles Times marks the release of Wilco’s new record The Whole Love tomorrow with a feature piece in the paper and a couple of extra pieces in their Pop & Hiss blog. And if you’re more the watch and listen than read type, there’s a stream of the complete set they played on Letterman available to watch at The Line Of Best Fit, a recording of their show in Central Park to download at NYC Taper and NPR will have last night’s show in Washington DC up to stream later today.
The Guardian and Billboard talk to Ryan Adams about his new record Ashes & Fire, due out October 11 but now available to stream at NPR.
Stream: Ryan Adams / Ashes & Fire
The AV Club interviews Will Sheff of Okkevil River.
Eric Bachmann of Crooked Fingers selects some sound sculptures for a feature in Impose. The new Crooked Fingers record Breaks In The Armor is out October 11 and they play The Drake Underground on November 4.
Matthew Sweet is giving away an acoustic EP in exchange for an email address over at Noise Trade, but if you want to leave a little something in the tip jar provided, that’s cool too. His new studio album Modern Art is out tomorrow.
How do you let people listen to a six-hour song? By being The Flaming Lips and having fans willing to hack into two-hour blocks and post them on Soundcloud. The Line Of Best Fit has gathered them together in one place… if you dare.
Stream: The Flaming Lips – “I Found This Star On The Ground”
R.E.M.’s disbandment last week led to no shortage of tributes and testimonials to their greatness, the full depth of which will probably be fully appreciated now that their career has that final punctuation point on it. And I don’t refer to their final studio album Collapse Into Now but the just-announced best-of set Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage: 1982-2011 which will be out on November 15 and be the first compilation to compile material from both their IRS and Warner Bros. years. Of course, the label-specific comps – And I Feel Fine for the indie and In Time are more thorough, but the new set will also cover their final three studio albums as well as some extra material from the post-Collapse sessions. And hopefully the double-disc reissue series of their catalog will continue, because those are gold through and through. And if you want to read some of the better R.E.M. tributes, check out pieces at The Atlantic, Rolling Stone and Spin. Update: Rolling Stone also has an exit interview with Mike Mills.