• REVIEW: The Shins - Port of Morrow LP

    Mar 25 2012, 0:45

    It’s been around five years since The Shins last put out an album, with 2007′s Wincing the Night Away. Since then there’s been little output from the band, besides frontman James Mercer‘s foray with producer Danger Mouse for the 2010 album and EP as Broken Bells. With the announcement of Port of Morrow, fans finally had their prayers answered. With so much time passing, and a complete changeup of the band’s members, would The Shins live up to their past legacy? The answer: more or less, yeah.

    Although they perform as a band, The Shins is pretty much just James Mercer‘s brainchild. There’s been so many changes to who’s who in the band that it’s hard to keep track. One thing remains constant: Mercer is in full command. If there were no Mercer, there would be no Shins. Even with some fresh recruits in the band, the instrumentation stays as strong as ever; from the flurry of lighter-than-air synths, to the jolly keyboard notes and the breezy guitar strums. The band play well together as it stands, and the changes don’t seem to have any detrimental effects on the way the band operates.

    Now, as far as American up-beat indie-pop music goes, The Shins have been put upon a pretty big pedestal over the years, next to all the other contemporary greats. With this reputation in mind, after only a relatively small discography of three LP’s, it was always going to be tough to live up to the rather unfair expectations of the general public. And for all intents and purposes, they made quite an admirable effort with Port of Morrow.

    The band have a very distinct sound to them due mainly to Mercer’s love-it-or-hate-it vocal style. I know some people who find his octaves a little too sugary-sweet to handle in large quantities but to my ear they sound almost heavenly. I’ve developed a theory that it’s almost impossible to not have a massive grin on your face when listening to Mercer’s tones, and that is still very much the case on their latest offering. Even when the album takes a turn towards more morose territory, Mercer’s delivery gives it all a warm glow that stops things from ever getting too dark.

    Another one of Mercer’s many talents is his ability to conjure up illustrious imagery by putting words and phrases together in simple yet effective ways. The album sticks to well-trodden territory, thematically; love, trust, redemption, all that jazz. What defines The Shins are all the clever little lines and phrases that are bound to clog up many a peoples’ Twitter and Facebook feeds. Take, for example, lead single ‘Simple Song’; lines like “My life in an upturned boat, marooned on a cliff” and “you feel like an ocean warmed up by the sun” evoke such vivid imagery that it’s hard not to be drawn in by it all. Mercer explores a smorgasbord of attitudes and emotions throughout Port of Morrow, from triumphant (‘Simple Song‘), reflective (‘It’s Only Life’), thankful and understanding (‘September‘), nostalgic (‘Fall of ’82′) just to name a few.

    Production on the album is overseen by Greg Kurstin, who has expertise mainly in pop music, with production credits on albums by Lily Allen and Britney Spears just to name a few. His assistance has helped give the album a very pristine and meticulously album. There are so many things going on musically that at times it feels a little overwhelming. It veers dangerously close to feeling too overproduced. I can see some of the tracks on here getting plays on daytime radio given the opportunity, and that’s probably due in part to Kurstin. Although the music does have quite a wide appeal, it hasn’t taken too much of a departure from their past material; it’s not like The Shins were ever a particularly hard band to get into.

    Unsurprisingly, the highlight of the album is ‘Simple Song’. The song glimmers with the magic that make The Shins such a revered band. The bouncy, invigorating melody and whimsical lyrics are but a few of the things that make it one of the best songs that I’ve heard recently, and among the best songs the band have ever produced. Words won’t really do it justice so I’ll just link a video to this so you can see for yourself.

    The biggest downfall of Port of Morrow is that is loses steam at quite an alarming rate. The band end up sounding a bit tired way before the record is over. By the time the almost-six-minute album closer rolls around, it already feels too long. This would be okay for most albums, but this record is only ten tracks long as it is. The latter half of the album feels kind-of throwaway compared to the strong start. ‘Fall of ’82‘ and 40 Mark Strasse‘ feel largely forgettable despite some nice touches from the band (such as the trumpet solo on ‘Fall of ’82′), while ‘No Way Down’ has a frankly generic 90′s alt-rock opening, that gradually improves as the song goes on. Midpoint of the record ‘September‘ marks a noticeable shift in quality from there on out and it’s honestly a little disappointing from a band of such pedigree.

    In Garden State, (you knew I had to reference it somewhere) during a scene in a hospital waiting room, Natalie Portman proclaims that listening to New Slang by the band will change Zach Braff’s life. With Port of Morrow, The Shins haven’t really replicated that notion. Instead of ‘life-changing’, the music on display here is, for the most part, simply ‘pleasant and enjoyable’. It has its moments and provides easy and addictive listening that showcase Mercer‘s ever-growing song crafting skills and upbeat pop even during the most routine areas of the album. I wanted to like this album more than I actually did in the end, but there’s still a lot of the spirit of the band you know and love here. I’m just glad they’re back.


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  • REVIEW: Brand New @ Southampton Guildhall - 10/2/11

    Feb 15 2012, 13:07

    Fri 10 Feb – Brand New, I Am The Avalanche, The Xcerts

    It's been a fair while since Brand New last graced our shores, with their last show being a one-off performance at Wembley Arena in 2010. Now back on an eight-date UK tour, the band don't have a new album to support; they're just here for the fans. The Guildhall seemed like the perfect venue for Brand New, it was large enough so that enough fans could enjoy the sold-out show without it feeling overbearing.

    The band played a career-spanning set list that took songs from every corner of their discography. Brand New have always enjoyed having an avid fan-base in the UK and it's obvious that tonight that they're totally humbled by that. "You always make us feel so at home over here, England." Frontman Jesse Lacey said to the admiring crowd, "It's quite strange and wonderful". Brand New were in high spirits, and their performance tonight showed it marvellously.

    The band didn't play any new material at all, but that didn't matter - everyone knew why they were here tonight and the atmosphere was electric. They played through a robust set, spanning eighteen songs in the ninety minutes they were on stage. The set moved from album to album, playing chunks of each album at a time. Starting with The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me, they moved onto Daisy, Déjà Entendu and Your Favourite Weapon respectively, before coming full circle with more tracks from The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me.

    Brand New arrived stealthily on stage and were greeted with rapturous applause. Without saying a word they proceeded with the instrumental 'Welcome To Bangkok'. It set the atmosphere perfectly, with the track building up slowly towards the explosive climax, with a post-rock feel to it. It transitioned swiftly into 'The Archers Bows have Broken', with the upbeat rhythms getting the crowd into a frenzy.

    Lacey's voice has an imperfect and raw nature to it, similar to Neutral Milk Hotel's Jeff Mangum - a hero of his. It really shows the passion being put across by the guy. He also shows a diverse range of vocal styles throughout, from the screeching vocals found in 'Vices', to the softer tones of 'Jesus Christ'. He makes alterations to the flow and melody of some songs, and it makes them feel more personalised to the specific show. It feels like he's so emotionally attached to the songs, few can replicate his intensity on stage.

    When they were at their heaviest, you could feel the whole venue shake with ecstatic furore. Two drummers were employed during these moments, and it really emphasised how loud this band could actually be when they wanted to. Brand New are a band that enjoy taking advantage of making songs that can at one moment be quiet and serene, and the next, explode into a torrent of impassioned roaring from Lacey. The best example from the night was on 'You Won't Know'. The build up to the first instance of this happening was incredible - the crowd knew what was going to follow, and the build up was awe-inspiring.

    'Soco Amaretto Lime' was the definitive apex of the gig. With Lacey alone on stage donning just an acoustic guitar, it felt very intimate despite the room being filled with just shy of 2,000 fans. Lacey had complete control of the room. He was like a hypnotist, keeping the crowd under his possession at all times. Every word he sang was echoed in unison by the whole room. By the end the volume of people singing 'You're just jealous 'cause we're young and in love' was quite overwhelming. Jesse ended the song by changing the lyrics to "I'm just jealous 'cause you're young and in love". The sincerity in his voice was touching.

    The last three songs in particular were a highlight for me, they were the perfect trio to send off the evening. It mixed in everything that made Brand New great - the tranquillity of 'Jesus Christ', the wholesome ferocity of 'Degausser' and the haunting intensity of 'You Won't Know'. Where 'You Won't Know' usually ends on record with Lacey repeating "You won't know", the crowd refused to stop echoing those three words until the band had disappeared from the stage, as if clinging onto their performance, not wanting it to end.

    Whether or not Brand New will ever record a new album remains to be seen, but if they just kept doing what they did tonight from now until forever, I couldn't be any happier. They really do have no equal.

    My blog: http://windandtheweathervanes.blogspot.com/2012/02/review-brand-new-southampton-guildhall.html