brent johnson digs up another lost treasure, this week from The Shins …
Is it a bad sign when a band’s new album makes you want to listen to their old ones?
That’s what I wondered last week the first time I heard Port Of Morrow, the fourth album from The Shins. It’s not a poor record by any means. Many of the tunes are quite good. ‘Simple Song,’ ‘It’s Only Life’ and ‘September’ reminded me that frontman James Mercer is one of the most gifted melodicists in modern music, a man who can find hooks at every corner of a track without making it seem sugary or overdone. But part of the charm of The Shins’ music is that almost all of it been instantly memorable. This time, that wasn’t so. Something felt off.
Maybe it’s because they hadn’t made an album in five years. Maybe it’s because most of the band’s original members are gone. Maybe it’s because Mercer was working with a slick new pop producer who sanded down the group’s rough, trippy edges.
Regardless, it made me want to revisit their first three records. The hazy, lo-fi alt-pop of 2001’s Oh, Inverted World. The muscular folk-rock and power-pop of 2003’s Chutes Too Narrow. The glistening experimentation of 2007’s Wincing The Night Away. There’s nary a weak moment on any of them.
It’s hard to pick one Shins song to single out. There’s the shimmering, touching brilliance of ‘New Slang’ — the tune Natalie Portman said would change Zach Braff’s life in Garden State. The gorgeous mix of Beatles and Beach Boys of ‘Saint Simon.’ The lilting weirdness of ‘Red Rabbits.’
May favorite, though? The pretty punk-like attitude and McCartney-esque wails of Chutes track ‘So Says I’ — the only rock song I know to reference Sir Thomas Moore. You rarely see it mentioned among The Shins’ greatest work, and I can’t fathom why.
But writing about music is complicated. Is it unfair — and even lazy — to fault a band’s new record for not being as instantly gratifying as their others? Probably. Otherwise, I would have never listened to Radiohead’s Kid A again.
Will I like Port Of Morrow the more I listen to it? I think so.
Is it also a compliment, though, to like a band so much that even when I don’t immediately fall in love with the new material, I’d rather listen to their old stuff rather than find something else entirely? I say yes.