I always wonder how many people got into The Shins because a very cute Natalie Portman said that the song ‘New Slang’ would change your life. If she would have suggested the same about Wilco, Pulp, or Metric, things in the indie scene might be very different. After all, in the mid 2000s we were all pretty much in the habit of doing what ever Natalie Portman said. In the 5 years that have elapsed since James Mercer and co. released Wincing the Night Away, all members of the band have left (or been kicked out) save for Mercer, and they have left their long time label Sub-Pop for major Columbia. You would think that this would signify a new direction for the band and in ways it does, but thankfully The Shins have another indie powerhouse of an album in Port of Morrow that is all it should be and more.
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Mercer has an incredibly distinctive voice and it is coupled with a truly unique way of delivering melodies. From the very first line sung on the first track, ‘The Rifles Spiral,’ these key features let you know without a doubt that it is The Shins. The song’s production is more polished than usual, but the quirky guitar lines, complemented perfectly by Mercer’s low register, prove it to be a fantastic start to the album. After a strong start, they segue perfectly into the second track, ‘Simple Song.’ This track is the first single and it has an absolutely amazing video that is an extraordinary display of short-form story telling. This song would sound at home on either of their last two albums, and with its insanely catchy chorus, it is a perfect choice for the radio. From here the band takes it down a notch with ‘Its Only Life.’ This song is incredibly melancholy; you can easily imagine breaking up and putting this on the stereo as the soundtrack to packing up all your stuff to move out. They have a few other acoustic songs that are in the same vein which are good, but slightly forgettable, and they appear as the only slight missteps on the album. Next, The Shins take us on a journey through the decades as they get a bit retro with ‘Bait and Switch.’ On this track, their surf inspired guitar licks channel a sunny 1960s beach in California, or at least watching The Endless Summer on VHS. They bump up about a decade with the song ‘Fall of ’82,’ which wouldn’t sound out of place in the early ’70s, all the while keeping that same Shins flavour. And just when you think that what you have here is just another solid album to add to the already impressive history of The Shins, they hit you with the title track, ‘Port of Morrow.’ This is the first real departure from their signature sound on the album, and it features Mercer crooning in falsetto over lush strings and keys for a slightly creepy close to the album. The great thing about this song is that even at nearly 6 minutes in length, it never loses its focus or your attention.
Is it a perfect album? no, but it’s a really solid entry into their catalogue. The Shins retain enough of their signature sound to not alienate any fans but they push their music in enough new directions to stay fun, relevant, and most importantly, interesting. I wish all bands would be able to hit this balance of progression and nostalgia. There’s not much to say about this record except for, “If you like the Shins, it’s definitely worth the price of admission”.
RATING: Shins release another solid album that progresses the sound without losing any of the spirit we all know and love.