‘Port of Morrow’ by the Shins
By David Malitz,
The Shins made boring music cool. The band was on the cutting edge of not being cutting edge. It isn’t exactly the proudest legacy, but it’s a surprisingly influential one. A decade ago they were the original NPRockers, playing a familiar and effective brand of literate guitar pop. A namedrop by Natalie Portman’s “Garden State” character helped provide a foundation for the 21st-century definition of hipster.
The band’s 2007 album, “Wincing the Night Away,” debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard charts, which was a pretty big deal then. Now bands such as Iron & Wine, Death Cab for Cutie and the Decemberists — all of them so bland you can’t even say their names without yawning — regularly take residence at the top of the charts. The Shins have sat on the sidelines for much of this Boring Resurgence; the new “Port of Morrow” is the band’s return after five years off. The verdict? They’ve still got it — “it” being the ability to write sublimely crafted, supremely listenable and ultimately pleasing rock songs that don’t move the dial in the slightest.
“They” is actually “he.” Frontman James Mercer has dispatched every other original band member from this outing. It might not be the most tactful move, but whatever minimal personality the Shins have had, it’s always been his. Producer Greg Kurstin earns second billing here, and he succeeds in making Mercer’s songs sound sharper than ever.
The boss nova-flavored “Bait and Switch” swings convincingly, and “Simple Song” both lives up to its self-effacing name and packs a prog-rock punch. It’s the rare Shins song that results in an increased heart rate. Mostly, though, “Morrow” is the aural equivalent of watching a ’70s sitcom on high-definition TV. You can only put so much polish on songs this studied and sedate.
But there is something oddly admirable in Mercer’s complete devotion to driving 55 mph in music’s far-right lane, in reasserting and not reinventing. He and Kurstin walk the fine line of making songs that are ornate without being overdone, adding flourishes when appropriate but other times standing down. Opener “The Rifle’s Spiral” comfortably gallops through keyboards that splash and stutter but don’t overtake the subtle vocal hiccups that have emerged as Mercer’s specialty. Those little yelps are all over “It’s Only Life,” a disarmingly straightforward song built on just a bit of bounce and some well-placed xylophone clinks and gong splashes.
“It’s only life, it’s only natural / We all spend a little while going down the rabbit hole,” he sings. In this instance, that rabbit hole is a playlist of possibilities of where this melody first appeared — Squeeze? the Kinks? Elvis Costello? — but doesn’t diminish its immediate stickiness.
Mercer’s lyrics are another area in which he distinguishes himself by barely distinguishing himself — he’s neither oblique enough to be mysterious, nor confessional enough to be emotionally resonant. “Is it all so very simple / And horribly complex,” he sings on “40 Mark Strasse” and that may as well be Mercer’s motto. He’s discovered the perfect science to writing an unexciting song. And it may be boring, but boring never sounded this good.
The Shins will perform at Merriweather Post Pavilion on April 28.
“Simple Song,” “Bait and Switch,” “The Rifle’s Spiral”