The Shins - Port Of Morrow

A Virginia airport at 5 in the morning on the day SXSW starts, listening to an iTunes stream on crappy airport wi-fi and letting that stream rebuffer a few times on every song: These are not the ideal circumstances in which to hear a much-anticipated album for the first time. Some things, however, are out of our control. And if you have to hear an album that way for the first time, the Shins’ Port Of Morrow is one that can survive the setting as well as anything. James Mercer has never been the world’s most exciting or innovative songwriter, but the trade-off there is that his work sounds remarkably pleasant in just about any setting, even the least pleasant setting imaginable. Port Of Morrow may be the first Shins album in a few years, and the debut of a completely revamped new lineup, but it still sounds very much like a Shins album. And that’s a good thing.

If you saw the Shins live back in the day, you could’ve been forgiven for assuming that keyboardist Martin Crandall was the frontman. He was the only member of the band who carried himself with anything resembling swagger, and the couple of times that I saw them, he was also the one who stood in the middle of the stage and was responsible for the most between-song banter. James Mercer, the band’s true architect, always comported himself like a born sideman, even as he was singing the songs he wrote in front of thousands. But the songs on Port Of Morrow could’ve fit onto any of the previous Shins albums without any awkwardness, even though Crandall is long-gone and the cast of characters playing Mercer’s songs is now completely different. Message sent: The Shins aren’t really a band, and they never were. They’re Mercer’s vehicle for getting his chiming, soothing bread-and-butter college-rock jams out into the world. And that vehicle is still humming along just fine.

Simple Song,” the first Port Of Morrow single, earned plenty of hosannas when it first appeared a few months ago, and all of them were justified. It’s a magnificent piece of work, majestic and road-trip-ready, and it seemed to augur the best Shins album since, perhaps, Oh Inverted World. But Port Of Morrow isn’t that; it’s one that fits just fine with the last two. Mercer really slams his shit home when he hits it, but the big hits here are frontloaded, and they’re the ones we’ve already heard: “Simple Song,” “Bait And Switch,” “September.” Those songs are excellent, and they’re great evidence of the kind of songwriting firepower Mercer can bring when he’s in the right mode. But moments like that are only half of what makes Mercer special. The other half is this: Even when he’s just coasting, his stuff sounds nice, in an unassuming sort of way. And that’s the rest of Port Of Morrow.

I should specify: Shins songs tend to have a sort of time-release power to them, so it’s entirely possible that some of the album’s other seven songs will sound better and better upon repeated listens. But at this early moment, they sound simply like nicely executed, perfectly agreeable filler — not necessarily a bad moment. A few late-album songs remind me a bit of Cass McCombs, except without that inimitable shambling melancholy. They shuffle quietly and prettily without snagging especially hard in my memory, and they do their job. Port Of Morrow could’ve been something resembling a classic EP. Instead, it’s a nice album, one that won’t embarrass anyone involved. And it’s a clear signal that Mercer will soldier on as always, regardless of who else might hold the other Shins positions at the moment.

Port of Morrow is out 3/20 on Columbia/Aural Apothecary. Stream it at iTunes.

Comments (39)
  1. A “nice” album is exactly what I need right now, which is maybe why I’m digging this so much. I love having a new Shins album to listen to in 2012. I’d give this a really strong 8.

  2. My question is why Pariah King was left off the album. It’s better than half of of the songs on it.

  3. Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” is the best radio pop song I’ve heard since 2008. There, I said it, and now I’m going to ignore the plethora of Instagrams and meaningless live reviews tweeted from SXSW for the rest of the week just like you’d gnore that neighbor who slowly drives by your house in their brand new Lexus trying to get your attention as you take out the garbage.

  4. Paul McNeil  |   Posted on Mar 14th, 2012 +3

    Definitely some good tracks, but I’ll admit my first listen didn’t really engage me… it was “nice,” though, and I’ll have to give it a few more spins…

  5. I went to college enthusiastic about discovering new and “cool” music. And one of the first songs I loved as a freshman was Sleeping Lessons. I thought Wincing the Night Away was going to change my life. It just built so beautifully and finished so strongly. It sure fooled me. And then I realized that isn’t really the Shins’ style. And I’ve never forgiven them. These songs would sound great at a free concert this summer though.

  6. This is a GOOD album, let me first state that. But this album does lose steam after the first couple songs. It goes from the upbeat space pop and turns so mellowed out. The songs still have the great shins lyrics, but I feel like it just loses momentum.

  7. Did somebody down vote every post on this page

    Also I disagree with the whole losing momentum thing, “Fall of ’86″ is one of my favorite tracks on the thing.

    • Yeah, I’m not understanding the wave of downvotes on comments that aren’t very controversial to begin with. I think this is what happens when the parents leave for a SXSW vacation and no one is around to keep watch on the kids.

      Then again, your comment currently has a +4 while everyone else is down two in the hole, so my conspiracy-minded guess is that “somebody” is you.

  8. James Mercer’s beard makes me feel old

    • I guess because of his voice I always thought of James Mercer as a pretty young guy and then I saw him on SNL and he looked old and I had an existential crisis.

      I’m not sure how much I’m going to listen to this, I’ve been feeling down lately, and mostly consuming depressing music, I decided to listen to something upbeat but still wistful and the new Tanlines album really fit the bill but I might rotate this in too.

  9. It’s a very pleasant listen. Especially perfect for today since it was 70 degrees in Detroit.

  10. Diggin’ the new record so far…

  11. “But Port Of Morrow isn’t that; it’s one that first just fine with the last two.” … *fits?

  12. “and it seemed to augur the best Shins album since, perhaps, Oh Inverted World.”
    But, but, Chutes Too Narrow is clearly their best album…right?

    Port of Morrow is nice though. I think there’s a danger that we undervalue a talent like Mercer, who can summon up breezy, hummable melodies whenever the hell he feels like. That’s not easy.

    • Seriously. He does do that, and those melodies usually don’t sound canned or imitative either, which is the best part. By the way, I think I agree that on the whole, Chutes Too Narrow is their best. Most of Wincing is pretty great too, though, even with the heavy-handed production.

  13. I don’t understand what reviewers mean when they talk about songs by the Shins/Mercer as being ‘not the most exciting’ as if that’s obvious. I mean, I get not thinking of his songs as ‘innovative’, but many of them seriously shine with a level of craftsmanship which is pretty rare these days, and I do feel like that translates into excitement when listening to the songs. And I don’t mean that in a “the Neptunes” kind of way, I mean more in a Paul Simon sense (not comparing Mercer to Simon, just illustrating the kind of craftsmanship I’m talking about).

    Excitement-wise, I think his vocal melodic sense is unusually inspired and passionate-sounding in many (not all) of his songs. So many indie rock singers lately sound like they’ve been listening to waaay too much Pavement, or on the other extreme like they listen to today’s Top 40 every night while no one’s watching and are partially, secretly trying to emulate those singers, phony Maroon 5 vibrato at the end of phrases and all. I’ll grant that the Shins are maybe a little too understated live, now as before, even with the lineup change.

    Anyway, I like the whole album so far, and I think the second half is the best material on it, including the “Fall of ’86″ mentioned above.

  14. Rifle’s Spiral hasn’t been getting a lot of feedback… but that is one of my favorite songs so far, the dissonances and resolutions throughout are pretty awesome.

    • It’s a great album opener, then takes it up notch with “Simple Song” before slowing it down with “It’s Only Life.” Mercer used the “High Fidelity” mix-tape model.

      For me “For a Fool” is the jam of the album so far. Love the soul and emotion.

  15. James Mercer is our Neil Young.

    • no, neil young is.

      • Correct. James Mercer is our James Mercer. Which is a lot more consistent than Young, so far anyway :)

        • Neil Young is way to ridiculous a comparison, but you could argue REM in its early stages.

          • REM was around 30 years, the Shins have been around for about 15…they’ve passed their “early” stage.

          • You COULD argue that they sound like R.E.M. in their early stages, but you’d be forgetting R.E.M. released 4 cold classics in 4 years.

            Sound-wise, I’ve always seen the comparison but, again, it’s not really the most prevalent sound coming through. The lyrics aren’t political, the vocals are completely different, and the only real similarity is “jangly guitars,” and even that’s a stretch. R.E.M. had a much stronger rhythm section too.

            Anyway, I’m just glad this is good so those are my two cents.

  16. Solid record, definitely runs out of steam near the end, and Rifle’s Spiral is awesome, every Shins album has killer opening track.

  17. this album is the ultimate chill zone. as a long time fan, i feel like i’ve grown up with the shins… this album came out at a perfect time in my life because i’m enjoying a slower pace… less rock, less aggression, less partying… more relaxed, more calm, more serene. the newest single, bait and switch is pretty much my daily soundtrack right now… perfect for breezy drives with trees overhead and no cars around.

    long story short, this album couldn’t have come out at a more perfect time. If it hasn’t grown on you yet, it will. Get ready for it!

  18. Just to be a voice of dissent, this one bores me silly. I can acknowledge Mercer’s craft but it just doesn’t engage me.

  19. Elyse Howdershell  |   Posted on Mar 16th, 2012 0

    Has everyone vid for “Simple Song”…I really love videos that tell a story:)

  20. Just listened to the album in full, love every song. “Bait and Switch” is my favorite right now, the music video they released was pretty simple but beautiful.

  21. when i listened to the album for the first time i was surprised to recognize the title track. it’s an old song that they played live a few times 10+ years ago. during my shins heyday i was very disappointed when it didn’t show up on chutes too narrow. nice to finally hear a studio version, although the slower tempo took some time to grow on me.

  22. A mixed bag for sure. But it may grow on you after a few listens…

  23. After reading this thread I was expecting to find this album pretty average, but I ended up really loving it. I’ve been a long time listener of the Shins, but never really considered myself a hardcore fan. I think this album is a great addition to the Shins catalogue, and I was pleasantly surprised at how solid this album is. Not a bad track on it.

    I don’t know if it’s just me, but it seems like James Mercer has gotten more soulful on this one. I like it.

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