I wasn’t sure if I wanted to see The Shins live, and it had everything and nothing do with their full-length debut album, which was released last year and called Oh, Inverted World. Maybe you heard about it. It’s one of those albums that critics go out of their to say isn’t a masterpiece in their reviews. I don’t disagree, but I love it anyway. There’s something about the way Oh, Inverted World was recorded that makes it feel out of focus, creating the sensation that you are dreaming it instead of listening to it. And, oh, what a dream. Eleven swirling and shimmering tunes swimming in an alphabet soup of simple white guy guitar pop, from the Apples in Stereo to the Zombies. For anyone born after Brian Wilson cracked up, Alex Chilton gave up, and Pete Ham up and killed himself, Oh, Inverted World is the kind of album that’s supposed to exist only in your head.
So who wants to go from the infinite pleasures of your imagination to the dark, sweaty confines of a downtown rock ‘n’ roll bar filled with bullshit-spouting indie kids in Gap ad haircuts and “CHiPs” T-shirts? Don’t get me wrong; lots of bands go over great inside the dark, sweaty confines of a downtown rock ‘n’ roll bar filled with bullshit-spouting indie kids in Gap ad haircuts and “CHiPs” T-shirts. But The Shins? I had just about convinced myself that James Mercer was humming and strumming “New Slang” for me and me alone (McDonald’s commercial be damned). Can I please hit the snooze button just one more time?
OK, enough complaining. After all, nobody forced me at gunpoint to drive five hours one way to Minneapolis to see a frickin’ show. I did it because I wanted to. I guess I was curious to see what these guys looked like. And when The Shins ambled on stage in front of a mostly packed house at the 400 Bar, I saw four record store clerks without a counter to hide behind. I should have known.
Ditto that for The Shins not having the same delicacy live that they have on record. They opted instead for a more beer-friendly sound that bordered on a de-amplified version of Weezer, especially on the show-opening “Pressed in a Book.” Most of the time it worked just fine. Mercer definitely had the shy and bespectacled Rivers Cuomo shtick down, leaving the Matt Sharp role for keyboardist Marty Crandall, who provided goofy asides between songs and generally came across as the most likeable Shin.
Mercer’s stunning voice still carries the band. Capable of both the heliumized falsetto of Jeremy Enigk and the sun-kissed tenor of Carl Wilson, its beauty was undiminished even in a room filled with cigarette smoke. But really, when you have melodies as pure as those found in “Girl Inform Me” and “Caring Is Creepy”, you have to try pretty hard to muck it up. Only a few times did Mercer and his Shins come close. The reverie I was waiting for during “One By One All Day”, my favorite track off Oh, Inverted World, never came, probably because the natural imperfection of live drumming after downing a half-pitcher slopped up the song’s mesmerizing circular beat.
But hey, these guys ain’t no Belle and Sebastian and that’s a good thing for the most part. The giddy bop ‘n’ grind of “My Seventh Rib” (off the Nature Bears a Vacuum 7-inch) and two new untitled songs kept The Shins on the good side of fey. Overall they kept it all short and sweet. After less than an hour, the boys from Albuquerque bid adieu. Though they were not out of songs (disappointingly, there was no “Past and the Pending”), the show’s length felt right. And as I left the bar that night, I once again heard The Shins playing in my head, right where they belonged.