The Shins’ James Mercer
Photo credit: Debra Zeller
The Shins are fantastic. When I say fantastic, I’m not speaking of their musical ability or creative chops—fantastic here is not a synonym for “terrific,” though they certainly could be described as that as well. What I mean by fantastic in this case is more akin to fantasy. The Shins are the band pleasingly bandying about in your saccharine, playland dreamscapes. They are instrumentally whimsical, they are lyrically precious, and they are positively darling to behold.
3 Sep 2003: Bowery Ballroom New York
Though at their heart they’re a traditional indie pop band—four twee boys, a mix of guitars, keyboards and drums, good melodies and memorable lyrics—the effect of listening to their records is far more than the sum of its parts. Their 2001 breakthrough album, Oh, Inverted World! (Sub Pop), is positively addictive, like a sugary treat laced with a potent psychotropic, unforgivably sweet with a hallucinogenic edge. Though the utopian aspects are significantly toned down on Chutes Too Narrow (soon to be released, also on Sub Pop), it’s arguably even more mesmerizing. The new material manages to balance more aggressive rock postures in cute-as-a-button sonic packages and eye-poppingly astute lyrical asides. To put it plainly, it’s freakin’ great.
Since the Shins do studio so well, it was hard to fathom before the fact exactly how they’d come across live. Their artful balance between sweet and serious held within it the potential calamity of descending too deeply into either. Would they riff and strum too aggressively, or pander too excessively to the fancy-free? Would it be too loud, or too quiet? Moreover, the Shins would inevitably face one other problem: the fact that they’re so gosh-darn cute. Lead singer James Mercer draws a gaggle of droolers at every show; Dave Hernandez, back in the band after a hiatus, looks not unlike Jimmy Fallon; and drummer Jesse Sandoval and keyboard player/guitarist Marty Crandall are lovable, huggable, and utterly coo-inducing. (Ask Elyse Sewell, a model who is dating Crandall.) Though musicians are often good-looking, so much adorableness on one stage was likely to up the aggravating groupie factor, while simultaneously egg the band on, making them more determined to prove that they’re not just pretty faces, but serious rockers.
The Shins, now somewhat accustomed to their idolized status, were ready to engage both of these potential pitfalls head on. As the chattiest, Crandall spoke up matter-of-factly at the show’s beginning, proclaiming that they’d be trying out new material and to forgive them. The candidness of his remark assured that the fawners in the audience would be satiated by the coy direct address; its content aimed to dismiss any critiques of imperfection. And it was warranted. To those weaned on their albums, their live sound was loud, bass heavy, and much muddier. Though, on the new material that was foreign to the vast majority of the crowd, this effect worked well. Mercer’s voice strained on the headiest falsetto lines, but songs like “Kissing the Lipless” or “Turn a Square” had a spontaneous excitement and vital rush to them. And things were toned down to a beautiful, mesmerizing degree on “Young Pilgrims”, when Hernandez and Mercer played acoustic guitars unaccompanied. It was their older material that proved somewhat off-kilter in this context. The visceral “The Celibate Life” was emphatically unmagical, making the song into something almost unrecognizable. “Girl on the Wing” was also strangely overblown and extra-sensory.
You could say that the preciousness of the Shins gets the better of them, or perhaps us. Though I’m hardly one to argue that the live show need replicate the album—in fact, one of the thrills of live music is that it doesn’t/shouldn’t—the Shins failed to recreate the delightful enchantment derived from listening to them recorded. Which is not to say that it was bad, but it different enough to leave a strange taste in my mouth. Those who came looking to dance in the clouds were surely left with their feet firmly planted on the ground. But maybe it didn’t matter much. The love their fans have for them is so unabashed that it seemed as if they could have played Meatloaf covers for an hour and a half and still driven those groupies crazy.