Port of Marrow

The newest release by The Shins finds James Mercer backed by a whole new crew of band mates.

If you ever doubted that James Mercer was the essential Shins member, just consider this, he is the only original member on the band’s fourth release. “The band” has always been a loose assembly of musician who collaborate with Mercer. The songs are his and it is his vocals that define The Shins’ sound. This time out former Shins members, guitarist Dave Hernandez, bassist Ron Lewis, and keyboardist Marty Crandall, contribute to the album but are not counted as current members. The rest of the group is culled from bands Mercer has worked with as well as his side projects. These include Janet Weiss (Sleater-Kinney/Wild Flag), Eric D. Johnson (Fruitbats), Joe Plummer (Modest Mouse), Nate Walcott (Bright Eyes), and singer/songwriter Nik Freitas.

Mercer hasn’t released a Shins album since 2007’s impeccably gorgeous Wincing the Night Away. He teamed with Brian Burton, aka, Danger Mouse, as Broken Bells, but as good as their pop songs were they didn’t match the intelligence or sad beauty of the Shins material.
One important aspect of his work with Burton is Mercer’s new respect for the impact of a great producer. Port of Morrow features the magic touch of Grammy nominated producer Gregg Kurstin. His work with Geggy Tah, The Bird and the Bee, Action Figure Party, and Lily Allen, pops with happy melodies and shiny production values. These elements are crucial to the success of Port of Morrow a release that rarely slows down or loses its optimistic tone.

“Rifle’s Spiral” sets the tempo and aesthetic for the album with its choreographed collision of guitar, synthesizers, and drums. Mercer’s tenor gliding above conveys a free floating angst about life’s purpose as he sings “you’re not invisible, you just don’t exist.” But that attitude proves to be the exception to the rule. Mercer is maturing and growing accustomed to the uncertainty of life as well as enjoying the beauty of it all. “Fall of ‘82” is a thank you note to his sister who helped him through his adolescent doldrums. A new found sense of domesticity seems to be the impetus for many of these new songs. Mercer’s role of husband and father are evidenced throughout. The beautiful “September” a love letter to his wife, acknowledges the delicate balance of life. “It’s not that the darkness can’t touch our lives/ I know it will in time/ but she’s no ordinary valentine.

There are songs here that are more aggressive than what we’ve heard from former Shin’s albums. “No Way Down” is driven by muscular drumming. “Bait and Switch” vibrates with a vaguely 60s soul-pop feel. Kurstin alters the pacing of the tracks. The textured layers of production keep listeners involved as you unravel the multitude of sounds that make up these vibrant melodies.

-Review by Afternoon Host Rosemary Welsch