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- The Shins »
My feelings rarely get this mixed up. Preparing to review The Shins in LA I found my mind was like a martini Bond would never drink: shaken and stirred. You see, I really, really don't feel they've come close to duplicating the magic of Oh, Inverted World which, to me, is the definitive post-millennium indie-rock album; so delicate, beautiful and downright distant one can't help but listen to it again and again and, as you're probably guessing, again. And best of all, every song was completely different, sequenced so aptly it's tough for me to listen to any individual cut by itself. In light of so much Shins hype I will defend this opinion to the death. Recent songs such as ‘Saint Simon’ and ‘Sleeping Lessons’ are better than most – don't get me wrong – but the dismissal of the glittering twee of Inverted for the crunchy pomp of Chutes Too Narrow and Wincing the Night Away, despite the sales figures, just doesn't cut it if you dig the sounds of the underground more than pop.
Predictably, I seem to be alone in this assessment. Save ‘New Slang’ references, many seem to have forgotten The Shins' one perfect moment, instead focusing on that movie they prominently figured in and appearances on The OC. Man, what a letdown! But there's good news to be had, oh looking-for-a-reason-to-bitch-at-me reader (seriously, you're already sorting out a vicious, clever comment in your head, aren't you!?), for The Shins have pulled a classic bait-and-switch on this reporter. Although their recorded output has declined – and yes, one could argue they had nowhere to go but down after such an auspicious debut – their live shows have improved drastically from the tinny, hard-to-get-behind performances of a half-decade ago. Having added a multi-instrumentalist to their fold they've bloomed into quite the powerful unit. They no longer replace peripheral instruments with weak vocal substitutions, nor do they rely on James Mercer's serviceable-but-thin guitar playing for the majority of their power. This is a much tighter, bolder, more enjoyable unit, one that a casual witness could enjoy even without hearing the albums. For anyone that saw the group during their 2001-2002 period – as I did several times despite their then-inadequacies – it's an astonishing transformation.
What's more, Mercer is a more confident singer. He always possessed the pipes to cut the mustard, but now he's got the dill to fill out any remaining crevices. The only glaring flaw is the group's still-impotent rendering of ‘New Slang’, but at this point it's probably beyond help (it's too bad they're essentially forced into playing it every night by dint of sheer fan demand). Moving on, The Shins begat their set busting into a version of my favourite track from Wincing…, the aforementioned ‘Sleeping Lessons’. As soon as the rhythm section busted in after its synth-tro I knew I was dealing with a far different band. This tune, as it does on the album, rocks, shocks and clocks any earshot witness on the back of the head with a demanding rhythm you can't help but stomp along to, even in a fickle Los Angeles crowd where little enthusiasm – the Orpheum is an assigned-seating venue, for fuck's sake – is on display.
I have to admit even the lukewarm Wincing… tunes – most of which I find to contain uniform vocal cadence from Mercer – sounded great, but the best moments of this show were the unexpected ones. Sure, if you peruse blogs like slaughterhouses kill hogs you know The Shins cover Pink Floyd's ‘Breathe’ in concert these days, but for me it was a delectable surprise, as was the subdued, country-fied take on Inverted _launch-off track _‘Caring is Creepy’ (though nothing beats the original version). And spirited straight-up takes on ‘Girl Inform Me’ and ‘Know Your Onion!’ did little to dull my enjoyment. Throw in a sweaty romp-take of age-old Shins tune ‘So Says I’, which has been a consistent presence in their sets since back in the day, a lovely chant-along version of ‘Saint Simon’, and the always-inspirational Inverted closer ‘Past and Pending’, and you have what a less-guarded critic might call a perfect concert. I, on the other hand, can't go that far; remember, ‘New Slang’ still blows. A small price to pay, however, for a night of slashing Shins tunes and near-soprano majesty from Mercer. Bonus points, as always, for the delightful humour of Marty Crandall, whose antics are so enjoyable even a shy square like Mercer can't help but loosen up, even amid huge crowd expectations.
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