The Shins "Australia" from the album Wincing the Night Away
Three acclaimed albums into their existence, The Shins may be old news to the Pitchfork-gargling indie crowd, but 38 months after no less an authority than Queen Amidala dropped their name in Zack Braff's geek-love film Garden State, the mainstream world is still just discovering this Pacific Northwest gem. Like The Arcade Fire, the Montreal band who dropped their second full-length platter this year, The Shins have been building an impressive fan base while enjoying little commercial radio airplay. Most of their exposure has come from online sources, key usage in movie soundtracks, ecstatic press, late-night TV appearances, and good old-fashioned word-of-mouth. So you still find folks flipping out when they first discover the band. I've heard morning-zoo radio DJs, astounded by their rare flash of hipness, mention The Shins as if they've unexpectedly chipped off a jewel in a grimy mine. Single moms who don't make a point of keeping up with every hot band-to-watch come up asking if I've "ever heard of this new band, The Shins." And with Wincing the Night Away — The Shins' third album — cemented as a bona fide success (the album debuted at number two on the Billboard 200 chart the first week of its release in January; they'd never made it higher than number 86 before), the band has graduated to larger theaters, such as The Plex in North Charleston, which holds close to 2,500 bodies.
You have to wonder, though, whether the Plex show would've sold out weeks ago had The Shins hit the Deep South during their first wave of touring just after Wincing's release, instead of waiting nine months' later, long after the album had dropped off the charts and the buzz surrounding one of 2007's most insanely anticipated albums had receded significantly. At the Civic Center in Atlanta, for instance, promoters are anticipating a thousand empty seats in the 4,000-plus capacity venue for The Shins' Oct. 17 show; by contrast, The Arcade Fire, touring in the midst of the excitement generated by the release of Neon Bible, packed the same hall in May.
Still, selling 2,500-3,500 tickets a town ain't too shabby, and it would have been unheard of a couple years ago for The Shins. And besides, they had a good reason for taking a multi-month break from the road in spring and summer — singer, songwriter and band founder James Mercer and his wife, journalist Marisa Kula, gave birth to their first child.
"I have fallen in love with the most wonderful woman ... and I've made changes," Mercer declared to me during an interview last winter. "And I think making this record was a great therapeutic thing for me."
Two of the album's standout tracks — the sad and lovely "Turn on Me," which was released as a single, and the stunning album closer "A Comet Appears" — reflect on friendships that went sour. Both are taken from circumstances in Mercer's own life, and he cites the latter — the new tune of which he's proudest — as particularly painful to write.
"Having to go from being in love with my wife, and then going into the studio and having to write those lyrics, it was just sickening," he says. "But when I finally finished that song, and a few of the other songs, it was just such a relief. Suddenly I could take that, and it was encapsulated in something that I found beautiful."
But don't get the idea that Wincing the Night Away is some sort of total mope-fest. It's The Shins, after all, and nobody creates such immaculately crafted, simple, literate, sunny-yet-bittersweet pop songs as this New Mexico-born quartet. When Oh, Inverted World formally introduced The Shins to the world in 2001, the band — Mercer, keyboardist/guitarist/bassist Martin Crandall, bassist/guitarist Dave Hernandez, and drummer Jesse Sandoval — stood out as smart, sensitive, and sincere in a way that bypassed the usual irony and self-consciousness that had come to represent much post-collegiate independent music in America. Aside from the completely fetching songs, which attach themselves like a warm new corona, something about that album is surreptitiously weird and out-of-place, magical, and wonderful, sorta like Murmur was in '83. With its stinging power chords and ascending vocals nicked straight off the best solo album Pete Townshend's yet to make, "Kissing the Lipless" announced Chutes Too Narrow in 2003 as a fuller, more rocking follow-up for The Shins (by then based in Portland), and anyone who maintains it's not every bit as good as their debut simply has too much tofu in their diet. When The Shins' songs began gracing all the right TV shows and quirky films, you'd have been hard-pressed to find any smart young suburbia-bred girl or boy who wasn't totally in love with "New Slang," if not the band's entire output.
The concept of The Shins making mainstream headway with Wincing seems even more unexpected when you consider how unlike other current commercial rock acts the five of them (guitarist/pianist Eric Johnson of fellow Sub Pop act Fruit Bats recently joined as a touring member) really appear. They're middle-aged, they don't wear trendy threads or sport greasy black emo haircuts. They don't jump around in exaggerated unison on stage; in fact, they've been known to be a little dull in performance, frankly. But then I listen to Wincing the Night Away, and like each of their previous records, I hear so many songs that, to me, sound like total smash singles. Then again, I'm thinking more in an old-fashioned way. The tendency in modern pop music — and I'm referring to popular rock radio bombardment — is to be big, loud, dumb, and cluttered. The Shins have succeeded to an impressive extent by going in the opposite direction — they make fantastic, almost archaic pop songs that are low-key, subtle, intelligent, nuanced and earnest.
"I mean, I sometimes look around and feel like The Shins are just kinda all alone," Mercer laughs. "There's a bunch of other bands ripping each other off, and it's all sort of established as the status quo of coolness. ... And then there's The Shins, and yeah, we're just sort of anomalous. I guess I just hope that we don't sound so uncool to the 17-year-old out there that they won't even give it another listen. I don't know," he says jokingly. "It's possible!"
Jeff Clark publishes the Atlanta-based music monthly Stomp & Stammer magazine (www.stompandstammer.com). Portions of this story appeared in Clark's feature in January.