Thursday, May 21
The Shins are in flux, possibly gravely so. After the first night of their current tour, blogs were abuzz to discover keyboardist Marty Crandall and drummer Jesse Sandoval–who’d been with the band at least since they were called Flake Music in the late ’90s–had been replaced by pod people named “Ron Lewis” and “Joe (the?) Plummer.” James Mercer didn’t do himself any favors in his unflattering explanation to Pitchfork a few weeks back: “I started to have production ideas that I wanted to do that basically required some other people…It’s an aesthetic decision.” In a possibly related aesthetic decision, he’s also ditching Sub Pop to put out the next Shins album on his own (“because you get more money”).
Aptly, last night’s performance at Terminal 5 could be summed up with “because you get more money.” For one, 2001’s masterful”Girl Inform Me” is under two minutes long, but a decade later has been injected with ‘roid rage, some arena-rock dynamics that aren’t necessarily bad, but just feel wrong for it. The live experience is kindest to the looser, expansive songs that aren’t exactly their best: the funky, Beck-ish art-rock of “Sea Legs” gains a mutant heaviness a la Girls Against Boys, and the experimental “Red Rabbits” made over with organ instead of Wincing the Night Away‘s burble-synths successfully assimilates one of the newer, more difficult Shins songs into their classic sound. This may not all be Mercer’s fault. The possible fiery deathtrap/overstuffed venue has the worst sound in New York to these ears, muddying Mercer’s few and far between attempts at stage presence, garbling what may have been charming asides between increasingly microwave-melted tunes. The highlight of the evening was bringing in a violin player to reprise the gorgeous accompaniment “Saint Simon” (and two lesser tunes).
To be fair, it’s hard to expect much from the Shins onstage, considering their hardlined studio-bound aesthetic and intricacy of their songs. Their first two records, barely half an hour apiece, are among my favorites of the millennium and Mercer’s chord changes are mostly unparalleled. But they’re also shy and with an affected timelessness not made for the revealing nature of a live show: “New Slang”‘s otherworldly woos lose their haunted campfire appeal when the diminutive Mercer is crooning them directly at you.
Thusly, most of the evening was money, from stiff professionalism to barely playing a whole hour to poor set choices–find me someone in that room who wanted to hear the dirge-y “Past and the Pending” but not “So Says I,” or any one of the unplayed 7/10ths of Chutes to Narrow for that matter. It’s churlish to grumble about this stuff, but when the whole of their full-length output barely passes the two-hour mark, the number of fan favorites they didn’t play showed they’re either extraordinarily weary of their best songs or extraordinarily bad setlist curators: “Australia,” “Kissing the Lipless,” “So Says I,” “Girl Sailor,” “Young Pilgrims.” Only Oh, Inverted World seemed to be plucked with any kind of reverence. It would also help if the new songs played were even as good as the Chutes/World-era B-sides–and why not sprinkle in some Flake Music? They were scrappy-vibrant–like There’s Nothing Wrong With Love-era Built to Spill–and Mercer’s said those tracks have been remixed for re-release in the near future. These complaints are pestering, and maybe I’m just a disillusioned fan, but Wincing the Night Away should not be prophetic.
140 characters or less: Great songs, but these Shins need to have their reflexes checked. Nyuck.