Port­land’s finest pop song­sters are scream­ing into an in­fi­nite, catchy abyss of their own mak­ing

Sharp - - EDITOR’S LETTER - By Alex Nino Gheciu

The orig­i­nal in­die rock­ers, The Shins, aren’t done se­duc­ing manic pixie dream girls just yet.

YOU CAN PIN­POINT THE pre­cise mo­ment in­die pop got gen­tri­fied: Natalie Port­man hands Zach Braff her head­phones in 2004’s Gar­den State, promis­ing him the jan­gly sway of The Shins’ “New Slang” will “change your life.” Soon after, the genre would go from word-of-mouth phe­nom­e­non to Bill­board-top­ping, Ap­ple-com­mer­cial-back­ing om­nipres­ence, and The Shins would leap from twee ob­scu­rity to Grammy-nom­i­nated favourite band of mopey dudes and their wannabe Manic Pixie Dream Girls every­where. “This Ger­man jour­nal­ist re­cently told me that in her col­lege days, they had a word for a cer­tain type of girl: Shins-y,” says lead singer/song­writer James Mercer. “She’s not to­tally square, but not to­tally hip ei­ther. She’s into mu­sic, but not so into mu­sic. Be­cause of Gar­den State, there were peo­ple who knew about The Shins who weren’t ex­actly hard­core mu­sic fans. And some fans will aban­don you at that point.”

So what does that band do in 2017, when in­die pop is ba­si­cally just pop (see: The 1975, Haim, The xx) and Bey­oncé is head­lin­ing Coachella? Ap­par­ently, just carry on like it’s the early aughts.

Heart­worms, The Shins’ lat­est, is a self-de­scribed “re­turn to the hand­made,” full of the strummy sing-alongs, di­a­mond-per­fect melodies, and lit-mag lyrics their devo­tees ini­tially fell for. It’s the first Shins al­bum self-pro­duced by Mercer since their 2001 de­but Oh, In­verted World — a not-so-sub­tle olive branch to fans who took is­sue with their last record’s pol­ished sheen. “I guess some sounds on Port of Mor­row sounded like proper mod­ern pro­duc­tion,” he ad­mits. “So my feel­ing, my gut, was there was a de­sire out there for The Shins to maybe not jump the shark.”

Of course, stay­ing rel­e­vant is hard. The traits defin­ing “in­die” 20 years ago (weird, ex­per­i­men­tal, po­ten­tially dis­con­cert­ing) are worlds apart from the ones defin­ing it to­day (slickly pro­duced, in­fec­tious, im­me­di­ately palat­able). Iron­i­cally, that trend — choos­ing melody over dis­so­nance — is one Mercer helped pop­u­lar­ize within the genre. He’s not overly proud of his mu­si­cal heirs: “[It’s in­die these days] if the front­man’s a re­ally hand­some guy, he can sing like a moth­er­fucker, and you’ve got a kickin’ beat behind there. It’s like tra­di­tional mod­ern pop mu­sic, and most of it isn’t my cup of tea.”

Maybe that sounds es­pe­cially cur­mud­geonly com­ing from a guy who’s never hid­den his pop sen­si­bil­i­ties (and is one-half of Bro­ken Bells, a side project with plenty a kickin’ beat.) Still, at least Mercer’s got the chops to war­rant the fist shak­ing: Heart­worms is a work of canorous mas­tery. It re­cap­tures the wist­ful, folksy airs of The Shins’ ear­lier work (“Milden­hall”), but up­dates it with off-kil­ter rhythms (“Paint­ing a Hole”) and odd elec­tronic flour­ishes (“Cherry Hearts”). This is in­die pop done Mercer’s way; proof that he’s still among the genre’s strong­est song­writ­ers, and more than ca­pa­ble of chang­ing your life.

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