My very limited knowledge of The Shins prior to watching them on Saturday Night Live a few weeks back was that they were the object of affection from Natalie Portman's character in the movie Garden State, where she proclaimed the band would "change your life, I swear". Their music in the film failed to have any such life-changing impact on me and other than thinking their name was pretty awful, I never paid much more attention, relegating them to the bin of undesirable hipster music that normally clashes with my own musical sensibilities (The Black Keys have recently taken up permanent residence there).
The Shins' first SNL performance was "Simple Song", the first single from their new Port Of Morrow album. I was immediately drawn in by its ultra-hooky melodies, even while being completely turned off by the band's dull performance style and massively unappealing visual aspect (as this photo demonstrates). Other than animated drummer Joe Plummer (I like the ones that really attack their kits), there seemed to be a real lack of stage presence and showmanship, combined with a drab wardrobe style that demonstrated the fashion sensibilities of a high school guidance counsellor. And I don't know what the deal was with keyboardist Richard Swift's creepy playground flasher look - that trench coat and the Phil Lynott-style coif need a rethink. This aesthetic deficiency would also appear to extend to The Shins' album art, as you can clearly tell by the butt-ugly Port Of Morrow cover; the covers for Shins album one, two, and three are no better. Am I being overly shallow about all of this? Probably, but pardon me for expecting a little more in a rock group's visual presentation.
So now that I've mostly crapped all over this Portland-based band, consisting of an almost entirely new lineup after frontman and lead singer/guitarist James Mercer fired the rest of the previous members, is their first album in five years any good? Not really. "Simple Song" is a stark anomaly on an otherwise mostly forgettable collection of songs that are rooted in a late 60s-era pop sensibility heavy on melodies; despite that influence, though, they also still manage to somehow feel mopey and depressing. I actually found the "Simple Song" versus-the-rest-of-the-album juxtaposition pretty fascinating - Mercer's great voice, a lively drum performance, some killer hooks, and an interestingly wonky keyboard line over the verses add up to one of the best songs I've heard in the past year, with a sound that instantly reminded me of The Who's poppier side circa the late 70s/early 80s. After that, however, the pickings are extremely slim, with only the catchy "No Way Down" and the ambitious "It's Only Life" making it to even a "decent" categorization. Album opener "The Rifle's Spiral" has more of an edge than most of the rest of the material, but can't fight its way past a one-dimensional song structure and "Bait And Switch" has a bossa nova/Santana feel that just feels out of place. Everything else on the album is slow, dreary pop-folk that should please the shoegazer crowd.
Next album around, I'll sample what The Shins are selling, based purely on the strength of that one great track. Unfortunately, the rest of Port Of Morrow works as little more than a great justification for illegal downloading.