Oh, it's been awhile. It's been years, actually, since the `60s-influenced lo-fi indie pop of Chutes Too Narrow was a novelty, a fresh breath of innovative chord progressions and simple arrangements. It's been years even since an annoying Natalie Portman told a whiny Zach Braff that "New Slang" would change his life. So what's changed? Where have the Shins been? Where are they going with this new album? And what's new? What have they brought with them?
The short answer? Lesbians and a mad hip-hop beat.
Hold on, that didn't come out right.
But it is true.
Our favorite Portland by-way of Albuquerque boys (ha, I just ripped that line out of Rolling Stone and a bunch of other crappy magazines who all seem to use it) have taken a few years, it seems, to re-imagine their formula and recording techniques and musical arrangements. This is most apparent on opener "Sleeping Lessons," which opens with a sci-fi/underwater keyboard riff with an affected microphone fer th' singin'. And then it builds into a full sounding uptempo little ditty. "Australia" follows with moving bass lines and layers of acoustic guitars with reverbed electric lines dancing on top of it all. But essentially, both songs would have fit fine on either Chutes Too Narrow or Oh, Inverted World. The only difference is the hugeness imposed by the band's choices in production quality.
Now, I know what you're all thinking. You're all thinking, "Jesse, what about the lesbians and the hip-hop?"
Hold on, I'm getting there. After a quick fuzzy guitar and singing interlude titled "Pam Berry," we get on down and dirty with "Phantom Limb," probably the most recognizable as a Shins tune on the album with its doo-wop beat and tambourine-heavy two-and-four snare hit. Imagine some lazy strummed out electric guitar (á la the original version of "That Thing You Do" from the movie of the same name before that drummer dude sped it up) and a third-person tale about young lesbian lovers, and you've got yourself a hit single! And after what is probably the most predictable Shins song, we get hit in the face with "Sea Legs," featuring strings, a phat beat and flute tones just funky enough for Beck to sing about self-loathing in Spanglish. Is this a bad thing? No. Is this what we expected from the Shins? No. Do I like the song? Well...let's just say I will eventually.
They get quiet later on with songs like "Red Rabbits" and "Black Wave," satisfying the acoustic tributes to themselves, and they rev things up a bit with "Split Needles" and the could-have-been-a-Righteous-Brothers-hit "Girl Sailor" but gone is the reckless abandon that carried them through songs like "So Says I" from past albums. Instead, the songs are tight and controlled, well-thought out and extremely planned.
Sandwiched between all those songs, however, is perhaps the best song the Shins have to offer on this album, "Turn on Me," taking the best melodies of their past and mixing them with their new found appreciation for tight, stiff arrangements and mirrored little riffs that both guitars and drums and bass follow. This is a new Shins, calm and concentrated.
The album closes with "A Comet Appears," a song free from drums but not from finger-pickin' rhythms and some of the best James Mercer vocal melodies. And that's it. 11 songs, just over 40 minutes. But 11 great songs. The Shins have done a great job capturing the attention of America, but it's easy to see why. They bring a hint of nostalgia and classic songwriting with oodles of fantastic melody to a new age where indie rock bands get major billing on major labels and movie soundtracks can rocket your next release to number two on the Billboard charts. And for once, I agree with those other crappy music magazines. This is a fine, fine album.