Photo by Brian Tamborello

The Shins are generating much heat. You need only look at these shaggy popsters’ inclusion on scads of year-end Top 10 lists. Or notice that they’re doing press in London over the weekend. Or consider the near impossibility of getting singer James Mercer on his cell while he’s running riot in Times Square. You see, he just finished taping for Late Night With David Letterman. “That was surreal,” a polite young voice says over a reedy connection. “I grew up with Letterman. I’ve been watching that show since I was 9 years old.” But for the local angle on the buzz, when’s the last time an indie band that wasn’t the White Stripes sold out a double gig a month before the show date in this town? Not bad for a motley crew of college dropouts who still have no manager and no tour bus, and signed with Sub Pop because no other label was interested.

Oh, and they’re from that overgrown truck stop known as Albuquerque. Or at least they were before they all moved to Portland, but Mercer’s not one to get hung up on the whole hometown thing. “I lived there longer than any other place in my life, but I’m actually from all over. But as long as people think that’s interesting to talk about, that’s good for the band, so I won’t stop them.”

But the real question: Is the attention warranted? On 2001’s Oh, Inverted World, Mercer’s tremulous voice and the paisley shimmer of guitars, organ and Aquarian harmonies were a slice of psych-pop bliss that more than made up for the broken promise of Apples in Stereo and like-minded backward-gazers Neutral Milk Hotel. That said, last year’s Chutes Too Narrow just might be the band’s White Album. First off, the production quality leaps off the disc. Second, the ’60s-Brit-invasion vibe perfected on the last record is still there on Chutes, but it’s shot through with punk snarl and rock directness. Finally, Mercer’s lyric skill at wedding allegorical daring to painful candor has come to fruition: “I know there is this side of me/That wants to grab the yoke from the pilot and fly the whole mess into the sea,” he crows on “Young Pilgrims.” Mercer’s not reinventing indie rock’s themes, just shuffling them around a bit. “I’m trying to put together as uniquely as I can something that people are always talking about anyway — a relationship that didn’t go very well, or changes in your life — but without clichés.”


The Shins’ aural ambrosia is especially impressive in light of Mercer’s random influences: Steve Miller; Echo and the Bunnymen; Webb Pierce. That last name is significant: Country is in the blood, and what with the twangy tracks that close out Chutes, there are hints of what we may see more of if and when the Shins do a third album. “My dad was a country & western singer in nightclubs and stuff, so there were a lot of times I was there watching him play, and play it in the house, too. It was kinda the backdrop to everything . . . something about the structure of that old Western music has helped me to relax as far as the way I structure songs — and I think it’s an improvement.” This newfound simplicity is a far cry from Oh, Inverted World’s Malkmus-like cynicism, displayed in torturous lines like “One day I’ll be wondering how I got so old just wondering how/I never got cold wearing nothing in the snow,” from “Caring Is Creepy.” “Nothing kills a conversation faster than talking about something you actually give a shit about,” he explains of the title. “At least in a lot of circles or at a party, and so I was thinking how strange that is.”

These days, however, the band have more important things to worry about than coming across as uncool, like “be conscious and be aware and try and make sure we practice well and keep writing good songs — that’s the load of responsibility I’ve got on me now. There’s nothing worse than, you know, like you might disappoint somebody, and right now it seems like the more fans we get, the more people I have the opportunity to disappoint.”

The Shins play the Henry Fonda Theater on Thursday and Friday, February 5 and 6.

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