The Shins Can Take a JokeSeptember 26th, 2011
The Shins – The Bowery Ballroom – September 25, 2011
Venture a look into the vaguely wounded visage of James Mercer—the soft, tight-knit eyes, a curious combination of a furry Moby and a less self-important Kevin Spacey. From the moment of his band’s inclusion on the 2003 Garden State soundtrack, Mercer carried the weight of the indie-rock universe: praise, stereotype, epithet, all of it. Seeing him now, it had to wear on him, and even the most glib reading of the Shins’ last album title, Wincing the Night Away, would offer as much. Mercer openly admitted to insomnia during the round of interviews that accompanied the disc. It risked being a bad joke. He was, after all, an institution, and one that needed to equally hold our affection and our sarcastic disdain. So, for his first run of live shows in nearly four years, the songwriter strode to the stage at a very sold-out Bowery Ballroom trying to figure out if any of this was to be recaptured or if being a big enough deal to be picked upon alone was, in and of itself, enough.
Mercer winked at any burden of being in a band that launched a thousand others, opening with “Caring Is Creepy,” the song that Zach Braff ensured nearly every high school and college student of the early 2000s would have an opinion about. The group moved methodically through “Australia,” “Mine’s Not a High Horse” and “Phantom Limb,” a mix of the jangly, glossy sounds that define where this band began and from where it has traveled. Sounding rehearsed and tight, this vastly different version of the Shins (Mercer fired the drummer and had creative differences with the rest) than the one that recorded the previous record, featured the very excellent Jessica Dobson on rhythm guitar, an improvement by any measure.
In the spirit of return, the Shins folded a few new songs from a record due early next year into the middle of the set. But each time, Mercer returned to familiar material, in one three-song sequence playing the beautiful “Saint Simon,” with its line about blue-eyed girls, “Girl on the Wing” and “Know Your Onion.” The set closed with “New Slang,” a pathological pop song that bookended any movie-soundtrack jokes (this writer’s included), and “Girl Inform Me,” replete with a prog-rock inspired jam. Mercer cracked a smile that registered just between a wry laugh and knowing that there is power in being someone’s punch line. —Geoff Nelson