Now, I've been quite a huge Shins fan since Oh! Inverted World as a word geek, any group that uses SAT words such as "eviscerate" in lyrics (cough, "You are the Everything") will prick up my ears even if Chutes Too Narrow is by far my favorite album. And to be honest, I had low expectations for the show, especially since the only other time I saw the Portland press darlings (several years ago at CMJ in New York), I was pretty underwhelmed/bored. But I was pleasantly surprised and often moved by the band's nearly 90-minute gig for starters because it was probably one of the best-sounding concerts I've ever attended at the Pageant, right up there with last year's awe-inspiring Sigur Ros gig.
The band's new CD, Wincing the Night Away, is a subtle, headphone-appropriate album full of flourishes that could easily lose nuance in a cavernous concert hall. But from the opening synth shimmers of "Sleeping Lessons" to the criss-crossed harmonies of "Australia" and downcast jangle of "Phantom Limb" coincidentally, which were the first three full songs of the set the band's ability to capture and replicate the rich atmospheres of its studio output was rather impressive. Tracks from Narrow and World were equally whimsical and rich with ornate detail: "la-la-la" vocal melodies on "Saint Simon," wake-up-it's-morning sunrise choruses of "Kissing the Lipless," the windchime keyboard trills showered over "Caring Is Creepy," the rollicking R.E.M.-isms of "So Says I."
Even better were the honey-sweet vocals from James Mercer, who's the rare singer that sounds exactly the same whether live or in the studio. On Shins albums, he pours his heart out in a choirboy-innocent yelp crackling with equal parts heartache and optimism; live, this same juxtaposition bursts to life and becomes nearly reverent in tone. For instance, the group's been fond of slowing down the ubiquitous "New Slang" live lately and while I'm not a huge fan of it now, the brooding version last night (which featured a near-dark stage, and lights that lit up Mercer's face from below and vocals from Viva Voce's Anita Robinson) enhanced the song's hymn-like qualities and actually changed the song's emotional impact: Lose the desperate urgency of the strummy original, replace it with quieter resignation.
In fact, the band was at its best last night in introspective moments, largely because of the fabulous sound. The highlight for me was "A Comet Appears," the final song on Wincing. It's a simple arrangement, with faint vocals from Robinson and mournful organ fading in the background to Mercer's clear-as-a-bell singing and in concert, the lyrics abstractly describing what seems to be heartbreak ("Every post you can hitch your faith on / Is a pie in the sky / Chock full of lies / A tool we devise / To make sinking stones fly / And still to come / The worst part and you know it / There is a numbness / In your heart and it's growing") were simply beautiful and moving, the type of poetry every aspiring writer would kill to produce.
I can see why critics chastise the Shins for being boring live. There's nothing flashy about their stage setup a backdrop of the amoeba-like creatures on the Wincing cover, dotted at times by suns and twinkling, firefly-esque lights and nothing very exciting about stage banter or movement save for some exuberant hopping around and plenty of humble shout-outs to St. Louis. (The exception to this rule was keyboardist Marty Crandall, who was having his own little party behind the synths by jumping around with a big, giant grin on his face, like a five-year-old digging into Halloween candy.)
But these barbs are unfair; finding a person that goes to a Shins show to rage is like having high tea at a Korn show. The band's music is inherently intimate, almost best listened to in solitude, or at least absorbed in such a way within the self that it becomes a personal, private experience and so anything to disturb this is too much of a distraction. It's difficult to accomplish living-room-style coziness in a room with 2000+ other people, but the Shins pulled it off.
For your viewing amusement, "Caring Is Creepy" from the Chicago show on Saturday night: