The Shins | The Antlers | Deep Sea Diver June 4, 2012 The Pageant
"Should I be surprised at the amount of fist-pumping happening in the audience?" I wondered to myself last night on the Pageant floor during the Shins first song of the night, "Phantom Limb," from 2007's Wincing the Night Away. It was momentarily jarring until frontman James Mercer reminded me halfway through the song that, "This is that foreign land with the sprayed-on tans/And it all feels fine," a bit of that nonsense (or non-sequitur?) lyricism that exists with many an indie band but is omnipresent for the Shins. Mercer and co. released a new album in March titled Port of Morrow, which is its first in five years. Fist-pump away, people of St. Louis: this band is back and deserves enthusiasm however you elect to express it.
The show began with two solid sets from indie rock tour support Deep Sea Diver and the Antlers. The former opened the evening at 8 p.m. with 30 minutes of pure shimmy-and-sashay song carried by frontwoman Jessica Dobson's rich vocals, though I suspect they would have sounded richer from my vantage point had the crowd been quieter and more respectful during the set. That same audience disregard prevailed through the ambient noise of the Antlers 40 minute set, during which the man standing next to me corrected his lady friend, "No, this is the Antlers. This isn't the Shins." I'm not sure how you confuse the Shins for the Antlers, a band whose spirit more closely resembles the dream pop of Beach House, but whatever. It all feels fine.
Early in the night, the floor and pit of the Pageant were saturated in a style expected of a sold-out show, and as usual, by the time the main attraction was prepped and ready to take the stage at 10 p.m., the assigned-seating in the balcony swelled to capacity, too. After easing the crowd into the set with "Phantom Limb" the band went straight into "Caring is Creepy," and my ears are still ringing from the collective squealing that rung in return -- If you were worried about her, it was at this moment that the lady next to me likely realized that this was the Shins. I get it. I saw that dollar-bin movie, too.
Now totally engaged, the room roared applause as the song curtailed and evolved into "Simple Song," the first single on Port of Morrow. The lights come up to reveal the stage backdrop is the album's cover art, a gothic scape that could be a monster atop a mountain or a haunted lighthouse protecting a dried-up sea. Musically the cuts from this record weave differently with the band's canon; they sound more contented, more polished, less bitter, less hopeless if not similarly non-sequitur -- in an interview with UK webzine Drowned in Sound Mercer says the album title has no particular meaning, and that he's never even visited the real Port of Morrow in Oregon. Those are just pretty, moody words strung together that fit a feeling.
Though the new work sets itself apart from the signature whimsy of Oh, Inverted World and Chutes Too Narrow it does flow more seamlessly with Wincing the Night Away tracks, allowing the audience to chart a progression before looping back around again. To wit: "Australia" from Wincing is followed by "Bait and Switch" from Port of Morrow followed by "Know Your Onion!" from Oh, Inverted World and then "Rifle Spiral" takes us back to the latest effort. Perhaps that balance is also due to Mercer and his band's flawless on-stage sound, which, even from the back row of the Pageant, sounded crisp, clean and recording-quality throughout.
It's also likely due to the locomotive speed and efficiency of the set, which included little crowd banter and a lot of spirited sound. Much has been made of James Mercer striking out on his own (and away from Sub Pop) after Wincing the Night Away with side project Broken Bells and reformatting the Shin's line-up, which currently includes Deep Sea Diver's Dobson on guitar, Modest Mouse's Joe Plummer on drums and bassist Yuuki Matthews of Crystal Skulls. If it seems like it's the James Mercer and the Shins show, it's probably because it's always been that.
Early fan favorites "Saint Simon," "So Says I," "Mine's Not a High Horse" and "Kissing the Lipless" carried the middle of the set, mingling off and on with new music. Before sleepy "Girl Sailor" from Wincing Mercer describes the song as being, "About a girl I had to break-up with. We've all been there." We've all also been there for the next song, "New Slang." Without a doubt, this song, more than any other the band played last night garnered the largest audience reaction. A communal crowd sing-along of "ooing" helped usher in the song, to which Jessica Dobson, Yukki Matthews and Richard Swift on keys (and intermittent maraca) also contributed. Though a quiet song on Oh, Inverted World, it somehow feels slower, more solemn, more magical live. This iteration, like the band itself, feels both fiercely familiar and foreign.
Loud flurries of applause praised "New Slang" and bled into the alleged last song of the night, the sparkling "Sleeping Lessons" with its steady build-up and bright, bursting refrain. A friend commented to me that the band should have played "Sleeping Lessons" earlier in the set, as the crowd really threw itself into the song, but to me it felt like the appropriate crescendo for a setlist that spiked and dove. And of course that wasn't really the last song.
After a brief stage exit the band returned to play three tracks, two new and one very old. First it's "September," a love song Mercer wrote for his wife that sounds so much sager and more stable than the lust songs that would have her buried her in the yard. Our last taste of Port of Morrow is the album's titular track, and our last glimpse of the Shins for the night reflects its firsts in playful, plucky "One By One All Day" from Oh, Inverted World, with an extended instrumental outro laced with "lalala's" that faded slowly till the song's last breath.
Personal Bias: I love the Shins in a way I imagine most 2012 twentysomethings came up loving them -- I know the words to every song from the band's first three albums and yet at the beginning of half the early songs I found myself wondering, "Is this one 'Fighting in a Sack?'"
Random Detail: James Mercer still looks like a young Kevin Spacey. I don't know how to feel about that.
Overheard: "This was the first song I ever made-out to!" during "Caring is Creepy."
Setlist: Phantom Limb Caring is Creepy Simple Song Australia Bait and Switch Know Your Onion! Rifle Spiral Saint Simon No Way Down Sphagnum Esplanade So Says I Mine's Not a High Horse 40 Mark Strasse Kissing the Lipless Girl Sailor New Slang Sleeping Lessons
Encore: September Port of Morrow One By One All Day