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Song-o-Scope: This Shins’ “Port of Morrow”

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When you hear The Shins breakout tune “New Slang” back to back with this track, it’s almost a joke that “New Slang” hasn’t been completely eclipsed by now, considering the increasingly insane songwriting skills James Mercer has flaunted in each album since then. Wincing the Night Away, partially recorded in Elliott Smith’s Portland home, has an inexplicable Smiths-like feel to it. The album Port of Morrow, named for a thought-provoking road sign in Oregon, brings up all kinds of new ideas. The melody and lyrics to “It’s Only Life” can bring a knot to your throat, and the chorus of “40 Mark Strasse” opens up like an ocean of sweet pancake syrup. But by far the most interesting direction the Shins have taken yet is the album’s title track, which sticks out like a purple tree growing in the Redwood Forest. Weird, watery opening. Strange, alien instrumental shrieks and moans. Heroin-esque Velvet Underground bass. Not an acoustic guitar in sight.

Mercer starts the verse sounding kind of like a female blues singer from the ‘20s. Then as he moves into the pre-chorus, he sounds damn near like John Lennon. Still no traditional New Mexico Shins-y-ness, just a haunting aura of superstition that might frighten children and the elderly. The subtle low-end doubling on parts of the vocals do a lot to seriously build up the track’s freakiness. Lyrics like “I saw a photograph, Cologne in ’27 / And then a postcard after the bombs in ’45 / Must have been a world of evil clowns that let it happen / And then I recognized … you were there and so was I” add an air of ominous terror, like this particular song foreshadows the end of the world. Is it a coincidence that Mercer wrote it while pondering death, inevitability, and doorways into the netherworld? “Life is death is life” … I think not.

Now imagine this song live, when its languid, staring menace is replaced by louder, even more menacing guitar sounds and a chorus that jumps out at you like a huge, black cat. If most Shins songs make you feel better, this one is here to make you terrified.

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Written by Peter Kimmich

November 29th, 2012 at 3:18 pm

When Acoustic Covers Amount to Masturbation

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snideAs Einstein once said, the secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.

In other words, if no one can figure out where your inspiration came from, then whatever masterpieces you’ve created are attributed directly to you, making you a creative genius.

Musically speaking, a band can take full advantage of this axiom, if they’re clever enough to weave together a collage of influences to create a sonic concoction to which no one can point and say “hey, that sounds just like that Black Rebel Motorcycle Club song.” If you can do that, then sweet, you’ve created an original piece of work.

Or this axiom can be the sword your unimaginative ass falls on after you plunk your way through some mainstream guitar ballad everybody has already heard, turning down-tuned F7 chords into open Es and ad-libbing from Internet-sourced lyrics before pressing it onto 40,000 silver discs and littering the sidewalks of Hollywood with hopeful, paper-wrapped debris.

When it comes to acoustic covers, it’s a tough call which side you’re going to fall on. It seems to come down to whether your aim is to discover a new aspect to someone else’s song that no one might have noticed yet, striving to capture it with only your burning, tortured soul, a minimal of instrumentation and countless nearly perfect takes. Or…whether your aim is to realize your teenage fantasy about banging out your favorite band’s song on a plastic-backed Ovation, hoping the girl you were crushing on in high school has a radio in her cold, lonely trailer park home and suddenly notices you after all these years, and finally contacts you through your Myspace account. On which you’ve had said song posted in hopeful anticipation for the last eight months.

Thus, there are good acoustic covers and bad ones. The line is thin, it doesn’t take much to cross it, and once you have, you’re either a creative genius or Bright Eyes.

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