The Shins with Real Estate @ The Tower Theater 5.3.12

by Erica Moser (Journalism), published May 11th 2012

It is difficult to predict what James Mercer, master of the three-minute indie pop song and front man of The Shins, will do next. Two years after the 2007 release of the band’s Wincing the Night Away, he effectively fired keyboardist Marty Crandall and drummer Jesse Sandoval, leaving fans confused as to the future of The Shins. In September of 2009, he formed the project Broken Bells with Danger Mouse. After a five-year hiatus, The Shins – with a new lineup – released Port of Morrow in March. Mercer performed at the Tower Theater in Upper Darby, Pa. last Thursday with bassist Yuuki Matthews, guitarist Jessica Dobson, drummer Joe Plummer and keyboardist Richard Swift.

Real Estate, a five-piece band from New Jersey, preceded The Shins with a rather lifeless performance. The Shins opened with “Caring is Creepy” and “Australia” before playing “Simple Song,” the single from their new album. Some of the best numbers – “Saint Simon,” “So Says I” and “Kissing the Lipless” – were from 2003’s Chutes Too Narrow.

The Shins have four solid, impeccably crafted albums, but their varying vibes make them difficult to reconcile in a live performance. The songs performed from Oh, Inverted World were the milestones – the songs considered their classics. The concert marked Chutes Too Narrow a critical part of their repertoire. The tracks played from Wincing the Night Away were a bit more upbeat and fun. And those from Port of Morrow show Mercer stepping in a different direction as he reflects back and hearkens to the future, providing some wise, more optimistic advice. At times, The Shins struggled to make these differing worlds sound cohesive.

Despite this and an inherent awkward quality (which was actually endearing), Mercer is a confident performer. His semi-frequent note changes show that he is both comfortable with his work and not simply going through the motions. While most bands always amp up their songs for live performances, some of The Shins’ numbers were markedly less energetic, with positive and negative results. Their weakest song was “Phantom Limb,” which was slowed down significantly and not as climactic at the chorus as on the album version. “New Slang” was also softer and slower, but it felt peaceful, almost romantic.

Conversely, many songs rocked harder. Mercer’s voice was less harnessed – in a good way – as he wailed out high notes. “Bait and Switch,” “The Rifle’s Spiral” and “One by One All Day,” the final encore, were all more upbeat and more rockin’ than their respective album versions. The highlight was “Sleeping Lessons,” the last number before the encore, during which Mercer was at his most tuned-in and the drums at the end were wild.

Overall, it was a solid, enjoyable concert. But as one of my favorite bands, I hold The Shins to high standards. The nature of their oft-ethereal music makes it better for listening to with eyes closed, alone somewhere, drifting into another world.

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