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November 18, 2003

Mercer and the Shins come into their own on stage and on the indie scene

James Mercer is a slight man. What's scary is that he's the tallest member of his band, the Shins, and he only comes up to about my shoulder. Now, I am pretty tall (exactly 74 inches in stocking feet—I just had myself measured), but I guess I was expecting Mercer to have a more formidable, less unassuming presence when we met at the House of Blues this past Saturday. I mean, here he is, the frontman of one of the hottest indie rock bands around, about to play to a sold-out crowd at a venue that dwarfs the site of his previous Chicago shows (Schubas), and he has to come fetch me in the lobby when security won't let me upstairs. What kind of a rock star is he, anyway?

The answer is, of course, that he's a sincere and genuinely humble one, and he went out of his way to talk to me, the lowly college journalist. When we met, about an hour and a half before the first opener took the stage, just two members of the quartet had arrived; drummer Jesse Sandoval was doing soundcheck while Mercer was awaiting a phone call from lost bandmates Marty Crandall and Dave Hernandez. This epidemic of Shins scattered to the winds did not bode well for a kick-ass show. But, as I soon learned, this has become a way of life for the group, as they must work to be on the same page in all senses of the phrase.

All four current Shins are natives of Albuquerque, New Mexico, a city that has, to put it kindly, a negligible music scene. "It's a rough town," says Mercer. "The freakin' mayor would admit that." Before they were the Shins they were Flake and then Flake Music, the name under which they released their lone LP, When You Land Here, It's Time to Return, in 1997. Mercer became interested in making music in the spirit of the bands that he had grown up with, so Flake Music's sunny guitar pop was refined to a sometimes psychedelic, sometimes somber, always faithful homage to the Beatles and the Beach Boys. The transformed Flake Music became the Shins, named after a song on When You Land Here

After releasing a few singles under their new name, the Shins were noticed by Sub Pop executives while on a tour stop with Modest Mouse in San Francisco. The band was signed to the Seattle-based label, and they released their debut, Oh, Inverted World, in June of 2001. The album was a modest success commercially and hugely successful with the critics, setting up high expectations for the Shins' second album. Fortunately, Chutes Too Narrow, released in October, has brought the Shins to the heights of semi-fame, as indicated by the packed House of Blues, an album that is climbing the charts, and enough hype to kill an elephant.

These days, the band members live in three different cities: Albuquerque, Seattle, and Portland, Oregon, which is the defacto Shins Central (aka where James Mercer lives). They have changed their sound, their name, and even their band members, as current Shins guitarist and bassist Dave Hernandez has returned for a second engagement with the band after the departure of Neal Langford. But all this change has put the Shins exactly where they want to be, as they are a band that has been allowed to evolve until it has hit creative and commercial paydirt. "It's more than I'd hoped," says Mercer of the band's current album sales. "It's really cool." Of course, with high commercial expectations come certain privileges, such as having your band name first on the concert bill. "It's a lot more fun to headline shows," says Mercer.

The band's performance on Saturday night proved they were capable of headlining a venue as large as the House of Blues. After pop-punk trio Broadcast Oblivion (fronted by Hernandez) opened the show, the Aislers Set introduced the Shins retro vibe. Upon taking the stage, the Shins lit into "Pressed in a Book," the most straightforward rocker on their debut album.

Although the tune chugs along nicely on record, in concert the song reached another level entirely. Ditto for every song the Shins played in a set that hit on both LP's, some rarities, and some new songs. On stage, the Shins' rounded sonic edges were slightly scuffed, Mercer's delicate tenor often strained in an edearing way, and the band members, especially keyboardist Marty Crandall, exuded a palpable exuberance. Overall, though, they were simply louder.

Although the Shins turned the volume up to 11 on each song, except for the occasional ballad, their gift for melody and wittily abstract lyrics remained intact. You can chalk this up to gifted musicianship, but especially to James Mercer, who is the band's main arranger and lyricist. "I think to myself, ‘What is the sentiment of this song?'" says Mercer, and then tries to be, as he says, "as original as I can" when writing. Although his lyrics appear to most as little more than elegantly surrealistic poetry, Mercer insists that they actually mean something to him, that there is meaning in his obscurity.

Chutes Too Narrow shows the Shins at the height of their creativity and popularity. "I get really bored with something really quick," says Mercer, which explains the album's diversity and sonic polish as compared to the "one palette" of Oh, Inverted World. It is no coincidence perhaps that the band's innovative peak is approaching just as their popularity is reaching new altitude. On Saturday they appeared to be a band fully confident in its abilities, and content with their current position in the music world. Life is also good for the unassuming rock star, who has cozied up to the indie scene in Portland (a "friendlier" town than Albuquerque, he says), and is "very happy" with his girlfriend. "I wouldn't mind living a normal life," says Mercer. But, then again, you "always want to be appreciated." The pleasure's all mine, James.