From a girl standing off to my side: "Well, like, I really only like that one song, New Slang.' You know, the one from the Garden State soundtrack?"
And the reply: "Oh, don't worry; all of the Shins' songs sound the same anyways!"
For those who came to the Congress Theatre last Thursday in order to catch a glimpse of the band that will "change your life," the show may have been an exercise in bandwagon riding. Those who were there to see the Shins, on the other hand, were treated to a musically solid, thoroughly entertaining performance.
It has been four years since various side projects in Albuquerque solidified into the Shins with the release of a full length album, Oh, Inverted World. Since then, the Shins have been to Chicago three times: first at the Double Door, next at the House of Blues, and, finally, last week at the Congress Theatre. Each performancethe last two to sold-out audienceshas marked a significant step up in venue size for the band. But the Shins have taken their increased popularity in stride. Pianist/guitarist/bassist Marty Crandall remarked during the show that they "need to get used to the larger stage." Singer/songwriter James Mercer also stayed on stage after the encore to talk to fans and sign autographs.
Aside from those all-so-lovable girls (who found it necessary to pay $30 to see a band they were only peripherally attracted to), the rest of the substantial audience enjoyed the dissonant yet extremely catchy pop sounds of the four-member group. While some bands submit to the lure of extensive fame and lose the spirit for their music, the Shins have not. Mercer's brooding stage presence was the best display possible of the content of his songs.
In "Young Pilgrims," off of Chutes Too Narrow (the Shins' second and latest release), Mercer reveals that he has this "Side of me that/ Wants to grab the yoke from the pilot and just/ Fly the whole mess into the sea." These sentiments, also portrayed in songs such as "Caring is Creepy" and "Saint Simon," reflect the exquisitely human struggle with despair. These reflections on knowledge ("Since I don't have the time nor mind to figure out/ The nursery rhymes that helped us out") and modern culture's effect on it ("After all these implements and texts designed by intellects/ So vexed to find evidently there's just so much that hides") remain in the onstage attitude of the band.
This is not to say that the Shins should be grouped with the whiny, suburban depressives that dominate your 16-year-old sister's playlist; the lyrics are meaningful and the music is still poppy at heart. Although many songs are played on acoustic guitar with a harmonica, light bass, keyboard, and drums, there are still many upbeat melody-driven songs"Girl Inform Me" and "Eating Sties from Elephants' Eyes," to name two. In these songs, Dave Hernandez's guitar riffs give the listener a chance to bob their heads and maybe even to sway (hipsters permitting). Crandall also brought an easy-going attitude into the show that added to the performance. During the encore he quipped that he "hadn't showered in how long has it been? Three days."
The choice of the Brunettes, a band from New Zealand, as the opening act was in line with this more whimsical side of the Shins. In their very first song, they symbolized the word "baby" (think the Village People's "YMCA") in rhythm to clapping, a clarinet, saxophone, banjo, triangles, and various other more traditional rock instruments. Oddly enough, the sound produced was a sing-along blend of '50s bubblegum and contemporary folk. Their set also included a tribute to Mary-Kate Olsen, which was made all the creepier by the Olsen twins masks they wore. After this somewhat surprising introduction, the Shins followed with their blend of garage and more mainstream attitudes.
For those who have passed over the Shins, listening to the music should be enough to change their minds. If not, how can you not respect a band whose keyboardist turns it up "to 11" on his amplifier during the show? As they've shown more than once in Chicago, the Shins are a fine-tuned band out to make meaningful alternative music that still retains a pop gloss.