Shins evolve beyond Slang

Port of Morrow, the indie rock band's first album in five years, has a more synth-heavy, orchestrated sound

IN CONCERT

What: The Shins (with Washed Out)

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When: Sunday, 8 p.m.

Where: The Royal Theatre

Tickets: $49.50 at rmts.bc.ca or 250-386-2161.

Eight years have passed since Natalie Portman shared her giant headphones with Zach Braff in collegiate hit film Garden State and told him, "You gotta hear this one song, it'll change your life."

People still can't seem to talk about The Shins, who play the Royal Theatre Sunday, without referencing the period when New Slang was at its height. But the band behind that quirky, understated track, which helped catalyze the flood of indie-rock into the mainstream, has undergone some moderately hefty changes since that time. Change is something that frontman-visionary James Mercer, who has led the group since its formation in 1996, says is part of his motivation.

"I put pressure on myself to try and change a bit," he said. And while it's never been drastic a Shins album is easily recognizable - he admires that kind of gear-switch in others. "I love that, when artists do that. I think maybe that's what drives me to feel like I need to kind of develop in some direction, you know."

The most noticeable changes with Port of Morrow, The Shins' first album in five years, are its more synth-heavy, orchestrated sound, as well as the fact that Mercer has shuffled his bandmates.

But the years since 2007's Wincing the Night Away - which built on Oh, Inverted World from 2001 and Chutes Too Narrow in 2003 - have also been a time for growing up and settling in for Mercer. On one hand, he has stretched his creative muscles, most notably through a musical collaboration under the name Broken Bells with producer Brian Burton a.k.a. Danger Mouse (Gnarls Barkley, Danger Doom). On the other, he also settled into his new married life and had two daughters. (At the time of the interview, he was buying a mop at Home Depot near his home in Portland and had recently dropped his eldest off to her first day of kindergarten, if that tells you anything.)

The result is a more direct, lyrical style on songs like September, written for his wife. In other words less angsty.

"On this record I'm not looking inward and sort of whining about relationships as much," he said.

Part of the earlier angst came from romantic relationships that would fall apart somehow, he said. But it also stemmed from his relationship with bandmates, especially with the change they experienced transitioning from collaborative project Flake Music in the late-1990s to The Shins, on which Mercer would take the helm.

"I was supposed to be the boss and that was sort of a difficult role for me to fill. But then again, I was the one who gave a sh-t the most, and so you end up having to fill that role," he said. "All of those things have sort of changed now and I'm in a much better place."

He's no longer dealing with the acrimony of that kind of transition, he said. "I can focus on different parts of my life and different parts of life in general. So I think it's broadening the scope of the songs, you know."

Port of Morrow has seen Mercer officially release long-term keyboardist Marty Crandall and drummer Jesse Sandoval, although they can still be heard on parts of the album. That's not to say he has a sour relationship with his old bandmates they're working to release a compilation of Flake singles on Mercer's new label, Aural Apothecary, next year. It was just time for a change.

In their places are drummer Joe Plummer of Modest Mouse and keyboardist Ron Lewis of Grand Archives and the Fruit Bats. Singer-songwriter Richard Swift, Yuuki Matthews of Crystal Skulls and guitarist Jessica Dobson fill out the current lineup. He also recruited Grammy Awardwinning producer Greg Kurstin who he said worked magic on one of his tracks in just half an hour.

"You're trying to find someone who shares your esthetic, who's doing something that you get and you figure they'll get you," he said.

Though Mercer is the heart of The Shins, and his bandmates may rotate, he says he never considered going solo.

"I just don't like the concept of it. I like the idea of a band," he said.

Plus, he seems to get something from each collaboration. Burton challenged him to use his voice in new and bigger ways with Broken Bells, which they'll return to in November, as well as expanding his vision.

"Brian just has a great attitude about music. He doesn't let preconceived notions get in his way," Mercer said.

"I think I took a lesson from that, too."

asmart@timescolonist.com

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