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Mull This Over

Pop music gets a kick in the Shins

By Davina Baum

THE SHINS' Oh, Inverted World (SubPop) bursts into being with a swirling, magical song called "Caring Is Creepy." With a light whistling and frontman-songwriter James Mercer plaintively declaring, "I think I'll go home and mull this over/ Before I cram it down my throat," the Shins are off to the races.

The race in this case is not a fast one, not a frothing-at-the-mouth, jumping-up-and-down, legs-akimbo kind of thing. The Shins fall more onto the tortoise side of the equation: humble, slow but steady.

The Albuquerque-based band coalesced into its current incarnation in 1997, picking up the pieces from Flake and the subsequent Flakemusic. Same people playing different instruments under a different name: Mercer, Marty Crandall, Neal Langford and Jesse Sandoval have played together for 10 years all told, and they're tight.

Mercer answers his phone in a Washington, D.C., hotel room, speaking in a quiet, subdued voice. He calls the Shins "sort of a rock & roll band, a pop band." That very general label is true, certainly helpful to an ignorant record-store clerk trying to figure out which bin to file the album in.

But in the overcast sky of rock-pop bands, the Shins shine through. They've been compared to the Kinks, and they possess the sunny disposition and pop sensibilities of the Brian Wilson era, but the Albuquerque desert adds a wistful dryness. Mercer says, "The city definitely provided a backdrop as I was writing those songs and influenced them in some way--it's all pretty subconscious." He goes on to say that comparisons to bands like the Kinks are "nice. [They're] flattering. I'm happy to be associated with that sound."

Associations continue into the present. The Shins could succeed on the strength of Mercer's voice, as distinctive as Neutral Milk Hotel's Jeff Mangum's or the stunningly beautiful off-key whine of Damien Jurado. But a man with a voice is not a rock & roll band, and the three other band members go above and beyond to forge a cohesive sound, sometimes letting Mercer speak for himself, other times (more successfully) taking their place on equal footing.

"Weird Divide," with its lazy, sticky guitar, is a cowboy song at heart, something to sing around the campfire after tying up the hoss, but the Shins take the tune to the city, dressing it up with a twangy, Latin-inflected bridge and humming, lush vocals.

Mercer says that his idea of the perfect pop song is "one that's really well crafted, about three minutes long, has interesting verses, chorus and a really nice bridge." His studies into the phenomenon have paid off. "Know Your Onion!" is a jubilant song of self-discovery, whereas "New Slang" walks along the shady side of the street, a beautiful song about unrequited love that contemplates, "And if you'd 'a took to me like/ a gull takes to the wind/ well, I'd 'a jumped from my tree/ and I'd 'a danced like the king of the eyesores/ and the rest of our lives would 'a fared well."

The band is on tour with Preston School of Industry, Scott Kannberg's (formerly of Pavement) new endeavor. Mercer acknowledges some rock-star hijinks--like hanging all the furniture in one venue's green room from the ceiling. He claims that the Beatles and Abba are getting a lot of play in the van. "We like the hits like everybody else," he says.

The Shins play with Preston School of Industry and the Moore Brothers on Nov. 24 in San Francisco at the Great American Music Hall, 859 O'Farrell. (866.468.3399)

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From the November 22-28, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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