The first incarnation of the Shins was always incredibly awkward. It was during the great indie rock gold rush of the new century that they toured relentlessly around their first three albums, from 2002-2007. I saw them several times back then, both at small, 200-person clubs and larger theaters, and I always left with the same two thoughts about what made them so inept: James Mercer was incredibly shy and insecure on stage, and their bassist/keyboardist Marty Crandall told terrible jokes in between songs. His cracks weren’t friendly band-to-crowd banter, either. They were the comments you heard a friend make at a party, before running to the bathroom in humiliation-by-proxy. I sensed Mercer felt the same way.
So after five years and Crandall’s (along with drummer Jesse Sandovol’s) departure from the band, I was curious to see what the new Shins offered that the old Shins didn’t. Mercer and crew’s recent clapping butter video for Funny or Die, this giant rabbit video for “Rifle Spiral” and his participation in Marc Maron’s WTFcast suggests that he a sense of humor, reserved for a controlled setting like the internet, and not the live setting where you can still get heckled.
I watched the band cap a three-night run at New York’s cavernous Terminal 5, where they tore through songs from all four albums, never leaning too heavily on newer Port of Morrow material. The hits were played: “New Slang,” “So Says I” and “Saint Simon,” of course, but these songs were allowed to just exist without any band thoughts fed to you in between. Maybe because there’s no stooge on stage, or maybe because Mercer now has 10 years of professional touring behind him (not just with this band, but with the much lauded Broken Bells project with Danger Mouse), but he’s now more confident, relaxed and doesn’t have to pause between numbers. The music takes on a winding, psychedelic tinge at times and Mercer’s voice is a bit rough around the edges. When he tries to hit those “So Says I” high notes, he even comes off a bit angry. But the nonstop run through songs is key. Before, emoting on stage ran the risk of getting made fun of after. Now he’s free to show a few warts without fear of bad band banter. This suits Mercer and the Shins music well. Their music always had a syrupy quality to it. You want to mainline this indie pop, never pausing between fixes.