Kicked in the Shins
Mr. Mercer's Mediocre Morrow

So I learned this week that the new Marillion album will include a song called “The Sky Above the Rain.”

This is how I live my life – collecting little tidbits about projects I’m looking forward to, each one either enhancing or dampening my anticipation. F’rinstance, I heard a rough mix of a tune from the new Choir album, and that’s dampened things a little bit for me. But having heard not a single note of “The Sky Above the Rain,” I’m beyond excited to experience it. Any fan of Marillion is probably imagining how breathtaking a Marillion song called “The Sky Above the Rain” could be. And I’m a pretty big fan.

Now, it’s entirely possible that this song will be terrible. I have no idea. But as someone who loves it when Marillion gets dreamy and epic, I’m taking it as a good sign that they’ve even come up with a song called “The Sky Above the Rain.” I want this to be a masterpiece. I want to float out of my brain listening to it. I want it to be a magical experience, and this is a band that delivers that on a regular basis. I know this is odd, but just the fact that the new Marillion album includes a song called “The Sky Above the Rain” has me even more thrilled to hear it.

Yes, this is my life.

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Next week, I’m posting my First Quarter Report, essentially my top 10 list in progress. While the list is constantly shifting, and I have no idea what will eventually make the top spot, I do, in essence, save spaces for albums coming out that I expect will blow me away. There are spots on this year’s list reserved for the Choir, Marillion, Keane and Aimee Mann, and those spots are theirs to lose. (Which, doubtless, some of them will.)

I’m not ashamed to admit I was holding a spot for the Shins. Their last album, 2007’s Wincing the Night Away, very nearly won the year, bested only by Silverchair’s incredible Young Modern. James Mercer has a fantastic voice, both as a singer and as a songwriter, and Wincing contains some of his very best work. Some argued that it was over-produced, spit-shined to within an inch of its life, but I disagree. I think it’s just shiny enough to be gleaming.

So I hope I can be forgiven for expecting the fourth Shins album, Port of Morrow, would similarly impress. And I’m sad to report that it doesn’t. In fact, it’s the worst album the band has made, an aggressively mediocre piece of work that may serve to establish them as mainstream indie-pop best-sellers, but won’t do much for the legions of fans hoping for more brilliant James Mercer songs. I’ve heard it three times now, and liked it more each time, but it’s still not rising above average for me, and that’s sad.

Granted, the odds were somewhat against it. Over time, the Shins have morphed into a solo project for Mercer, and this album is the product of a partnership between him and Greg Kurstin, of The Bird and the Bee. Kurstin is a pop producer, no getting around it, and he does to this album what many thought Joe Chicarelli had done to Wincing. There’s a slickness to the sound of this thing that can’t be ignored. This is the Shins dressed up and ready for the radio.

Which would be fine, if the songs were up to Mercer’s usual high standard. But with rare exceptions, they’re just not. By now you’ve all heard “Simple Song,” on which Mercer finds his inner Pete Townshend. It lives up to its title – the chords are simple, the melody singable yet unremarkable. It’s a likeable tune, a good first single. It’s also the album’s finest piece of music, and I was really hoping it wouldn’t be. Opener “The Rifle’s Spiral” is the second-best, and it pales in comparison.

The rest of it? Well, it’s not bad. It’s perfectly sturdy mainstream indie rock, which, in a just world, would be an oxymoron. I mean, there’s nothing particularly wrong with a sweet little ballad like “It’s Only Life,” but there’s nothing inspiring about it either. I can hear Taylor Swift singing this song with very little effort. Similarly, I wouldn’t say there’s anything terrible about a slice of mid-tempo acoustic shimmy like “No Way Down.” It sounds like one of the better tunes from the most recent Crowded House albums. It’s, well… it’s fine. It’s OK.

Lyrically, the record is similarly average, and it struggles to connect. The chorus of “For a Fool” is honestly “Taken for a fool, yes I was, because I was a fool.” (The song is a low-key ramble that meanders around for a while without ever taking off.) Most of these tunes concern “grown-up” subjects like love and family, and all of the obliqueness of Mercer’s prior lyrics has been pretty well sanded off. I hate to keep picking on this song, but you need look no further than “It’s Only Life” to see what I’m talking about. The best metaphor: “How will you learn to steer when you’re grinding all your gears?” One chorus: “I’ve been down the very road you’re walking now, it doesn’t have to be so dark and lonesome, takes a while till we can figure this thing out and turn it back around…”

Again, there’s nothing particularly wrong with that. As a sentiment, it’s nice. But like the song, it just kind of sits there. You may be wondering at this point just what I want. After all, this record is perfectly pleasant, and it even picks up by the end, with the Radiohead-esque title track. Had this not been the new Shins album, I may have cut it more slack.

But it is the new Shins album, and that sets these songs up against some of the more remarkable melodic wonders of the past decade. There’s nothing here on the level of “Girl Inform Me,” or “Caring is Creepy,” or Saint Simon,” or “Australia,” or even “A Comet Appears.” There are no songs here that set my mind reeling at their imaginative melodies, no songs that make me feel like I’m inches above the ground, singing along at the top of my lungs. In short, there is nothing here that, had I heard this record first, would have made me a Shins fan.

As I’ve said, this record is fine. It’s not bad. Your mileage may vary – you may end up liking it quite a bit more than I do. It certainly wants to be liked. But for me, it’s missing some crucial spark. Everything is in its right place here, but nothing sounds alive. I can’t help thinking that this is the way the execs at Columbia Records imagined a Shins album should sound, and Mercer made it to order. It’s not what I want from a Shins album, and it’s the first one I’m probably going to file away without revisiting any time soon.

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I’d definitely say the new Shins album is a more accomplished effort than the third White Rabbits record, Milk Famous. But I prefer the latter, for reasons I’m not sure I’ll be able to articulate.

White Rabbits are an interesting case study – they’re sort of a Spoon tribute band, yet fully sanctioned by the object of their affection. Their last album, the striking It’s Frightening, was produced by Spoon frontman Britt Daniel, while Spoon’s longtime producer Mike McCarthy manned the boards for Milk Famous. They have that same sort of staccato, bass-heavy, piano-pounding groove sound Spoon has, and when they’re on, they do it just about as well.

So why would we need this band, when we already have Spoon? Milk Famous goes some distance toward answering that question, particularly in the moments when it sounds the least like Spoon. A lot of this record is given over to really interesting moody soundscapes – check out the remarkably restrained “Hold It To the Fire,” with its dreamy, space-pop chorus. There isn’t much to it, but it changes things up every few seconds, and the effect is mesmerizing.

“Are You Free” works its one groove for three minutes, but in the process it weaves a spell of clean guitars and distortion. “Back For More” resurrects that evil Calypso sound this band did so well on their debut, with an added air of menace. And “The Day You Won the War” is just awesome, a Beatlesque pianos-and-drums explosion with some tremendous lead guitar lines. Not many hooks here, but a definite display of power and grace.

Granted, there are several songs that sound like Daniel’s band, but when White Rabbits adopt this style, they do it fantastically well. Check the slinky-spare “Everyone Can’t Be Confused,” based around a catchy one-finger piano part, or the infectious single “Temporary,” or the truly epic “I’m Not Me.” The chorus figure will come out of nowhere on that one to surprise you. But even when they’re building their own version of a well-known sound, White Rabbits bring something darker and more adventurous to the table.

This record covers a lot of interesting ground in 40 minutes, and you get the sense that every track was labored over. While there’s nothing here that will grab you immediately, like the towering “Percussion Gun” from their last record, Milk Famous weaves a black-cloud atmosphere from the first track, and sustains it, making this White Rabbits’ best and most cohesive effort.

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But the big winner of the week is undoubtedly Esperanza Spalding.

Most people probably know Spalding from last year’s Best New Artist controversy. With Justin Bieber, Drake, Florence and the Machine and Mumford and Sons up for the award, Grammy voters opted to give the trophy to a jazz bassist from Portland, Oregon. This led to a flurry of “Who the fuck is Esperanza Spalding?” tweets from enraged Bieber fans. Lots of people considered it yet another blunder in a long line of them from the Academy.

There’s just one problem with that – they got it exactly right.

Well, not the bit about Spalding being a new artist. At the time of her award, she was riding her third album, the splendid Chamber Music Society. But the Academy considers a “new artist” one that established a public identity within the given year, which allows them to comfortably ignore everything until the general public catches on. That’s a whole different rant, though. What they got right was Spalding’s talent and presence as an artist. Put simply, she’s awesome.

Like most, I didn’t find her until Spalding won her Grammy, so I guess they’re good for something. But I’m on board now, and I breathlessly awaited her fourth record, the just-released Radio Music Society. It was worth waiting for. Spalding plays a fascinating amalgam of jazz balladry, soul-pop and funk, with the voice of an angel and the arrangement skills of a master. Plus, have you heard her play bass? She’s tremendous.

Radio Music Society travels further down the path she forged with her last effort, although despite smoothing things out somewhat, there’s still nothing here that radio would touch. Her songs here are reminiscent of Prince at his jazziest, or Janelle Monae without the hip-hop elements. “Crowned and Kissed” is wonderful, a stick-in-your-head melody anchored by Leo Genovese’s slinky piano and a trio of horns. (It was co-produced by Q-Tip, but you’d probably never know it.) Spalding scats her way through this tune with elegance and grace.

Sax master Joe Lovano stops by to add some awesome to “I Can’t Help It,” a superb swinging pop song that changes up the tempo with fluidity. Spalding dabbles in big-band on “Hold On Me,” with a 14-person backing band that rushes to a huge climax, and sets a subtler atmosphere on the lengthy, meandering “Vague Suspicions.” It may surprise you how few of these songs have pop choruses and hooks – if Spalding were aiming for radio acceptance, she could have streamlined this quite a bit more. But I’m glad she didn’t. These songs are tricky and hard to pin down, and worth repeated listens.

That sense of complexity stays until the end. You get the six-minute funk workout “Endangered Species,” with its Zappa-esque melodic fragments. You get “City of Roses,” another collaboration with Q-Tip with some tremendous Rhodes work from Genovese, and you get the abrasive, off-kilter closer, “Smile Like That,” on which Spalding welcomes legendary drummer Jack DeJohnette for some extra muscle. That tune also includes some wild guitar work from Gilad Hekelsman.

Despite its title, this is not some dumbed-down concession to the Bieber fans. This is Esperanza Spalding doing what she does – writing cool jazz-pop tunes, arranging them brilliantly, and singing them with confidence. This is an album that will take some time to work its magic, but it’s a pretty terrific effort from an artist more people should know.

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I’ll be seeing Michael Roe play on Friday, and picking up the remastered reissue of Sticks and Stones from his band, the 77s. So expect a review of that next week. On the near horizon, new things by the Mars Volta and Cowboy Junkies, and the complete Mermaid Avenue sessions from Billy Bragg and Wilco.

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See you in line Tuesday morning.