The Shins with The Brunettes (Monday, April 11, 2005 First Avenue)
The appearance of “Caring is Creepy” and “New Slang” in Zac Braff’s tender 2004 film Garden State propelled the Shins into public light, where many filmgoers got their first taste of the band. Both songs appear on the soundtrack and wove themselves intricately into the film, becoming an integral part of the movie’s beauty. After the movie, I got their albums, and I fell off the indie-rock-crush deep end. If this was junior high, I’d be passing them XOXO-festooned notes, giggling at their lunchroom antics, writing their name repeatedly in my Lisa Frank notebook and fervently discussing them at slumber parties.
The Shins mix of complex compositions, intelligent lyrics, sloping melodies and the approachable, unique, wide-range beauty of James Mercer’s voice compose the appeal of the group. They also produce an astonishingly varied sound extending beyond basic rock chords into occasional rockabilly twang or lo-fi basement sound and back into pure indie brilliance. Originally from Albuquerque, New Mexico, the group has undergone shifts and turns, ending up in Portland, Oregon and landing on the inimitable Sub Pop with their latest release, Chutes Too Narrow and 2001’s Oh, Inverted World. Their Monday evening set at First Ave was the official kick off for the next block of touring in support of Chutes, a defiant second full-length album deftly skirting any notion of “sophomore slump.”
The Brunettes’ recent opening gigs for Architecture in Helsinki and The Postal Service allayed any fears of an opening-act snoozer. Remember elementary school music class where you got to pick up any instrument and bang on it like a primitive, reveling in the sheer joy of making noise? The Brunettes have elevated these gleeful early days and formulated them into bubbly pop where band members alternately clap, doo-wop, snap their fingers and swap instruments.
The Brunettes have a sunny bubblegum feel in their quirky instrumentation. Starting the show, they did a “YMCA”-esque scene, acting out the letters “B-A-B-Y” in a light, poppy tribute to a crush. Most of their songs were of this ilk: delightful confections, feathery instrumentations and bubbly melodies. Several songs took a more hard rockin’ tone, including the last song about Mary Kate and Ashley Olson in which the band members donned masks of the girls from their toddler days on Full House.
After a half-hour to clear the pop palate, The Shins started their set with the lead track from Chutes Too Narrow, “Kissing the Lipless”, an ideal opener with a spare beginning that bursts into “You told us of your new life there / You got someone comin' around.” The sold-out crowd was immediately enveloped and terminally happy for the next hour and a half.
They played a majority of Chutes Too Narrow and Oh, Inverted World, along with some work from their earlier seven-inches on Omnibus. Their complex yet distinct layering and varied sound represented perfectly in concert. Softer songs such as “Pink Bullets” and “Chutes Too Narrow” retained their sparse, acoustic qualities. Other set highlights were “One By One All Day” (about their home state of New Mexico), “Young Pilgrims”, “Turn A Square” and “So Says I.” The inquisitive “Girl, Inform Me” contains one of the cheekiest lyrics I’ve heard: “But your lips when you speak are the valleys and peaks/of a mountain range on fire.” “Mine’s Not A High Horse” is a marching account of confrontation and its fallout (“Will you remember my reply/one finger parallel to the sky?”), They performed a quick-paced version of “Saint Simon.” The song initiates with tongue-grabbing lyrics (“After all these implements and text designed by intellects/So vexed to find evidently there's just so much that hides”) and pours into an smooth, beautiful chorus backed by strings.
The set concluded with the countrified, twangy goodness of “Gone For Good”, a breakup song that leaves you feeling like a lone, exasperated yet relieved tumbleweed rolling away from a bad relationship. Their four-song encore included the Garden State gold stars “New Slang” and “Caring is Creepy.” The foursome (Mercer on vocals/guitar, bassist/guitarist/keyboardist Marty Crandall, drummer Jesse Sandoval and guitarist/bassist Dave Hernandez) had a sunny disposition and hard-rocking dedication--no silly indie posturing or antics, just a pure delivery of their songwriting. Present in their live shows is the well-honed mix of four long-time musicians in seamless synch with each other.
And while I can pile adjectives and accolades on top of each other until the page is over its axle weight, there is a quality to their music that is indescribable. All movies have soundtracks and/or scores; our lives do as well, and The Shins music contains those moments or feelings of humble humanity that find expression best in song. The delicacy of human experience is summed up well with these lines from “Saint Simon”: “Nothing really holds a candle to/The solemn warmth you feel inside of you.”
Kristen Hasler is kristen.hasler[at]howwastheshow.com