Tuesday, August 1, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 1036: The Shins

It’s been over four years since I’ve reviewed an album by this next band and five since they’ve put something out. It was a solid return, and after experiencing a bit of bad luck on albums released in 2017, a welcome upturn in quality.

Disc 1036 is…Heartworms
Artist: The Shins

Year of Release: 2017

What’s up with the Cover? A hot mess of flowers, 8-bit font and a skeleton with what I think is a heart full of worms. The artist is someone called Jacob Escobedo, who is clearly not familiar with the expression “know when to say when.”

How I Came To Know It: I like the Shins, so this was just me buying their new release when it came out and hoping for the best. Finally, it paid off. Great – that’s just going to encourage me.

How It Stacks Up:  We have five Shins albums, which I believe is all of them. Of those five, I rank “Heartworms” fourth, displacing “Oh, Inverted World” in the process.

And while it has been over four years since my last Shins review this is once again the final album in my collection. Let’s recap how they stack up again: 
  1. Winging the Night Away: 5 stars (reviewed at Disc 366)
  2. Chutes Too Narrow:  4 stars (reviewed at Disc 496)
  3. Port of Morrow: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 442)
  4. Heartworms: 3 stars (reviewed right here)
  5. Oh, Inverted World: 2 stars (reviewed at Disc 22).
Ratings: 3 stars

The Shins don’t make albums very often, but when they do they tend to come back with a refreshed sound that makes you wish they wouldn’t stay away so long. So it is with “Heartworms” which didn’t grab me on my first listen, but got better and better each subsequent time through.

There are some standard features that span all Shins albums, and those are James Mercer’s high and airy vocals, his innate ability to write catchy pop melodies, and his bravery to give those melodies all manner of crazy studio treatments.

“Heartworms” takes this to a new level, layering synthesizer sounds, backup singers and a joyful busyness that reminded me of Manchester sound of the eighties and nineties. Usually this style doesn’t inspire me, and more often than not all that layered sound is just annoying.

Here, I wouldn’t change a thing. There is a lot going on, but Mercer has the good sense to keep his own vocals high in the mix so even if you’re getting distracted with all the beeps, boings and whirrs, you can always cling to his voice until you find your bearings again. By the third listen you know the songs sufficiently to let yourself drift in them, picking up the many and varied sounds that, when stitched together, make up the complexity of the album.

The opening tracks were OK, but they also sounded like what I imagine you’ll hear on alt-rock radio on a Thursday afternoon. The song that first grabbed my attention was “Fantasy Island,” a lovely homage to the seventies TV show, wrapped in a mix of synth-pop and Caribbean rhythms. Mercer knows how to back off on the production here and there, letting the song strip down, before he loads the sounds back in, creating a swell like the waves on a tropical beach. He also shows a talent for turning a phrase, my favourite being:

“I’ve always had something to hide
My skinny arms, my evil intentions
And back at school hitting the fire alarms
Desperately wanting attention.”

This is followed up by the (comparatively) stripped down “Mildenhall” which tells the tale of Mercer having to move with his family to an RAF base in England. Here he struggles to find good streets for his skateboard, but discovers guitar (and based on the album’s sound, some English pop music as well). This song had me thinking of eighties Kinks as well, with Mercer telling a story that reminded me strongly of “Come Dancing” without feeling derivative.

The album has a throwback quality to it, with Mercer exploring the things that shaped him, and the music that influenced him. While it isn’t all garlands and roses, the album’s tone is primarily celebratory and upbeat, and it put me in a positive mindset.

Dead Alive” and “Heartworms” both have the early Shins’ signature meandering melodies, and while I enjoyed both songs (particularly “Heartworms”) I didn’t mind it when Mercer lets things get a bit busier than normal either.

 “So Now What” is a touching love song. It is about what it is like to be with the same person for a long time and finding yourself wondering what you’re going to do next, and then realizing you just want to continue the journey with that person. I can relate.

There are times when the album lost me, but those times were rare. Most of the time I was either happy to float on the soup of sound, or catch the melody and let it pull me through the experience.

The Shins don’t put albums out very often, but when they do it is clear a lot of thought has gone into them, discovering new directions to their sound without losing the core of who they are. “Heartworms” is a worthy entry into their discography.

Best tracks: Fantasy Island, Mildenhall, Heartworms, So Now What

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