The Shins – Port of Morrow [Review]

It’s been five years since the well praised Wincing the Night Away and The Shins are back featuring a new line-up with Port of Morrow, arguably their strongest record yet.

Mercers dabblings with Danger Mouse on the superb 2010 Broken Bells record is evident with a slightly more electronic sound bubbling away in the background throughout, it’s never at the forefront but it’s noticeably subtle – a nice evolution of the sound Mercer has crafted for The Shins. It’s also unmercifully catchy; something The Shins have always managed and over time has become apparently easier for Mercer judging by how many of the tracks have been jammed in my mind the last two weeks. Vocal melodies bounce effortlessly along with the music (check out The Rifle’s Spiral (below) & Simple Song for prime examples) and this is really one of my favourite elements of the album. James Mercer really is a genius when it comes to the flow of his lyrics. It’s pretty straight up Indie Pop but goddamn it sounds effortless and so very, very confident.

Five years is a long time and if the sound of Port of Morrow is anything to go by it’s not just Mercers vocal melodies that have been honed, the production is sublime and a leap forward from previous efforts. It’s smooth, warm and well balanced, nothing is lost in the mix and it sounds bright and summery. It doesn’t sound like it’s taking elements from any one decade of the past 40 years but blending carefully the best of all of them. Pacing is well managed with a comfortable blend of slower mellow tracks and more upbeat singles helping the albums rhythm and never really outstaying its welcome. If there was ever any doubt after the line-up changes and five year gap between albums, it is very clear that James Mercer is back. He is The Shins and he’s back, familiar yet better in nearly every way.

If you’re a fan of The Shins you should be checking this album out, I have no doubt about that. If you don’t fall into that camp and you’re on the fence, then you could do a lot worse than checking out this brilliantly catchy Indie Pop record. Finally, it also benefits from excellent artwork courtesy of Jacob Escobedo who also worked on the Broken Bells artwork.

Track listing is as follows (complete with highlighted highlights).

  1. The Rifle’s Spiral
  2. Simple Song
  3. It’s Only Life
  4. Bait and Switch
  5. September
  6. No Way Down
  7. For a Fool
  8. Fall of ’82
  9. 40 Mark Strasse
  10. Port of Morrow

Andrew Bird – Break It Yourself [Review]

My introduction to Andrew Bird was while browsing the shelves of the small and rather wonderful record store People Independent Music of Guildford, Surrey. A superb Indie store packed with a range of genres and always something interesting or new, if you’re ever in the area check it out, it’s well worth a look. So, I’m standing there, browsing the Alternative/Indie section, I have one CD in hand, probably all I’m going to spend today and then this song kicks up, it’s beautiful, it reminds me of the Fleet Foxes, with a little Ryan Adams, but with a whole lot of violin and a little more subtlety, it’s sort of quirky as well. The guy next to me leans over to the counter and asks “Who is this?”, to which the girl replies with a smile “It’s Andrew Bird’s new album”, “Hmm…” the customer ponders for all of half a second, “I’ll take one!”. Handing the CD over in my hand to pay I echo, “You know what, I’ll take one as well”.

It was one of those moments I had to hear more on my own stereo, if I hadn’t bought that album there and then I’d be a mug. That’s a great start, first track of the new album and I’m totally sold, as was my fellow customer. I’m happy to report Break It Yourself delivers. I’d heard Birds name thrown around before, I’d heard his outstanding whistling skills (seriously, check it out – this song also features on this album), but never taken the time to check out his music properly. I was pleasantly surprised to find a sound that mixes beautiful strings with soft guitars and rock elements, arranged with just enough oddities to keep it fresh. It straddles modern acoustic songwriting and traditional folk music pretty comfortably and never feels like an unnatural or forced combination. Desperation Breeds elevates itself to one of my favourite album openers of the year beginning slow and brooding before bursting into life with beautiful flourishes of violin. These frequent the album and compliment most songs bringing the music alive with a bright and vibrant feel. The aforementioned whistling is there and is as excellent as ever, Bird really does have some skills and no matter what he is playing it all comes together so perfectly well with a natural and effortless flow. The short recording window and live studio recording only helps to give the album the organic, natural sound is presents. Pacing is graceful and mixes the uplifting with the more gentle mellow tracks.

The only complaints I have are aimed at the latter half which drags slightly before soaring again with the absolutely superb Hole in the Ocean Floor. It never becomes wearisome however and overall it can be taken as a very well rounded full-length. It’s worth keeping in mind that this is my first Andrew Bird album so I cannot compare it to previous releases, but it’s definitely a great place to start and I can safely say I’ve come away a fan.

Andrew lacks a website at the moment but check him out on facebook if you want to keep up with news and tour info.

Gem Club – Breakers [Review]

There are few albums that I would call truly beautiful, Helios’s Eingya and Gregor Samsa’s second full-length Rest spring to mind; and now, with Gem Club’s debut Breakers, Christopher Barnes, cellist Kristen Drymala and vocalist Leva Berberian have crafted quite simply one of the most systematically heartbreaking, haunting and outright beautiful albums to have graced my system in a long time and it can comfortably sit within that list.

There’s an unbelievable subtlety to this album, it’s got room to breathe and every note written sounds considered and then considered again. Stripped to a combination of rhythmic piano, calming vocals and brooding cello it can feel incredibly pure. I hesitate to say it verges on bleak with an almost melancholy feel. Go into this album in an optimistic mood and I’m sure you will take a different view compared to heading in full of pessimism.

It can be a worry with music similar to this that it comes across as a pretentious wash of sound but Gem Club manage to hold their focus and the songs here bleed with emotion. Pacing is key and although this may not be an album for every moment of the day it’s one that’s of little effort to listen to and at just shy of fourty minutes is the perfect length, never outstaying it’s welcome. Drums punctuate at the right moment and vocals soar when needed, it’s smart stuff and works very well.

Penultimate track 252 are where things really gather together and show what Gem Club can really do. It’s beautiful, a little friendlier and stands out strong on an album of already stellar tracks. The vocals lift and there’s a warmth that fills the sound that isn’t present prior.

It’s a difficult thing to review this album without listing a string of adjectives revolving around the word beauty but at it’s core this is what Breakers delivers. It was never going to be an album for every moment of the day and that’s ok; it’s an album to slip some headphones on and simply listen to. Don’t let this one fall into the background, it yearns to be heard properly.

Head over to Gem Club’s bandcamp page for a full listen, like them on facebook or have a poke around their website iamgemclub.com.

The Shins – Simple Song [Listen]

The Shins are back, preceding the March release of the new album Port of Morrow (which happens to have some excellent artwork), with the brilliant new track Simple Song. It really is a superb one too with all you expect from The Shins, and if anything, it’s a little more upbeat than past songs with an electric almost reinvigorated vibe. It’s made the prospect of the full length in March far more exciting!

Head over to The Shins website here to listen to Simple Song complete with a pretty awesome player. Album pre-orders with various bonuses are available now and come with early access to the track in question. Roll on March!