“Do the Shins write catchy songs?” Don’t take this statement as “Do the Shins write good songs?” They do for the most part. I’m asking if any random blue collar slob walked into a karaoke bar and tried to sing any Shins song other than “New Slang“ could they nail even fifty percent of the right notes? I’ve probably heard “Phantom Limb” and “So Says I” hundreds of times but no way could I ever belt those tunes in a sing-a-long. This is a factor that has for years held me be back from loving The Shins. Their songs (or at least singles) are too complicated.
There are lots of famous pop bands that write complicated songs. Let’s take The Shins most obvious influence, The Beach Boys. Brian Wilson spent countless months arranging instruments and dicking around with dials to craft timeless radio staples. Yet there’s one detail that makes his songs great and James Mercer’s just fine. Chord changes. I was listening to The Shins latest single “Name for You” enjoying its summery melody and “ooh ooh vocals” but never found a groove with the song. I still struggle to remember how it goes.
Let’s compare “Name for You” to one of Brian Wilson’s most famously complex tracks. “Good Vibrations” is a timeless suite of (insert every instrument that exists) and more. But when you look at the chords, it’s not complicated. There are about nine chord changes before the first chorus. “Name for You” has sixteen in its first verse. Maybe it’s not fair to randomly pull two songs and declare one superior based on one detail but it is an important detail.
If you’re going to have a complex arrangement you still need to have a strong basic structure. If you want to write fun beach pop there’s a proven template that works. You can go off a template and it can work but chances are not as well. Which is how I feel about The Shins. They have always been close to something great. They have the talent, but no template.
On Heartworms, The Shins again brush with greatness only to end up with passable background music for a drive to the beach. Released last month and named after the disgusting parasite my dog has to take medicine to prevent, Heartworms is The Shins first album in five years. Tonally, the album feels like a lighter more humorous version of the band that once changed the life of a moody Zach Braff back in 2004. Synths and cartoony sound effects spill out of these high energy numbers with no room to breathe.
It wasn’t until “Fantasy Island” that I could take a moment to reflect and enjoy myself. Maybe because it’s a slower track, maybe it just reminds me of everyone’s favorite TV duo Mr. Roarke and Tattoo. But even “Fantasy Island” isn’t safe from the onslaught of keyboards and synthesized marimbas that eventually engulf the whole song in a wave of excess.
I should have taken the track title “Rubber Ballz” as an early indicator of what this album was going to sound like. Anyone who chooses to spell “Balls” like “Ballz” cannot be trusted. I appreciate that James Mercer is having fun but I think he’s having too much fun. It isn’t until about eight tracks in with “Dead Alive” that the album feels a little more Martin and a little less Lewis. Even then there are no moody ballads or hard rockers worthy of your future indie playlist. If making playlists is still a thing. Machines do everything for us now.
Heartworms isn’t a bad album by any means. James Mercer is still a great singer and I’m sure a solid dude. But unless J.M. forgets some chords and remembers why his band meant so much to a moody TV star turned filmmaker over a decade ago, his band will never be one of my favorite bands. This so says I.
Favorite Tracks: “Fantasy Island,” “Heartworms”