Back in high school, I had a homemade cassette with the Shins' 2001 debut album Oh, Inverted World
on one side and their second LP, 2003's Chutes Too Narrow
, on the other. It didn't leave the tape deck of my dearly departed Buick Park Avenue for what seemed like forever, and those quirky, articulate pop songs still have the ability to transport me back to that specific summer when I had a fresh learner's permit and a lot of afternoons with nothing to do but drive around with all the windows down.
So when James Mercer and his five-piece backing band walked out onto the Knitting Factory stage last night and ripped right into "Caring Is Creepy," the opening track from Inverted
, it came with it a tidal wave of nostalgia. There's a reason, I think, that the Shins were pegged as the band that could change your life in the 2004 indie comedy Garden State
: Despite the eye-rolling earnestness of that statement, Mercer's ability to marry melodic simplicity with lyrical specificity taps into a kind of wet-eyed adolescent longing that we're all a bit too cool to admit we identify with.
Mercer and company's Spokane show boasted a comprehensive setlist that covered all the bases — they busted out crowd favorites like "Australia," "Phantom Limb" and "Kissing the Lipless," and you can bet everyone (myself included) was singing along to every heartfelt word of his hipster rallying cry "New Slang."
They dipped into each of the Shins' five albums throughout the evening, and I was especially pleased to see a strong representation from Chutes Too Narrow
, my favorite of their records: Not only "Lipless," but "Saint Simon" and "Mine's Not a High Horse," both wonderfully twisty mid-tempo tunes, and a beautiful version of the steel-guitar-tinged, outlaw-country pastiche "Gone for Good." Other highlights included a rousing rendition of the 2012 single "Simple Song," and a low-key performance of "The Fear," which utilized a trio of violins.
Mercer's received plenty of accolades as a songwriter, but I've always felt he doesn't get nearly enough credit as a vocalist: The dude's got serious pipes, and he can still effortlessly hit those piercing falsettos that made everyone stop in their tracks when the band first broke out.
I wish the Knit's sound mix had allowed his backing band's vocal harmonies to come through a bit clearer, but it was still apparent that this is one of the tightest groups Mercer has ever assembled. They were eager to fraternize with the crowd, too, with several of them competing as to who had the deepest Washington connection. (Guitarist Mark Watrous and drummer Jon Sortland were both born in the state; guitarist Casey Foubert, meanwhile, mentioned that his wife is a Gonzaga alum, much to the delight of the audience.) Mercer also gave an unexpected shout-out to local punk outfit Itchy Kitty, who earlier this year entered the Shins' contest to win a used tour van with a cover of the band's "Painting a Hole."
I must admit that I initially experienced a bit of cognitive dissonance seeing Mercer throwing himself into some of his delicate, twee pop songs as if they were arena-scale anthems. But when I last saw the Shins in 2006, Mercer definitely didn't seem as sure of himself on stage, barely speaking in between songs and even bungling lyrics to some of his biggest hits at the time.
Last night he seemed way more confident, and it actually suits him. When one of the bridges of "Sleeping Lessons," the closing song of the band's only encore, seamlessly transitioned into a snippet of Tom Petty's "American Girl," the crowd sang right along as if it's always been there. It was a weird surprise, and yet it seemed to make perfect sense.