Last Night: The Shins at House of Blues

The Shins House of Blues October 10, 2012

People give the Shins a hard time. Hard to say if it's because they're so closely associated with Garden State - which, all these years later, was a pretty smug, annoying little movie - of if their gentle brand of psychedelic popcraft makes some people uncomfortable. Or they just could be lame, but that's not it.

They did sell out House of Blues Wednesday night, though, so someone must like them. Lots of people.

James Mercer and his merry group of troubadors went onstage Wednesday precisely when they were supposed to, 9:15 p.m., which made me a little worried they were in a hurry to get to Austin City Limits this weekend, or at least Dallas tonight. But they were just punctual.

The Shins motored through 15 songs and an encore in barely an hour and a half, bashing through rockers like Smithsy "Australia" and "So Says I" more incense-tinged, organ-heavy psych numbers such as "Phantom Limb" and "Phagnum Esplanade." Mercer has a knack for knowing just how long to hold a chord before changing to the next one, which he demonstrated over and over, notably on "Simple Song," a recent single from their new album Port of Morrow.

They have a newer one, "It's Only Life," which is a hyper-inspirational Big Ballad crying out to be used in another soundtrack. Not knowing the material all that well (but well enough), I found it to preserve the essence of some of the best '60s and '80s pop -- the heavy synths of the spooky "The Rifles Spiral" brought Ultravox to mind, while "Bait and Switch" and "Know Your Onion!" yoked a driving rhythm to music-box melodies straight outta Motown. The music almost dares you not to like it ("St. Simon" was just pure Beatles, and happily so) and occasionally surprises you.

If there's one criticism I might (might) level at the Shins, it's that some of their songs feel a little two-dimensional, but others like Port of Morrow's title track were luxuriant and elastic, like swimming in a lagoon. Both the crowd and the drummer helped coax main-set closer "Sleeping Lessons" into one long rapturous chant that lasted several minutes.

And I'm sorry, but if you can write a perfect slice of folk-pop like "New Slang" -- Eddy Arnold would be proud of those yodel-like "woo"s -- you deserve to change someone's life.

Personal Bias: Not a band I live and die with, but one I have no problem with either. I actually quite enjoyed myself.

The Crowd: Full, and oh so very white.

Overheard In the Crowd: "The Shins and Andrew Bird are it for me" - a young woman behind me

Random Notebook Dump: Caught myself swaying, more than once.

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Chris Gray has been Music Editor for the Houston Press since 2008. He is the proud father of a Beatles-loving toddler named Oliver.
Contact: Chris Gray