Tuesday, March 20, 2012

On The Return of James Mercer and Creative Collaboration

I have no qualms in saying I love The Shins. And I will admit that I didn't hear of them until Natalie Portman told us to listen to them because it will change our lives. Well, they didn't do anything so rash as changing my life, but they have made me a happier person. And they allowed my wife to make one of her better jokes. I am paraphrasing, but it went something like this:

<while listening to Oh, Inverted World in the car one afternoon>
Jodi: What is this?
Steve: It's The Shins. It's what I imagine Simon and Garfunkel would sound like if they were still making records today.
Jodi: Yeah. It's what I think Simon and Garfunkel would sound like if Simon and Garfunkel gave me a headache.
<topic closed>

Any-who, they have a new album that came out today and which, my wife's opinion notwithstanding, I am listening to while writing this blog and not making sure I remember the lyrics to "Jumpin Jack Flash" (that's for a later post, but as a tease it is one thing to sing along with the radio and another to sing it in front of 50 people).

I was always planning on getting the record when it came out, but I was actually kind of not looking forward to it.  James Mercer is pretty much The Shins. They are his baby. He is the songwriter, the singer, the guitar player. I don't have the actually CDs in front of me but I wouldn't be surprised if he produced those records. And for this record, he pretty much fired everybody who had been in the band with him and got a bunch of new people to help him out. That made me kind of sad for the other guys, who I regrettably don't know the names of and therefore legitimize their ultimate extraneousness. I felt a band is just that...a band. And when the acknowledged leader of that band jettisons everybody in the band and carries on under the banner, that strikes me as a bit ego-maniacal.

Back when I was a younger chap and I played with friends in what could nominally be called a band. We were just fooling around, but at the time I grew weary of it quickly. This was because I realized that at that particular point in my musical life I was a control freak and wanted to do music my way. Ten years later, which saw about 7 of those years with no musical output of any kind by yours truly, I have gotten over that and I am now reaping the rewards of that with my new band. Granted I am still the primary songwriter and I am not shy about giving ideas on arrangements but I am very receptive to what Tom and Patrick and Mike are bringing to these songs. Receptive isn't even the right word. I am eager to get their input and their suggestions and am really enjoying the collaborative effort. For example, we have a song called "Fall" (or if you ask Tom "The Fall"). The song is over 10 years old and I have been playing it to myself for just as long. It is a standard verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/solo/chorus/done kind of thing. But Patrick had a very clever and simple idea of cutting the last chorus short, leaving a sort of open-endedness and dissatisfaction, which really works well with the lyrics and vibe of the song. I didn't think of that and maybe 10 years ago I would have pooh-poohed the idea. Now, it's my favorite part of the song. Hooray growth!!!

I am not sure what that has to do with James Mercer, but I can say in my own small and meager way I appreciate his decision about his band. His is the auteur behind The Shins and he really has every right to do it anyway he wants. I on the other hand am whatever the opposite of auteur is (I believe the term you are looking for, Steve, is "hack") and consider myself very lucky to have three friends who are vastly better musicians that I am, are hip to my stupid songs, are happily part of the creative process, and have become my partners-in-the-crime I call making music that is actually kind of cool. Well, it makes me smile, at least.

In closing, I am happy to report that the new Shins record, Port Of Morrow, is damn good and worth your efforts in checking it out. Because it's my thing, here they are on SNL last week doing the lead single off that record, appropriately titled "Simple Song."

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