James Mercer’s melodic gift still shines, even without the rest of the original Shins | Concert Preview | Chicago Reader

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James Mercer’s melodic gift still shines, even without the rest of the original Shins


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Over a country-flavored lope, the Shins’ James Mercer looks back at his youth on “Mildenhall,” a song from the recent Heartworms (Aural Apothecary/Columbia). It’s the second Shins album since Mercer ditched the folks he started the band with nearly two decades ago, and the tune’s autobiographical intimacy—it’s a military brat’s recollections of how music came into his life—is at once charming and a bit dissonant. Mercer remembers his father teaching him some basic chords and then sings, “And that’s how we get to where we are now”—now being the present, when he fronts a band of hired guns making meticulously produced pop music. Mercer’s idiosyncratic melodies and the way his forlorn, imploring voice shoots into a soaring upper register have remained constants of the Shins sound. On Heartworms, though, the arrangements sometimes feel like shots in the dark, as on the heavy-handed “Painting a Hole,” where quasi-Middle Eastern flourishes collide uncomfortably with Mercer’s piercing attempt at melisma. Still, despite the album’s overly bright, radio-friendly production, most of the songs radiate the sort of emotional uplift that has distinguished Mercer’s songwriting; his reedy voice brings the bittersweet melodies to life.   v

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