If Zac Braff's Garden State was The Graduate for the iPod generation, the Shins' "New Slang" was its "Sound of Silence."
"You have to hear this one song, it will change your life," Natalie Portman beseeched us all in Braff's film. That scene sure changed the Shins' life, for better and for worse — depending on where you stand on the two albums that followed, 2007's winsome Wincing the Night Away and the new Port of Morrow. I like 'em fine, but they sound like the work of a different band from the one that made Oh, Inverted World and Chutes Too Narrow in the early '00s. That's because it is.
These days only singer-songwriter James Mercer remains from the "life-changing" original lineup. If you're like me, and you think what makes the Shins the Shins are Mercer's neurotic yip of a voice and remarkable facility with melody, this is a good thing. Or at least it's not a bad thing. If you think otherwise, you probably didn't bother going to the Tower on Thursday night where Mercer and his reconstituted Shins — bassist Yuuki Matthews, guitarist Jessica Dobson, drummer Joe Plummer, and keyboardist Richard Swift — leavened sleek, smartly turned pop from the new album (the barreling "The Rifle's Spiral," the fruity tropicalia of "Bait and Switch" and the majestic "Simple Song") with deep cuts from the Oh, Inverted World?/?Chutes Too Narrow era (the galloping "Mine's Not a High Horse," the eruptive ecstasies of "So Says I," and an especially gorgeous, altogether stately "Saint Simon," arguably Mercer's finest moment as a songwriter to date).
There were spooky moments: the eerie Stygian river cruise of "Port of Morrow" and the LeeHazlewood-ian psychedelia of "Sphagnum Esplanade." And there were moments of pure prettiness. Midway through their 90-minute set, Mercer & Co. rendered "New Slang" as hushed prayer. "Hello darkness, my old friend," indeed.
At the end, Mercer, who looks like a bearded Kevin Spacey, encored with a deft solo acoustic version of "Chutes Too Narrow" that only affirms my contention that he isthe Shins. He's got a disarming smile, too, but he hardly shows it. And what's with the zero audience interaction, beyond back-announcing song titles like a mic-shy college radio DJ? I know for a fact he's got plenty to say.
Opening the show was New Jersey's Real Estate, who, when they were on, staked out the jingling sweet spot between the Feelies and the Clientele, redolent of a time in the early '80s when the insurgent popularity of REM's gnomic folk-rock launched a thousand jangle-pop ships. Now that's my idea of '80s nostalgia.