As featured in The Maui News April 12, 2012-Written by Jon Woodhouse
The Shins’ James Mercer has a knack for composing brilliant pop songs. Meticulously crafted, they recall the exuberant arty pop of The Kinks and the experimental grandeur of the late ’60s Beach Boys. On the brand-new album, “Port of Morrow,” you can even hear echoes of the melodic finesse of the Beatles on tracks like “Fall of ’82” and “It’s Only Life.”
Back in 2004, the band’s radiant appeal was captured by actress Natalie Portman, in a scene in the hip movie “Garden State,” when she played their ballad “New Slang” for co-star Zach Braff, gushing, “You’ve got to hear this song. It will change your life.”
“I’ve always had this pop music and R&B and psychedelic stuff in my writing,” says Mercer. “Probably because my dad and uncle had that around when I was a kid living in Hawaii. And songwriting-wise I learned so much from the Beatles. They push you, so you have a lot to aspire to. On the new record we used the same Fairchild optical compressor that the Beatles used so much, so there’s a sonic quality that harkens back to those EMI productions.”
Born at Tripler Hospital on Oahu, as a kid Mercer moved around with his dad who was in the Air Force, landing in “new wave” England in the mid-1980s for his final three years of high school.
“When I first started playing in bands, I was accused of imitating an English accent,” he recalls, laughing. “I learned to sing singing along to Morrissey and The Smiths, Echo and The Bunnymen, all these British bands. I wanted to be in a band and I really loved the British music scene I was surrounded by.”
After settling in Albuquerque, N.M., he formed The Shins with some friends in 1997. Releasing their debut album, “Oh, Inverted World,” a few years later, The Shins were hailed as one of the rising stars of American indie rock.
Their follow-up, “Chutes Too Narrow,” was also critically praised (“10 perfect songs,” raved Uncut) with Entertainment Weekly ranking it fourth in their “Records of the Year” list and Rolling Stone including it in the “50 Best Albums of 2003.”
Then along came that little movie “Garden State,” and their lives changed almost overnight.
“It exposed a lot of young people to our music, which was a huge benefit,” says Mercer. “But then there were the music snobs who weren’t going to let Natalie Portman tell them what’s cool.”
Mercer knew two of his songs would be featured in the film, but he had no idea that it would include a scene with such an enthusiastic endorsement by the actress.
“By the time the movie had come out I had forgotten about it,” he says. “We had said yes early on and then it was a hit movie. I finally went and saw it. I wanted to understand why people were interviewing me about it. I shrank down in my seat and (thought), oh, my God.”
The Shins’ third album, the Grammy-nominated “Wincing the Night Away,” became their highest-charting disc, debuting at No. 2 on the Billboard Top 200 album chart and selling more than 100,000 copies its first week. Britain’s music mag Q praised its, “super-smart pop music the way they used to make it 20 years ago.”
In 2010, Mercer teamed with producer Danger Mouse to create the brilliantly inventive “Broken Bells.” Sounding like shimmering Shins merged with Zero 7’s electronica, Rolling Stone hailed it as, “the year’s coolest left-field pop disc.”
Now Mercer is back with a newly-augmented Shins. Former band mates are gone, replaced by singer/songwriter Richard Swift, drummer Joe Plummer (Modest Mouse), bassist Yuuki Matthews (Crystal Skulls) and guitarist Jessica Dobson (Beck).
“I decided I needed to break out and work with other musicians, in part because I thought the music would benefit from having a fresh perspective, which I had experienced with Broken Bells,” Mercer explains. “Then the question comes up, why are you allowed to do this? Well, the first Shins’ things that ever existed were things I did alone in my bedroom. I basically hired my friends to tour and over time it becomes your livelihood and your friends’ livelihood. But I was getting unhappy and needed the freedom to work with anybody. It’s exciting to have the new record out.”
* The Shins play the Maui Arts & Cultural Center’s Castle Theater at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday. Tickets are $35 and $45, plus applicable fees, available from the MACC box office, 242-7469 or www.mauiarts.org.
Opening at the Pioneer Inn from 6 to 9 p.m. Friday with the Hot Club of Hulaville (whose “Django Would Go!” won 2011 Hoku Award for Jazz Album of the Year), the second annual Front Street Jazz and Blues Walk presents a tasty smorgasbord of jazz and blue talent throughout Lahaina. Other participating venues include Longhi’s, Blue Lagoon, Captain Jack’s, the Hard Rock Cafe, Kimo’s, Maui Grown Coffee and Campbell Park.
Saxophonist Marion Meadows heads the bill at Longhi’s on Saturday. A former session player with artists like Brook Benton, The Temptations and Michael Bolton, Meadows was a member of the New York avant-garde band Aboriginal Music Society. He later became a staple of the smooth jazz genre with popular albums like “Keep It Right Here,” “Forbidden Fruit’ and “Body Rhythm.” His latest CD, “Secrets,” features a cool cover of Pat Metheny’s “Here to Stay.”
Longhi’s has two shows on Friday – Mike Bouno, John Zangrando, Shiro Mori and Doug White play from 6 to 8 p.m. (Shiro, drummer Paul Marchetti and bassist Danny M. superbly backed trombone great Delfeayo Marsalis last week.)
They will be followed by David Choy and SLAM playing from 9 to 11 p.m. The Latin Jazz Messengers play the Hard Rock Cafe from 8 to 11 p.m. Blues/rock with Bob Jones & The Drive at Captain Jack’s from 8 to 10 p.m. The Blue Lagoon features Benoit Jazz Works from 4 to 6 p.m. Willie K rocks Kimo’s from 9 to 11 p.m., and at Campbell Park, Phil Smith and the Gentlemen of Jazz perform from 6 to 8 p.m.
Saturday Fulton Tashombe’s Maui All-Star Jazz Band will entertain at the Pioneer Inn from 6 to 9 p.m. At Longhi’s there’s SLAM and Marion Meadows and an after- party with Hot Club of Hulaville. The Soul Congress featuring Clay Mortensen plays Hard Rock from 5 to 7 p.m. Blue Lagoon from 4 to 6 p.m. features Sal Godinez and Bob Harrison, and the Lahainaluna Jazz Band will perform at Maui Grown Coffee Company from 4 to 5:30 p.m.
And a finale on Sunday night at the Banyan Tree Park gathers R.E. Metoyer Blues, Rock & Soul Revue and the Sam Ahia Quartet.
Most of the performances are presented free of charge.
Across the water from the west side, the second annual Lanai Ukulele Festival presents an exceptional lineup including Richard Ho’opi’i, Kawika Kahiapo, Byron Yasui, CJ “Boom” Helekahi, Benny Uyetake, the Hula Honeys, the Lanai Kupuna Ukulele Group and the Kalama School Ukulele Band.
Beginning on Friday, the three-day free event hosted by the Four Seasons Resorts Lanai, features performances at Manele Bay and The Lodge at Koele, plus at Coffee Works, Caf 565 and Blue Ginger Caf. Besides the performances, Kaliko Beamer Trapp will conduct Hawaiian language and ukulele workshops.
Visiting kamaaina can take advantage of a special accommodation package during the fest, starting at $199 per night at Manele Bay and $179 at The Lodge. Call 800 321-4666 for reservations.
Lukas Nelson returns home with Promise of the Real to play Charley’s Restaurant on April 20 and 21. The band just released the album “Wasted,” which it previewed on David Letterman last week.
Neil Young suggested Lukas record the album live in the studio in analog.
“It really added a lot of magnetism, energy, and that live feel, and a lot of warmth to it,” Lukas said in an interview. “I feel like this record sounds more like what you get when you see us perform.”
His dad, Willie Nelson, also has a new album with a release date of May 15. Just in time for Willie’s 79th birthday, the recording includes some songs featuring both Lukas and Micah Nelson.
Along with interpretations of tunes by Coldplay (“The Scientist”) and Pearl Jam (“Just Breathe”), Willie reaches back to the 1930s for the ballad, “My Window Faces the South,” and includes his new tune “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die,” joined by pals Snoop Dogg and Kris Kristofferson.