Live Review: The Shins, Delta Spirit @ Rams Head Live (2009.05.15)

shins-livePhoto credit: Flickr user Monica

I have an unabashed, unashamed respect for the Shins, a band who, along with Death Cab for Cutie, have defined what it means to be a successful, popular, and critically-respected indie band.

They’ve been featured in coloring books, gotten a shout-out from Natalie Portman in what was surely one of the wimpiest movies of all time, and I’m told are the second best-selling artist on Sub Pop (I assume behind Sebadoh). Which basically means they’re pretty old hat by now, and if you’re reading this you’ve no doubt already been exposed to them and you either love or hate or feel ambivalent about them. Their sound is pretty, bordering on cute at times, but much like Belle & Sebastian before them (or perhaps more like The Smiths to go back a bit farther), the understated music is subservient to the lyrics, which happen to be some of the most well-put in rock music.

Delta Spirit (who opened) you may have heard less about.  Their album Ode to Sunshine (2008) was an impressive debut, full of some really soulful tracks with Matt Vasquez belting impassioned, if relatively straightforward lyrics (not unlike Nathan Willet from Cold War Kids). A really good opener for The Shins, with their upbeat, rollicking country folk-by-way-of-California pop songs. More of a proper band than the Shins (who clearly are a vehicle for James Mercer), Delta Spirit had an impressive stage presence; all the band’s members had an invigorating energy. Young band fervor mixed with mid-twenties confidence. Some real foot stompers and sing-along opportunities, but the mostly thirty-something crowd at the Ram’s Head were pretty motionless, or maybe they just didn’t know any of the songs.

James Mercer and his considerably taller bandmates played a set mixed from all their albums, but not really loaded with favorites (I really wanted “Girl Sailor,” but oh well), all the while managing to keep those Oxford shirts tucked and clean. As far as those acclaimed lyrics go, I don’t know if anyone else could go on stage and deliver  a poetic gem like “Red Rabbits” undaunted’: “Out of a gunnysack fall red rabbits/Into the crucible to be rendered an emulsion/And we can’t allow a chance they’d restore themselves”.

Furthermore, Mercer’s love-as-sea voyage metaphors are singularly imaginative and alienating.  While most people would probably consider the Shins a happy band, the lyrics seem genuinely fed up with the protocols of modern living (but I guess one of the nice things about playing in a band is that you don’t have to pay attention to those as much). Musically most people probably dismiss them as pushers of simple major chord progressions, which is half true.  But under scrutiny, the band has an uncanny, McCartney-like ability to make shimmering pop songs out of what are actually very complex chord structures. They played a few covers of the Beach Boys, Neil Young, The Beta Band, and of course, James Gang, because “Funk 49″ has apparently become the coolest song to cover lately. A few new songs were even premiered, which seem a bit more rockin’ and up-tempo upon first impression.

I have, on occasion, complained about the acoustics at Rams Head, but now I think that the first couple shows I saw there might have been bad apples. The quieter, less distorted, and decidedly more rhythmically and lyrically focused bands sound on point at Rams Head.  Even still, it’s probably not going to be the place to see bands who rely on big dynamic textures or guitar heroics, which is why Built to Spill and the Meat Puppets disappointed, and I imagine Dinosaur Jr. would as well. But I always liked that band better on record than live. I don’t see a point to posting anything from the Shins, so here’s the new Dinosaur song.

J’s vocals are really incredible. The guitars are a little more mid-range than I prefer, they don’t have that sunlight shattering through the haze of a forest floor kind of quality they used to, but shit they’re still really good for being like, y’know, dinosaurs:

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MP3: Dinosaur Jr. – Over It

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One Response to “Live Review: The Shins, Delta Spirit @ Rams Head Live (2009.05.15)”

  1. [...] Over It (pitchfork.tv) by Dinosaur Jr. Downloadable: Over It (mp3) Props to Aural States Streamable: I Got A Lot (New New New) (pitchfork.tv) by Mika Miko Downloadable: I Got A Lot (New [...]

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