For just over 75 minutes on Sunday night, James Mercer – who at this point in his career is the human being of most consequence behind indie rock heroes the Shins – gave a clinic on the many ways a songwriter can transform their material while still pleasing a close to sold-out crowd.
Sunday’s show at Emo’s was one of more than a dozen around Austin that was rescheduled in clubs to make up for the cancellation of Sound On Sound Festival. With his five-piece backing band in the mood to try just about anything, Mercer spent the tight and tidy 17-song set changing up the delivery of some of the Portland-by-way-of-Albuquerque band’s most popular songs.
That’s not to say the night was a Zappa-esque freakout. Instead, the atmosphere and backing elements of a song like “Gone For Good” slowed down into a moody exploration of almost Ennio Morricone soundtrack material, which helped to accentuate quotable lines like “I find a fatal flaw in the logic of love.”
Doing this takes guts, especially on songs like “Phantom Limb” or the career-defining “New Slang” that are some of the most sturdy and pristine pop songs of the 2000s. On Sunday, though, “Phantom Limb” was rearranged, more restrained and drenched in dreamy atmospherics, with Mercer noticeably altering the meter and pacing of the vocals. That curveball didn’t throw the crowd, however, with fans responding loudly and taking over the “Ooooh-oh-oh” closing vocals before the entire band kicked back in for a cacophonous finish.
And “New Slang” – after a glitched and sped-up playing of the backing vocal track recording that felt like it might’ve been messed up on purpose as a goof – was played in a minimal and almost flat or removed style that was loyal enough to the original composition but kept it from turning into a full room karaoke sing-along.
Another highlight: the three-song suite toward the middle the of the set – “Gone For Good,” “Mildenhill” and “Saint Simon – that were played as arid and somber, with violins, some minor key arrangement and Mercer crooning instead of using his standard pinched high vocals.
Now more than 20 years since forming the band that initially trafficked in wafer delicate and sparse songs, Mercer is at a point where he can rework those songs pretty much any way he wants.
Whether that means taking an early delicate track like “Caring Is Creepy” and blowing it up into a full band anthem, or doing almost the reverse on other songs, he and his bandmates showed on Sunday that those songs hold up, no matter how they’re played.
Caring Is Creepy
Name For You
Kissing The Lipless
Mine’s Not A High Horse
Gone For Good
Painting A Hole
Half A Million