- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 11, 2004

Who says that just because you write and sing all the songs you get to be the frontman?

James Mercer is the exclusive composer for the Shins, an art-pop band based in Portland, Ore. He’s the nerve center of the operation.

Yet on Tuesday night, the first of two sold-out shows at the Black Cat, he was stashed shyly and unobtrusively on stage right, dressed in a short-sleeve polo buttoned at the top, belting out his quirky, intellectualized lyrics from a bearded face that doesn’t match his high tenor.

At front and center was keyboardist Marty Crandall, who’s also the class clown of the group. “Here’s my plain bagel,” he beamed to the audience, exposing a paunch that probably never saw a suntan.

When Mr. Mercer was busy adjusting to his Bob Dylan rig of acoustic guitar and harmonica neck holder for the song “Pink Bullets,” Mr. Crandall was holding court with an attractive blonde in the audience who was standing under a blinding white spotlight that should have been pointing at the stage.

“I think it’s almost time for me to shut up now,” Mr. Crandall said with a snicker.

If Mr. Mercer minded the antics, he never showed it; he smiled along with the rest of us. In fact, he seemed glad to cede all the interactive responsibilities to his band mate.

For him, the tunes are what matter. On two successive Shins albums, the Albuquerque, N.M.-bred singer-songwriter has crafted some of the most charming melodic pop in at least a decade.

The McDonald’s advertising department scooped up his “New Slang (When You Notice the Stripes),” a song that, like many Tuesday night, lost a little of its depth and lure. That was somewhat surprising: Mr. Mercer is almost certainly a fan of the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds,” but for all their synthesized hooks, his songs are, productionwise, pretty spare.

Tuesday, the band — which also includes drummer Jesse Sandoval and relative newcomer Dave Hernandez, who trades bass and guitar duties with the multitalented Mr. Crandall — turned in note-for-note re-creations of its material in an 80-minute set.

The experimental “Your Algebra” fell flat as a first encore, while “Kissing the Lipless,” the sunny opening cut from last year’s “Chutes Too Narrow,” lacked the punch of the studio version.

The ones that found life were songs such as the country-Western “Gone for Good,” “Turn a Square” and “Girl Inform Me” — they had built-in locomotion and translated well to the stage.

Even if he’s listless as a performer, Mr. Mercer is intriguing to watch as he delivers complex melodies and even denser lyrics. His cleverest achievement, so far, as a songwriter is to pack serious existential doubt into songs of bobble-head rhythm and bright feeling.

On “So Says I,” he noted, but didn’t lament, another attempt at utopia that bit the proverbial dust; on “Saint Simon,” he shrugged off the intellectual comforts of religion — “I don’t have the time nor mind / to figure out the nursery rhymes / that helped us out in making sense of our lives.”

The last song of the night, “Caring Is Creepy,” was a stream-of-consciousness think-song that seems to have been inspired by bird-watching.

Of course, this is why you’ll never hear the Shins on commercial radio — even though you could fool yourself into thinking they were singing about good vibrations and surfboards if you didn’t pay attention to Mr. Mercer’s left-field musings.

So, despite their lack of new inspiration as a live act, it’s encouraging to see the Shins selling out 700-capacity venues two nights in a row.

That way, we know we’ll get a third album.

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