- - Monday, March 19, 2012

Port of Morrow

The Shins



When a group like the Shins releases its first album in five years, it’s a big deal. When the album arrives on the heels of some massive change &#*212; say, the firing of every single band member apart from the frontman, followed by the hiring of an entirely new backup band — it’s an even bigger deal. Add a partnership with a major label to the equation, and you’ve got a perfect storm of hype and guaranteed backlash for this former indie act.

Such is the baggage that threatens to weigh down “Port of Morrow,” the latest release from Shins mastermind James Mercer. Longtime fans may be furious at Mr. Mercer for sacking his entire roster of musicians, and they have reason to be upset. A band is the combination of multiple personalities and different opinions, after all, and reducing the Shins to a glorified solo project feels hollow, clinical and completely un-Shins-like.

Listen to the music, though, and “Port of Morrow” proves Mr. Mercer can deliver the goods with any lineup. “Simple Song” is perhaps the closest he’s ever come to delivering a pop masterpiece, with its sparkling hooks that build their way toward a big, sweeping chorus. Songs such as “Fall of ‘82” take a quirkier path, trading anthemic melodies for horns and clever bass lines, but the payoff is just as rewarding.

This is bookish, literate pop-rock, filled with tongue-twisting lyrics about nostalgia and love. Sure, the album is being released by a major label, but the songs still jangle as playfully as they always did, and Mr. Mercer steers his ship without any obvious supervision from his new bosses at Columbia. When he hits the high notes in “Simple Song,” it feels like 2004 all over again, the year in which Natalie Portman claimed that the Shins will “change your life” during a scene in “Garden State.” Maybe they still can.

Casey James

Casey James

BNA/19 Recordings


In case you forgot, Casey James was the third-place finalist on “American Idol” back in 2010. That was a lifetime ago in the fast-moving world of pop music and an epoch in the world of “American Idol,” where new winners are crowned every year and largely forgotten by the time the next season rolls around.

The guy is worth remembering, though. He’s the best guitarist the show has ever seen, with a bluesy tone reminiscent of Stevie Ray Vaughan and a solid voice to match. Maybe he didn’t deserve to win the whole season — that honor should have gone to hippie folkster Crystal Bowersox — but he certainly should’ve crushed Lee DeWyze, who took first place and wound up delivering the lowest-selling album of any “Idol” champion.

Mr. James gets the last word with this self-titled debut. Unfortunately, “Casey James” falls prey to some of the same pitfalls that plague most debuts from “Idol” alumni. It’s too polished for blues music and too poppy for rock ‘n’ roll, and Mr. James‘ guitar solos are pushed to the background, where they were never meant to be.

The problem isn’t the performer. He sings well, and songs such as “The Good Life” and “Drive” are fine, sturdy country-pop numbers about living life the right way. Mr. James writes most of the songs, too, proof he was always an artist on a show designed for mere singers.

The problem, then, is the packaging. Mr. James is being rebranded as a contemporary country artist, a role he never played during his time on “American Idol,” and you can’t help but wonder if “Casey James” is the product of a major label trying to commercialize a guy whose music might have been too bluesy, too guitar-based for a mainstream market. He deserves better, and so do we.

Radio Music Society

Esperanza Spalding

Heads Up International

She may be doomed to a lifetime of recognition as the girl who stole the best new artist Grammy from Justin Bieber, but Esperanza Spalding proves she deserves the award with this breezy solo record album. Come for the unique cover of Michael Jackson’s “I Can’t Help It.” Stay for Miss Spalding’s originals, which blur the lines between jazz, fusion and crossover pop.

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