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Ten great Ottawa Bluesfest sets: #6 The Shins – Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

(This year’s edition of Ottawa Bluesfest has been cancelled, for obvious reasons. In previous years, especially on my old blog, I would share photos and thoughts on some of the live music I was enjoying at the festival throughout the duration. So for the next week and a half, I thought I’d share ten great sets, out of the many I’ve witnessed over the years, one for each day on which music would have be performed. Enjoy.)

The Shins performing live at Bluesfest 2017

Artist: The Shins
When: Wednesday, July 12th, 2017
Where: Claridge Stage at 7:55pm
Context: This set by The Shins in 2017 marks the most recent performance to make this list and it also marks the only one for which I didn’t have any notes to which I could refer and pilfer to write this post. For all the other sets in this series, I was diligently making notes during them so that I could post reviews of sorts to my old blog ‘Music Insanity’. By the time 2017 rolled around, I had stuck a fork in that old blog and had just started this one and I decided to spend less time making notes and taking photos during concerts and just tried to enjoy the live experience more.

Interestingly, this particular Wednesday was the only day I got to Bluesfest in 2017. I was going to skip the festival altogether that year but the one day lineup that included Phantogram, The Shins, and LCD Soundsystem was too good to pass up. I had seen The Shins five years earlier with my wife Victoria and remembered that they blew us away, despite the rain storm that had swept up during their set. Still, leading up to that day, I was considering them and Phantogram icing on the cake to finally seeing LCD Soundsystem. That all changed when James Mercer and his players hit the stage.

The particulars are rather fuzzy, given that it was three years ago, again, I don’t have any notes from the day, and of course, I had enjoyed a few pints beforehand with my friend Jean-Pierre. However, I was totally engaged and enrapt during the set’s entirety. James Mercer and The Shins definitely know how to rock. They pulled out tunes from all of their albums, right back to their 2001 debut, “Oh, inverted world”, and didn’t focus solely on selections from their newest, 2017’s “Heartworms”. Yeah, I was there singing along to all the tunes right there with the rest of the crowd. And the smile never left my face the whole time.

Casey Foubert, Yuuki Matthews, Jon Sortland, and James Mercer
Patti King of The Shins
Casey Foubert of The Shins
Mark Watrous and James Mercer
Yuuki Matthews and Jon Sortland of The Shins
Yuuki Matthews, Jon Sortland, James Mercer, and Patti King
James Mercer of The Shins

Caring Is Creepy
Name for You
Mine’s Not a High Horse
Girl Inform Me
Saint Simon
Kissing the Lipless
Painting a Hole
The Rifle’s Spiral
Half a Million
Phantom Limb
Simple Song
The Fear
New Slang
Sleeping Lesson


Best tunes of 2001: #7 The Shins “New slang”

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Have you seen the film “Garden State”? Yes? No?

If yes, great. If not, you should check it out. Written and directed by and starring Zach Braff, it is a semi-autobiographical, semi-absurd film about an actor returning home after the death of his mother. It was an indie darling at the festivals, garnering positive reviews, and a cult following. I mention it here because music features heavily throughout the film. Braff chose the music for the soundtrack himself, winning a Grammy for it to go along with his directing awards, and as he has explained ad nauseum, he simply used the music he was listening to while writing the film.

There are two songs by The Shins that are featured in the film and soundtrack but the one that changed everything for the band was the placement of “New slang”. The morning after his mother’s funeral (and a particularly debaucherous night out with old friends), our protagonist goes to see a doctor and meets Natalie Portman’s character, a delightfully quirky soul, wearing headphones. He asks her what she is listening to and she responds “The Shins”. When he admits that he has never heard them, she literally gushes (with perhaps an ounce of hyperbole): “You gotta hear this one song. It’ll change your life, I swear.” He puts on the offered headphones and we all hear the song at number seven on my Best tunes of 2001 list.

Of course, I had already heard of The Shins by the time “Garden State” was released and I got to see it on DVD. The band had already been around for close to a decade, had released its sophomore album just the year before (my own introduction to the group), and all of a sudden, there was all this interest in the debut album, “Oh, inverted world”, especially two of its songs. Natalie Portman’s line definitely worked. After slipping on the headphones with Zach Braff, I, too, had to go back and check out the rest of the debut.

“New slang” was written by frontman James Mercer before The Shins were even a thing. It fades in gently, easing us all in to the acoustic finger picking, light tapping on the tambourine, and Mercer’s falsetto humming. He then sings the song all non committal, like he’s testing out the lyrics for the first time as the song is being recorded. Indeed, the vocals are set very low in the mix, deep beneath this whole pile of gentleness. The whole thing reeks of basement studio, stale cigarette butts and warm beer, and a very late night. Then, the song slips off into the same dark shadowy corner from which it sprang.

I don’t know if it’ll change your life, like it did that of James Mercer and The Shins, but “New slang” is a fine song to immerse yourself in for a while.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2001 list, click here.


Best tunes of 2010: #1 Broken Bells “The high road”

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After almost a full year, we’ve finally come to the number one song on this best of 2010 list. So many great songs but this single off the self-titled, debut album by Broken Bells wins it all for me hands down.

I remember first hearing about the Brian Burton and James Mercer collaboration and thinking (whether rightly or wrongly) that this was all made possible by another collaboration six years prior by Jimmy Taborello and Ben Gibbard, called The Postal Service. Still, when I first gave “Broken Bells” a spin and first heard the opening seconds of the opening song, this one, I was hooked. The album then spent a lot of time with me after that, keeping me company with its hooks and multi-faceted magic.

Apparently, the seeds were sown for this collaboration when The Shins’ frontman, James Mercer met producer/musician/wizard, Brian Burton (aka Danger Mouse) at a music festival in 2004 and they got to talking and discovered each other’s mutual respect. They didn’t actually get around to working together for another four years and the first album came a couple of years after that. By this time, Burton had already been riding a wave of successes, such as his collaboration with Cee-Lo Green as Gnarls Barkley and the production of albums by Gorillaz, The Good, The Bad and The Queen, Beck, and The Black Keys. Indeed, he was becoming like a musical Midas. Mercer, for his part, had put his own band, The Shins, on hiatus, citing fatigue after three relatively successful albums and achieving a sort of cult status. Working together, the two members of Broken Bells brought their own styles with them to the workshop and seemingly reinvigorated each other, creating beautiful, otherworldly music in the process.

“The high road” is hipster funk for martians. It opens up with synths that feel like free jazz random notes played on an underwater harpsichord, filtered through a C64’s speakers. Then, that laidback beat kicks in and you can just imagine Burton and Mercer coolly walking down a back alley with graffiti on the walls, decked out in bandannas and jean jackets with the collars turned up. Mercer’s vocals here are unlike anything he had previously done with The Shins, which I suppose is the point, affecting a devil may care attitude, almost to the point of irony. The whole thing is so much fun, right down to the backing vocals that invite you in to be part of the gang. That’s right. Step right up and join the choir that is the human race.

Cheers folks and thanks as always for reading.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2010 list, click here.