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Album review: The Shins, 'Port of Morrow'

Greg Kot

5:16 PM CDT, March 19, 2012

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2.5 stars (out of 4)

Besides being Natalie Portman’s favorite band in the 2004 art-house movie hit “Garden State,” the Shins have put out a series of albums brimming with lyrically cryptic pop-guitar jangle.

The band’s fourth studio album, “Port of Morrow” (Columbia), is its first in five years. In that time, the band’s singer and songwriter, James Mercer, has overhauled the band and worked on side projects such as Broken Bells, with the producer Danger Mouse. For the Shins major-label debut, he has enlisted pop producer Greg Kurstin (who has worked with everyone from Kesha to Beck) to sharpen, polish and broaden the sound, and the results are decidely mixed.

Fans of the band’s relatively modest indie releases may find the production oddly sparkly, layered with keyboards, wordless harmonies, and exotic little noisemakers and ear-catching details. But Mercer’s gift for the insinuating melody remains acute, and his lyrics have never been more straight-forward.

Kurstin packs the album with sonic forget-me-nots: The contrast between Mercer’s falsetto and the bubbling bass line in “The Rifle’s Spiral,” the woozy psychedelic folk of “September,” the ghostly cries that trip memories in "40 Mark Strasse." Mercer even tries on a new vocal persona in the title track: the gender-bending soul balladeer, and it works.

But not every song measures up; the horns on “Fall of 82” can’t mask its slightness and “Simple Song” isn’t nearly simple enough, a heart-felt statement sunk by grandiose production. Similarly, a potentially beautiful song of consolation, “It’s Only Life,” feels overdone. Such are the compromises made when the budgets and the business stakes are raised.

greg@gregkot.com