Picture perfect

The Shins make music fit for a film.


Graceland, 381-3094, $10 adv. 9 p.m. Fri., Oct. 26

I CAN IMAGINE the documentary film on the Shins. Quiet and humble, frontman James Mercer walks through the streets of Portland with an old beat-up Walkman (cassette, not CD) and a bummed cigarette. He's just moved to Oregon from Albuquerque, and he hasn't yet acclimated to the ways of these winters. The wind sharpens like a knife across a belt; he shivers in his hooded, zipped sweatshirt. Then the voice-over: A coarse, vaguely East Coast half-whisper says that James Mercer is an easy man. He doesn't waste time worrying. He doesn't wonder if he should do more than he does. He sometimes writes songs at a snail's pace, but when they're finished, they're like time captured in Kodachrome and posted on your heart's hallway.

Cut to Mercer boarding a city bus, folding a transfer and fitting it squarely in his back pocket, dropping his weight into the mold of the plastic bench, bending his elbow to rest on the seam between the wall and the window. From the corner of the screen comes the opening whistles of the song "Caring is Creepy." Keyboard lines straight from the Cure's cache of moody and melodic outtakes backdrop Beach-Boys-meet-the-Bunnymen guitars as the song's one anchoring line, "Never betray the way you've always known it is" sails around the crushing uncertainty that colors the rest of the track.

Cut to keyboard player Marty Crandall behind the counter of an Albuquerque record store. "Well, I had my hand in it, but it's not necessarily mine to be proud of," he says, discussing, to borrow a lyric, the luscious mix of words and tricks that is the band's debut, Oh, Inverted World (Sub Pop). "I guess there's the fact that I've been in the band for a long time, so I feel proud. I guess I have my say in the musical input, but it's definitely James' little baby. I can look at James and say, 'Man, you made a great record.'"

Back to Mercer. This time he's at home sitting near a picture window, the view of evergreens partially obscured by rain and the condensation that pools on cold glass. "I like to invent melodies," he says simply. "I'm usually working on several things at once. Maybe like 20 songs that are all just slowly creeping along. Then when I sit down to record something, things just change. I'll think, 'Oh, we should have this melody there.' To me, it's just, 'Scrap it. Change it.' Because it's yours, you can do it however you want."

"It's really hard," he says, smiling shyly as the camera pauses on a tight shot. "It's all really hard for me. I mean, there are some songs that happen really quickly, but by and large, it takes a long time. I work really hard at it. I rewrite things. I wish I could say that I'm some kind of genius who just farts it out." He smiles shyly, and the scene shifts as you remember how easy it is to take all of this too seriously.

In a small downstairs club quarantined from New York City's summer heat, the Shins prepare to play for a bunch of music journalists, record-store buyers, and fortunate fans. The next night they'll play at the Bowery Ballroom in front of a huge crowd. Crandall, bassist Neal Langford, and drummer Jesse Sandoval are laughing and joking as James turns a knob on his guitar and nods that he is ready to go. The band launches into "Know Your Onion," and bodies immediately begin to move. At the track's midpoint, Crandall keys a line of carefree pop bounce and grins widely as if this is something he's never done before. Mercer, however, is staid. His posture and downturned gaze tell the awed audience that these lines he's reciting can be trusted, counted on. The scene is there because the filmmakers want you to understand the way these characters fit into the music that they makeā€”or rather, the music that makes them.

But this, in case you haven't noticed, is not actually a film. It's far too soon for such a thing; history only recently began writing the Shins' chapter. But people like us scour music magazines like we're panning for gold, and we leave the dial on Behind the Music for longer than we ought to, anticipating the story before it's even told. We recognize the opening paragraphs as they explode in the early morning sky, we watch as the cover photo is snapped in a small town cafe, we are familiar with legends arising out of honest artistry, and we recognize the Shins' near-perfect beauty because the truth always makes its mark.

"It's just so easy to play with those guys," says Crandall back at the record store, an old Flaming Lips song playing in the background. "It just seems like that's the way it should be." And as "New Slang," this year's most sublime pop song, steps into its wistful first verse, the credits roll.


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