Underrated: Spotlight on The Shins


Conor Toland, Music Critic

Starting this week the Chieftain Press starts “Underrated,” a column where I, Conor Toland, tell you what music you have to listen to that I believe is underrated. This involves albums, artists, and songs from the past and the present. For this first week, I have chosen to spotlight the Shins.

The Shins are an indie sub-pop band originating from Albuquerque, New Mexico. Started by singer/songwriter James Mercer in 1997, the band has had a revolving door of members throughout the last ten years. The lineup from 1997 to 2009 consisted of James Mercer (singer/guitar), Jesse Sandoval (drums), Dave Hernandez (bass), Marty Crandall (keyboards),  and Dave Hernandez (bass). They released their first album, Oh, Inverted World, in 2001, which was followed up in 2003 by Chutes Too Narrow. After a several year hiatus, the band returned with 2009’s Wincing The Night Away, which peaked at number two on the US billboard charts. Three years later Mercer returned with a new Shins lineup, which replaced the previous members with Jessica Dobson (guitar), Yukki Matthews (bass guitar), Joe Plummer (drummer), Richard Swift (keyboard). They released two singles, “It’s Only Life” and “Simple Song.” They were followed by the release of 2012’s Port of Morrow. Yet again the band’s lineup changed in the past two years. The current lineup consists of Mercer, Matthews, Jon Sortland (drums), Patti King (keyboards), Casey Foubert (guitar), and Mark Watrous (guitar/keyboards).

Now that I’ve gotten the boring information out of the way, let me explain why they rock. Songwriter James Mercer has been creating catchy pop-rock since the Shins started.To me, the Shins are a phenomenal, but they’re underrated and don’t get as much recognition as they deserve. With their lush harmonies and sweet poppy tunes, Mercer draws influence from 60s pop bands such as the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and the Zombies , but they certainly stand very well independently. Here are my top five songs by the Shins:

  1. Dead Alive – (Heartworms)

One of the Shins most experimental songs, “Dead Alive” was the first single released off of Heartworms. It’s somewhat haunting (fittingly released October 26th of 2016), and yet still melodically pleasing. The bass line in this song smoothly floats alongside a shuffling electronic beat. The ghastly track ends with an almost chant-like repetition of “figments of imagination.” Certainly a track worth listening to.

  1. So Says I – (Chutes Too Narrow)

“So Says I” is one of Mercer’s more politically inclined songs. However, it’s not much of an activist anthem as it is a pessimistic reflection of humanity and its flaws. Mostly Mercer addresses the flaws he finds in capitalism and communism, eventually concluding, “We’ve got rules and maps and guns in our backs but we still can’t just behave ourselves/Even if to save our own lives, so says I/We are a brutal kind.” It’s personally a favorite of mine lyrically, and yet again the band fails to disappoint when it comes to the song itself. It’s energetic, with an opening chord reminiscent of the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night.” Overall, the band has a very tight performance on this track from their sophomore album.

  1. The Rifle’s Spiral – (Port of Morrow)

“The Rifle’s Spiral” is dark. It’s fueled by a powerful drumbeat, an equally rhythmic baseline, and atmospheric synths. Mercer revealed in an interview with Magnet magazine that the theme behind “The Rifle’s Spiral” is that that the song is “written from the perspective of somebody funding and paying for suicide bombers to engage in that horrible activity.” The track’s gloomy tone is well conveyed through the band’s orchestration.

  1. New Slang – (Oh! Inverted World)

This track was the band’s first single, and is without a doubt their most popular song, having 93. 5 million plays on Spotify alone, beating “Simple Song” at 42.2 million plays. It’s quiet and mellow. Its lyrics deal with growing up and losing innocence, thus the title, “New Slang.” It’s a coffee house jam, best saved for rainy days and quiet nights. The song’s production is minimal but effective.  It’s a bittersweet-but-lovely tune.


  • Simple Song


Many other Shins fans would likely place “New Slang” at the top of their lists. However, I feel that their best song is “Simple Song.” This first single from Port of Morrow is perhaps the most effective and coherent piece by the band. The irony lies in the opening line, in which Mercer decrees “Well, this is just a simple song/ to say what you’ve done.” The song is one of the band’s most intricate, anthemic, and powerful. The energy in the song creates a moving masterpiece. Every part of the song, from the clean orchestration to the expressive lyrics, helps to contribute to the overall message of the song as Mercer thanks his wife for “that strength that you get from a real strong love,” as he told Magnet Magazine. He transfers the strength from the love into his performance. “Simple Song” is far from simple, it’s a true masterpiece of songwriting and production.