The Shins Kick It Old-School With Kinks-y Pop

Albuquerque pop group seeks sincerity on new Oh, Inverted World.

Some people think the world runs according to a grand scheme. Shins singer/guitarist James Mercer is convinced there's a plan — but he believes it runs counter to all common sense.

"Sometimes it feels like this perfect reverse logic runs everything," said Mercer, whose guitar-pop band released its full-length debut, Oh, Inverted World, on Tuesday. "It's as though everything were exactly the opposite of what it should be. That's when you get really frustrated with things — you know, situations where someone is attracted to the exact person they shouldn't be attracted to. It can be applied to a lot of things, like politicians — the better liar is really the person people love the most."

Mercer knows a thing or two about the topsy-turvy.

His band — which manages a Kinks-y and Zombie-ish pop sound without devolving into the strictly retro — has its roots in the indie-rock outfit Flake, which formed in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 1992. They mutated into Flake Music, while Mercer formed the Shins as a side project in 1997 to concentrate on melodic tunes. When members of Flake Music left town, Mercer was left with a Shins line-up consisting of precisely the same folks who played in Flake way back when, only on different instruments.

While Flake preferred disjointed group collaborations, Mercer completes his Shins tunes before presenting them to bandmates Marty Crandall (keyboards), Neal Langford (bass) and Jesse Sandoval (drums).

"I work pretty hard at that — I like the transitions in good songs," said Mercer, 30, citing the Beatles' "Girl" from Rubber Soul (1965) as an example of perfect subtlety. "One of my favorite moments in songs is when they switch from verse to chorus."

Mercer's interest in traditional pop songcraft is evident throughout Oh, Inverted World, where a melody might conjure either a hopeful sunrise or a damp, melancholy evening. The oddly titled "Know Your Onion!" jumps with crisp, lo-fi inspiration. "The Celibate Life" draws its strength in part from jangly guitar and harmonica as well as Sandoval's anxious, understated drumming on what sounds like a shoe box.

On "Caring Is Creepy" the band could be first cousins to '80s Brit hitmakers the Smiths. "In this generation, or at least the people I hang out with, there seems to be this aversion to any sort of real feelings," Mercer said of the track. "To give a sh-- is the opposite of cool. I guess that's where the title phrase came from."

The Shins spent the early part of this year garnering acclaim at the South By Southwest and Noise Pop festivals. Later this month, they'll hit the East Coast for some dates with the Red House Painters. Mercer is planning a summer move to Portland, Oregon, while his bandmates will remain in Albuquerque. Although he's still a big fan of his hometown, he has struggled with its lack of a strong rock-music community.

"After touring the whole country with Modest Mouse, I realized that Albuquerque is pretty unique," he said. "You can be in a neighborhood in Portland and it feels like you're in Milwaukee, and the same goes for New York. Albuquerque is a poor city, with an Hispanic majority, which is the cool thing about it."