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frank ockenfels 3

It’s been nearly a decade since the Shins’ breakthrough and five years since their last record. But somehow, ?songwriter/frontman James Mercer has managed to keep a bevy of outside influences? — expectations from fans, critics and the industry — at bay.

“I like to think that moment when you’re just sitting there with a guitar trying to come up with a song is something pure, that it can’t be altered or affected by anything external,” he says. “Otherwise, it would be terrible. It would be the end of my working life, for sure.”

Little seems to have affected Mercer’s finely tuned muse on Port of Morrow ?(Aural Apothecary/Columbia, $12), the Shins’ fourth and latest LP. Since the group’s last record, he has been in a collaborative mood, working with Brian Burton (aka Danger Mouse) on the experimental rock project Broken Bells and even acting in the ensemble indie film Some Days Are Better Than Others.
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annie beedy

Similarly, on Port, Mercer pulls together a diverse cast of colleagues to help him flesh out his vision, including Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss, Bright Eyes horn man Nate Walcott, and longtime Shins foils Dave Hernandez and Marty Crandall.

“It was a great thing to have a bunch of different players work on the record with me; often it can make the difference between a song working and not working,” Mercer says. “Sometimes you get so close to it that it’s hard to figure out what you even liked about the thing when you wrote it, until somebody comes in with fresh ears and is able to find these little things you weren’t even hearing.”

As Mercer re-enters the fray with the Shins, it’s easy to see the group’s influence practically everywhere these days. Their delicate, wistful sound has become a template for a generation of bands and has marked a turning point in the mainstreaming of indie pop in commercials as well as film and TV soundtracks. But Mercer downplays any responsibility.

“I don’t know, I always figure those bands are just listening to the same stuff I’m listening to,” he says, laughing. “I think there’s this big pile of popular culture out there that we all sift through unconsciously and come up with our own take on. That’s sort of the beauty of it.”

Lyrically Speaking
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Lyle Lovett
“Night’s Lullaby”
Release Me
(Curb/Lost Highway
Music Group, $14)

The dew drops
they glisten
So we lie here and listen
to the sound of the
Night’s Lullaby