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The Shins: KCRW's Berkeley Street Sessions

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The Shins "Port of Morrow" album has been, to fans of the Portland-based band, a long time coming. Their last studio release, the fantastic "Wincing the Night Away," was released in 2007, but a lot has changed for the band since then. For one, James Mercer, Shins frontman, is the last man standing; he's backed by a talented group of all-new musicians, who together have put out a moodily beat-rich set of songs.

During that no-man's land performance time between Coachella weekends--where the band played for the first time this year--KCRW invited The Shins and a few lucky guests for an intimate "Berkeley Street Session" at Apogee Studios, and the set and interview with KCRW's Jason Bentley, is airing Thursday May 3 on the station.

The audience packed into the small space were treated to a mix of new songs and old favorites, via a playlist Mercer said he crafted in order to give the fans what they wanted and not deny them the well-known back catalog tunes.

The new band (keyboardist Richard Swift, drummer Joe Plummer, bass guitarist Yuuki Matthews, and guitarist Jessica Dobson) with the addition of The Watson Twins on select vocals, managed to elevate songs like "Australia," "Phantom Limb," and "Saint Simon." When they broke into the familiar, haunting strains of "New Slang," it was almost like the crowd let out a collective sigh that dissolved into a whoop. "Did that really happen?" quipped Bentley. "Did The Shins just play 'New Slang' tonight?"

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But the new album is full of complex tunes that reflect Mercer's growth as a musician and a man. His off-Shins time was spent in part working with Brian Burton, aka Danger Mouse, on the band Broken Bells, and his family also expanded; Mercer is dad to two young daughters. Fatherhood, Mercer acknowledged during the mid-set interview, has given him a new perspective, which, at times calls further into question the idea of mortality.

It's not all dark and grim, though. A poet with his tangle of coolly personal lyrics (I often think of Mercer and Tori Amos as similar craftspeople of words, who can write powerfully resonant songs with phrases that may not concretely be relevant to the listener, but that are, maybe more so because of it, exponentially more gripping), Mercer is largely a music first, lyrics last composer. The early frontrunner hit from "Port of Morrow" is "A Simple Song," written for Mercer's wife, and, if you'll forgive the cheese, is akin to a contemporary alt-rock version of Elton John's "Your Song." It's mildly apologetic, undeniably romantic, and compellingly enduring.

With a ripe lushness not fully realized on the studio album, The Shins translate their songs in live performance with an encompassing intensity that should, by rights, have sent everyone out into the foggy Santa Monica night on dancing feet.

KCRW will air the selected songs from the session and the interview on "Morning Becomes Eclectic" Thursday May 3 at 11:15 a.m. Tune in!

Here's the set list:

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