The audience goes apeshit and -- though the album hit stores less than a month ago -- dutifully sings every syllable. Mercer comes across cucumber-cool onstage, but the response has to feel good. Since the release of the Shins' 2001 debut, Oh, Inverted World, the quartet has been continually hyped as rock's next big thing -- a claustrophobic phenomenon with the ability to squash creativity like a Coke can.
"Yeah, a little bit," Mercer admits later when asked about the presence of flop sweat. "But there's always pressure in life. I don't think it affected the process too much. It's still an internal sort of thing. With the first record, we weren't really in a hurry. We spent a year doing it, but we only worked on it, like, every other weekend. This one was put together more quickly. We're signed now, so there's sort of a deadline."
The Shins are signed to Sup Pop, the legendary Seattle imprint whose contracts come loaded with enough baggage (the label's history and roster of gritty superstars) to stock a Samsonite convention. Though Sub Pop still has a reputation for trendspotting, the label has slipped a few status notches in the post-grunge era. Inverted gave it a much-needed boost in sales and credibility, which made the follow-up a high-pressure situation for all involved. The Shins retreated from the pressure cooker into Mercer's basement, tracking most of the record in its cramped confines.
"Damp. Cold and sort of musty," are Mercer's memories of the Chutes sessions. "It's an old house, but we had a space heater, so it wasn't too bad."
In the House of Blues, the Shins continue an assault on the Chicago hipster contingent, a mass of Clark Kent glasses and ironic T-shirts. The setting is appropriately ironic, too. House of Blues is a corporate entity of the nth degree that drapes its concert venues in pop kitsch and rock clutter -- Moulin Rouge meets modern baroque in a junk shop -- offering considerable contrast to the Shins' low-key wardrobe, Mercer's facial overgrowth and the band's official touring vessel, a dilapidated Ford van.
"No buses yet," Mercer explains. "Touring definitely can be fun, but it's really tiring and stuff. But we have fun with it. We try to enjoy it, because otherwise it could be really miserable."
"Lipless" crashes to a close, and keyboardist Marty Crandall bends to tie the laces of his Converse high tops, tripping over himself as he goes. He rises, takes a mammoth swig from a bottle of Budwesier and grabs a nearby mic.
"My shoe came untied," he sputters with a cackle. "Good thing I didn't try to do a 'rock kick,' or someone woulda died."
Crandall dances a little jig and taps a few notes on his keyboard rig. If Mercer is the Shins' stoic creative force, Crandall is his comedic counterpart. Onstage, he's a study in perpetual motion, lumbering around like a trunk-swinging elephant, doing B-boy backspins between songs and joking with the audience like a Catskills vet. Late in the set, he breaks into Ronnie James Dio's Brit-metal classic "Holy Diver," legs splayed in a V and arms extended in satanic salute.
As the Shins polish off another three-minute gem, a cake is brought out in honor of drummer Jesse Sandoval's birthday. Sandoval -- who founded the Shins with Mercer after their former band, Flake, hit the skids -- may be the quintessential indie-rock drummer; his stick work is unobtrusive and doggedly flash-free, rendering him virtually invisible. The audience sings a rousing version of "Happy Birthday," inserting dear drummer into the line where the name usually goes. Sandoval blows out the candles, and the rest of the band swarms the drum riser to plant sloppy kisses on his cheeks. Plastic cups filled with whiskey are brought to the stage, a toast is made and the band slams the shots en masse.
"Happy birthday to Jesse, our beautiful, lovable, Latino drummer," Crandall cracks. "The spice of the Shins."
This carefree vibe belies the internal turmoil that runs parallel to Shinstory. Hernandez, who handled bass duties on Inverted, is back after departing just prior to the act's Sub Pop signing.
"He fell in love with a girl who lived in New York," Mercer explains. "Then she moved to Portland, and he followed her. This was all when we were this really small band in Albuquerque, so it wasn't like we could really keep working together. So, basically by default, he ended up leaving this band. Neal [Langford] played guitar for Flake, so he became our bassist for the last two years. But he had his own career, and Dave wanted to play with the band again. I think he regretted leaving, especially when the relationship thing didn't pan out."
Cohesion prevails near the end of the bristling set as the band works its way through "Gone for Good," a new tune that makes ample use of complex vocals and subtle psychodrama. Mercer, Crandall and Hernandez pull off a stellar three-part harmony that takes the audience to the point of climax. It's a transcendent moment, one that makes explicit the Shins' desire to be placed among the great architects of pop music, if only by accident.
"You can't avoid knowing what the Beach Boys are," says Mercer, who draws comparisons to Brian Wilson in nearly every review. "But I didn't own Pet Sounds before the first record came out. Everybody started comparing it to some of the songs off of Pet Sounds, so I had to go buy it and find out what the hell they were talking about. And I do kind of understand -- on the first record, there's a lot of spooky background vocals with tons of reverb. So I can hear that, but it was totally unintentional. And I'm a lot less controlling than Brian Wilson."