It’s questionable whether The Shins can still be called a cult band after selling out Hammersmith’s Apollo. “This is like where Iron Maiden would play,” said frontman James Mercer. With a fifth album newly released, they are hardly household names, but are ever more widely known as an excellent source of sweet, skewed, indie pop songs.
It’s also debatable whether they can be called a band, when their last two albums have been a Mercer solo projects. Working with temps did mean that he was able to include in this line-up two guitarists and a keyboardist who could all also play the violin. When the three of them appeared with bows in the spotlight for the subtle ballad The Fear, it was a showstopping moment.
Despite operating in a traditionally meek genre, the whole evening scored high for entertainment value. The six musicians performed with a giant neon melting skull looming behind them, on a stage scattered with large fabric flowers. Snippets of both Walk This Way and Tom Petty’s American Girl were fun surprises, and the band rocked hard on Sleeping Lessons and the strangest new song, Painting a Hole.
Its bassy rumble wasn’t the only new direction. Mildenhall was a loping country number that described the American Mercer’s childhood spell living on a Suffolk RAF base. He looked backwards warmly, but the future of his indefinable group looks just as appealing.