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Disc of the week: A solid landing for the Shins

The Shins sitting in an attic.

Port of Morrow The Shins (Aural Apothecary/Sony)

On Tuesday, the Shins will issue a new album, Port of Morrow. It's an effortlessly melodic indie-style pop album – some of it spacey, some of it sparkly, and some of it breezy.

The band has gone through some changes since its last album, 2007's Grammy-nominated Wincing the Night Away. The biggest change being that the band is no longer a band.

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Yeah, boom. James Mercer, the song-writing singer, broke away from original members Jesse Sandoval, Marty Crandall and Dave Hernandez, choosing to work with a new cast instead. Mercer had long admired auteurs such as Jeff Mangum (Neutral Milk Hotel) and Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes) – sort-of soloists who presented themselves as a band, working with a fluid lineup of collaborators and the kindred spirits of the moment. He'd been afraid to make that sort of leap of independence himself, until, clearly, now.

I can't say whether all that had much effect on this record. The first track, The Rifle's Spiral, is strong. (As are most of the opening songs on the Shins' records, come to think of it.) The beat is muscular, almost dancey. The electro-twitchiness and Mercer's high-voiced use of the word "sublimate" give it a progressive feel. The verses sound like Sam Roberts on ecstasy.

I can say that Port of Morrow was produced by Greg Kurstin, whose name you'll find in the liner notes of albums by popsters Lily Allen, Sia and Kylie Minogue. And, yes, Port of Morrow has its catchy moments.

But you knew that, having heard the sublime first single, Simple Song – a grand, shimmering gem. It's the best song here, and lyrically representative of the album as a whole. "You know things can really get rough if you go alone," Mercer sings, visions of soundtrack placement in the back of his mind. Zach Braff, are you listening?

It's Only Life keeps with the sympathy and advice: "You want to hop along with the giddy thong through life. But how will you learn to steer when you're grinding all your gears?"

Everything sounds fantastic, have to say, and the arrangements are deftly done. September recalls the alt-country textures of Beck's Sea Change disc. No Way Down swirls upwardly in a euphoric way. You have to think that Mercer took some notes while working with Danger Mouse on their 2010 Broken Bells collaboration.

Wouldn't it be nice, Brian Wilson once supposed, to live together in the kind of world where we belong. Port of Morrow is a nice record. Mercer, 41, cements his status as a savvy song-crafter (to the point of hovering dangerously over Hall and Oates' territory on 40 Mark Strasse). He credits the disc's general upbeatness to his tranquil personal life, and the album is the first Shins release on his own label, after three with Sub Pop.

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Mercer clearly is in a good place, then. It shows.


Fire it Up Johnny Reid (EMI) 3 stars

Is Johnny Reid running for office? Dude sings big ol' heartland music that shakes hands, kisses babies and riles and warms corn-fed souls. He's a poor man's John Mellencamp here; a Sam Cooke knockoff there ( Let's Have a Party pretty well twists the night away). Dedicated to You wins the women's vote with a wedding ballad, and the scratchy-voiced Scottish émigré wraps himself in a maple-soaked flag on Right Where I Belong. Reid generally ingratiates himself shamelessly, with every song having its targets and purposes: The bagpiped bye-bye of Till We Meet Again, for example, will be at the back end of his upcoming set lists, guaranteed. Corporate, concert-ready rock 'n' soul is what it is – a vote for Fire it Up is a vote for Scotty MacCanadian. Brad Wheeler

The MF Life Melanie Fiona (Universal Republic) 3 stars

"Something different," pledges Melanie Fiona, her swagger thick and blatant, "something new." Audaciously titled, the second album from the U.S.-based Toronto urban-soul singer presents an artist certain in her directions. Watch Me Work, for example, is sassy and strapping – something damn near riff-rock. Running, produced by Amy Winehouse collaborator Salaam Remi, has retro touches, but a rap cameo from Nas, too. Some old, then, and some new (although her wristwatch is slow on the single 4 AM, a moody Auto-Tuned ballad with pathetically ordinary lyrics and that trite telephone-answering-machine thing). Sometimes you hear Blige-y pain and empowerment; other times, a soaring Whitney. But on the supple neosoul strum of Can't Say I Never Loved You, Fiona is Fiona – free and easy, her life seemingly nothing like what those needlessly nasty initials stand for. B.W.

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The Grandeur of the Baroque: Toccatas and Sinfonias, by J.S. Bach; Suites by G.F. Handel, S.L. Weiss and François Couperin David Russell, guitar (Telarc) 3 stars

The title of David Russell's 17th-century recording may tout the grandeur of the Baroque, but his guitar transcriptions of Bach, Handel, Weiss and Couperin celebrate its intimacy. Even Russell's impressive performance of the toccata from Bach's Partita in E Minor, with its dramatic opening and intricate fugue, pulls inward. The guitar wasn't the inspiration for the music on this disc, but the lute, not so many steps away from the guitar, often was: Weiss wrote his Suite in D Major expressly for lute, and the broken chords so ubiquitous in the keyboard music were a direct steal from the lutenists. Russell often makes a far more satisfying case for the keyboard pieces on guitar than anyone does on the modern piano: His suave interpretations of Couperin, in particular, are delicious. Elissa Poole

Radio Music Society Esperanza Spalding (Heads Up International) 3.5 stars

Even though there's nothing particularly retro about the sound, it's hard to listen to Spalding's pop-oriented Radio Music Society without flashing back to the mid-seventies, when jazz-infused pop and pop-infused jazz cross-pollinated and climbed the charts. In addition to being a strong and charismatic singer, Spalding is a terrific songwriter, and originals such as the gently beautiful Cinnamon Tree or the funky and proud Black Gold easily stand up against covers such as I Can't Help It (from Michael Jackson's Off the Wall). Her bass-playing is equally impressive; and her insistent, inventively melodic bass lines energize the grooves, elevating the melodies and inspiring the soloists. It's definitely worth tuning in. J.D. Considine

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