I've talked to plenty of artists who have made the jump from independent labels to the majors over the years, and the conversation usually ends up exactly like this: "It says it right there in our contract: 'complete artistic control.' They're not going to do anything to our sound. We haven't changed a bit."
Next time you read something like that in an artist interview - and believe you me, James Mercer will surely be spilling this line out the minute that anyone asks him about working with Columbia Records - do yourself a favor and compare the sound of Daydream Nation with Goo. Or White Blood Cells with Elephant. Or, yes to use the most hoary of examples, Bleach with Nevermind. There's no denying that once the money starts flowing into the band's coffers, the suits want a return on their investment.
So, bands capitulate to things like "radio remixes" and co-producers taking control of songs that they feel need to be sweetened for commercial/marketing opportunities or, in the case of The Shins, joining forces with folks like Greg Kurstin a gent who has helped make crowd pleasing sausage for the likes of Lily Allen, Foster The People, All Saints, and the Z100 girl pop triumvirate of Pink, Britney Spears, and Ke$ha. Neither band nor label are hedging their bets on this one.
I know this is talk that has been beaten to death in the blogs and music sections of print publications for years now, but it all came flooding back to me when I listened to "Simple Song" for the first time.
The track (from the band's forthcoming full-length Port of Morrow) is pure gloss. The kind of brightly colored sheen that you see in commercials for nail color and lipstick. Nothing is left to chance: Mercer's vocal melodies feel cut and pasted from Shins tracks of yore, instrumental melodies pay homage to all kinds of familiar, comfort food fare (The Soft Bulletin, The Who, some of Phil Spector's late '60s hits), and the song is stuffed to bursting with sound and incident. Like most of the moves that Mercer has been making over the last few years (dumping 3/4 of his bandmates, jumping into bed with Danger Mouse), it feels completely self-conscious and overthought to a fault. And, by God, it's going to make Mercer, Columbia, and all who ride with them a crate full of cash.
Not such a simple song after all, is it?