Arriving seemingly out of nowhere with a bundle of rapturously small, devoutly inscrutable pop songs spilling over with light and harmony, the Shins have always felt and sounded like a special, secret triumph. That the band was actually from Albuquerque, and had played together for years before 2001's "Oh, Inverted World" captured the imagination of listeners, did little to dim the Shins' cryptic appeal. When Natalie Portman's character told Zach Braff's character in the indie sleeper "Garden State" that the Shins would change his life, the pledge both added to the group's mystique and broadened its audience tenfold.
So why should we have been surprised that its all-ages show at the Orpheum Thursday night would be sold out and packed to the rafters with screaming tweens to forty-somethings, proclaiming their undying devotion from the balcony? Maybe it's because, despite the band's cross-generational popularity, the Shins' tasty, taffy-pull pop still sounded like a special indulgence, if something less of a secret obsession.
The band peppered its 80-minute set with selections from its latest disc, "Wincing the Night Away," and began by reeling off a clutch of terrific new songs: the vertiginous, organ-dappled "Sleeping Lessons"; the bubblegum bounce of "Australia"; the luscious sway of "Phantom Limb." In a live setting, the pared-back, more muted production of the new album took on fuller colors and richer tones, and sat seamlessly alongside older emotional epics in miniature, such as "Kissing the Lipless," and the encore closer, "So Says I."
One particular highlight was an inspired cover of the Boston-bred Modern Lovers' "Someone I Care About, " a proto-punk number spiked with hooks, nerve, and adolescent yearning that the Shins turned into a zealous garage-rock rave-up. With cowbell, no less.
Despite the band sinking three guitars into the mix at times, and its sweet-toothed addiction to dressing its summery songs in a bevy of Brian Wilson-esque "La-la-la's," not a note, chorus, or crescendo sounded out of place or extraneous.
The Shins' main focal point, singer-guitarist James Mercer , made for an unlikely, bookish heartthrob. But a sense of romantic, lavishly bittersweet longing was palpable nonetheless. It all felt like anything but wincing the night away.