James Mercer

The Shins' 2007 album Wincing the Night Away got rave reviews and debuted at number 2 on the Billboard 200, spawning a yearlong tour and snagging a Grammy nomination for Best Alternative Music Album. It was a wild ride for a band that had spent nearly a decade working its way up from obscurity in Albuquerque, and front man James Mercer came away from it exhausted and ready to quit. The last thing on his mind was the next Shins project. "It was a bit of a crisis in a way," he says. "What do you do if you decide the band you've been with for the last 10 years, you just suddenly don't want to do?" So Mercer took a breather in the form of Broken Bells, an excellent collaboration with Brian Burton (a.k.a. Danger Mouse), as a way to "open up my horizons." A few years later, with a new label and rejiggered lineup, Mercer has decided to take a fresh crack at the Shins. The band's new album, Port of Morrow, out next week, takes a smoothed-out, matured approach to the Shins' characteristic electro-folk-rock. I spoke with Mercer about his favorite rock and roll singers, being raised a military brat, and why you can't get a decent American-made microphone anymore—dammit!

Mother Jones: So after the Wincing tour, you were hitting some roadblocks with the Shins?

James Mercer: Mainly I was tired of being right in the middle and everything sort of revolving around me, including the friendship dynamics-slash-bandmate dynamics and the creative aspect. It was a bit much. It had never been so big, and I had never been someone who was ever in the center of any kind of social circle. And in the midst of that, Brian Burton kind of came up with the idea of us working on a new band where he was writing in a more traditional sense. It was kind of perfect timing. I was a bit intimidated by it, but I had also recently decided to start saying "Yes" to things.

MJ: Musically, or in your life in general?

JM: Life in general.


If you refuse to apologize for America, have trouble staying on message, and you share a birthday with Jack Kerouac, Liza Minnelli, Jake Tapper, and Serbian war criminal Ratko Mladić...then your name is probably Willard Mitt Romney.

Today—Monday, March 12, 2012—Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney will be celebrating his 65th birthday. For his big, special day, we threw together a playlist of songs that any man of his stature and taste would surely enjoy bro-ing out to on his birthday. (Despite the temptation, "Who Let the Dogs Out?" will not be included.) Joyeux anniversaire, Monsieur Romney:

1. The Ramones, "Happy Birthday to You": Mad magazine beat us to the punch of making the Romney/Mr. Burns connection. Thus, we present to you the Ramones, singing at Mr. Burns' birthday bash on a classic 1993 episode of The Simpsons. After speeding through their ragged cover of "Happy Birthday to You," bassist C. J. Ramone tells Burns to "go to hell, you old bastard," to which Burns responds by telling Waylon Smithers to "have the Rolling Stones killed"—a degree of out-of-touchedness that Mitt Romney should easily recognize.

Ironically, if guitarist Johnny Ramone were alive today, he would undoubtedly be an avowed Romneyite. (The rest of the band, not so much.)

Elizabeth Olsen getting scared senseless in "Silent House" (2012).

Silent House
Open Road Films
88 minutes

There are three things in life of which we will—unfortunately—always have too much: AM talk radio, vampire lit, and horror movies about pretty young white girls who get chased around their houses by deranged, one-dimensional killers. Silent House fits snugly into that third category.

The no-frills horror movie is the American remake of La Casa Muda, a badass 2010 Uruguayan film noted for its unrelenting intensity and stylistic novelty. The new version kicks off with an unmistakable been-there-done-that vibe: Sarah and her father John travel to their lakeside vacation home to take care of some much-needed renovation before the house is put back on the market. The creaky, borderline-dilapidated property is located in the middle of nowhere—no cell phone reception, phone lines, internet, or contact with the outside world. Almost all the home's circuits are kaput. Nightfall is fast approaching.

Before you even begin mouthing the words "Hey, I've seen this one befo...." a man shrouded in shadows busts into the house, incapacitates John, and starts lumbering menacingly after Sarah.

Thus begins the white-girl-being-chased-through-the-house-athon: Sarah spends the next hour-plus making quick getaways into decrepit and dusty rooms, with the faceless stalker in hot pursuit. For practically the entire film, we watch Sarah—scared out of her skin—panting and scampering away from the invader, suspicious noises, forbidding darkness, loud footsteps, unexplained bloodstains, and even the apparitional figure of a little kid. You name it, this pretty young white girl is screaming and running away from it.

House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East

By Anthony Shadid


In his New York Times dispatches from across the Middle East, Anthony Shadid—a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner—cuts a swashbuckling figure. In the last year alone, he braved tear gas and live fire in Egypt, was kidnapped by Qaddafi's thugs in Libya, and secretly traversed Syria's killing fields by motorcycle. House of Stone casts the correspondent in a softer light, recalling his 2007 return to his ancestral village in southern Lebanon to rebuild his great-grandfather's abandoned home—and perhaps piece together his own wayward life in the process. At once outsider and native son, Shadid elegantly reflects on the violent splintering of the once-vibrant Levant and its uphill struggle to reclaim its dwindling notions of regional identity.

Editor's Note: Anthony Shadid died of an asthma attack in February while reporting for the New York Times inside Syria. Shortly before his death, he spoke with Mother Jones about House of Stone, Syria's future, and the high cost of getting the story in a war zone. You can read Shadid's interview with Mother Jones here.


"Orpheo Looks Back"

From Andrew Bird's Break It Yourself

Liner notes: Hitching his wistful voice and elegant violin to a jaunty tempo suggesting an Appalachian hoedown, Andrew Bird evokes a sense of restless longing on this album, his 12th.

Behind the music: The Chicagoan employed his classical violin skills on collaborations with the throwback Southern combo Squirrel Nut Zippers during the '90s. More experimental in his own work, Bird recently appeared on the soundtrack for The Muppets performing "The Whistling Caruso" and scored the indie film Norman.

Check it out if you like: Justin Vernon (Bon Iver), Sam Beam (Iron and Wine), and David Byrne—smart, sensitive eccentrics all.

Front page image: Guus Krol/Flickr

Sharon Von Etten

When I called her one morning a couple of weeks ago, Sharon Van Etten was on the road, driving a stretch from Ohio to Michigan. ("It's kinda bleak," she observed, accurately.) The context felt appropriate, considering that her new album, Tramp, released last month on Jagjaguwar, takes its name from the singer's nomadic existence during the 14 months it took to complete. Tramp has been winning her widespread attention and acclaim, but it's been a long journey to get to this point.

Van Etten was born and raised in suburban New Jersey, where she grew up performing in local choir groups and singing show tunes. ("They definitely informed my sense of melody and how to write harmonies and how to work with other singers," she says. "I don't think the dancing has come into play yet but maybe I'll incorporate that eventually?") After graduating from high school in 1999, she moved to Tennessee, where she (temporarily) attended college, worked at a café, and kept her open mic nights secret from her controlling, insecure emo-band boyfriend who thought her songs were too revealing.

Sleigh Bells
Reign of Terror

When Sleigh Bells burst onto the music scene in 2010 with their debut album Treats, there was nothing else that sounded quite like their mix of airy female vocals and aggressively distorted guitar, and they quickly won both a devoted following and critical acclaim within the realm of indie rock.

While there still isn't anyone quite like Sleigh Bells out there, their aesthetic isn't novel anymore, and while most sophomore albums face the challenge of maintaining a sound without simply copying it, the challenge in this instance is made particularly difficult by the distinctiveness of the sound in question.

Band members Alexis Krauss and Derek Miller seem to recognize this, because while Reign of Terror is immediately identifiable as Sleigh Bells, it's a very different album. The heavy guitar and the breathy vocals are still there, but the songs are slower and less discordant; whether you think they pull it off or not probably depends on whether you think it's for better or worse that screams are no longer used as punctuation. The only tracks that really match the raucous energy of Treats are "Comeback Kid" and "Demons." Even "True Shred Guitar" doesn't sound shreddy so much as carefully calibrated. (Which, of course, is another piece of the contrast at the heart of Sleigh Bells: the chaos of a punk show, but controlled as tightly as a cheerleading routine.) Reign of Terror is prettier, poppier, and likely more palatable than Treats' convulsive clamor.



From Alex Winston's King Con

Liner notes: "Benny, Benny, takes my penny/Then he skins me to the bone," trills Alex Winston on her portrait of a sketchy faith healer, embedding barbed observations in a sugary pop anthem.

Behind the music: Winston, a classically trained opera singer and Detroit native, got warmed up for her debut album with a covers EP featuring songs by the Rolling Stones and Mumford & Sons. The addictive King Con depicts a variety of fringe characters, from polygamists ("Sister Wife") to rowdy Amish teens ("Run Rumspringa") to pop-culture obsessives ("Velvet Elvis").

Check it out if you like: Women who subvert shiny mainstream sounds to darker ends, such as Lily Allen, Lykke Li, and Gemma Ray.


"Project X" (2012).

Project X
Warner Bros.
88 minutes

This weekend, you could go see the highly anticipated The Lorax, with all its Truffula tufts and fleecy anti-greed morality.

The new animated movie has a stout, gremlin-type creature talking how bad it is to screw over wildlife for profit. The CGI is truly eye-popping. And there are a whole lot of gyrating bears. So, yes, you should go see The Lorax. You absolutely should do that.

You totally, definitely should.

Or, you could succumb to 90 minutes' worth of bi-curious girls, rowdy gentlemen, loud music, self-destruction in the suburbs, booze guzzled, pills popped, and cops in riot gear. (In short, all the things that make life worth living.)

The rager quickly descends into a hyper-violent mess that can only be described as a cross between 10-Cent Beer Night and a party thrown by The Who.

And just to be perfectly clear, this movie isn't a remake of the other Project X, a 1987 film in which Helen Hunt and government-trained super-chimps almost trigger nuclear catastrophe. This year's Project X is steeped in a far greater realism: Three chemically altered nerds throw a house party with 1,500 other horny teenagers and almost burn an entire neighborhood to the ground in the process.

The film, produced by director Todd Phillips of The Hangover and Old School fame, is shot in contemporary found-footage/mockumentary mode—think: cinéma vérité, by way of Cloverfield and Parks and Recreation. If you've seen Revenge of the Nerds, Risky Business, and Superbad, you'll recognize the plot: Three high-school outcasts seek to up their social standing and prove to "bitches" that they are "large-scale ballers." So when one of them gets the family home all to himself on his birthday, the boys invite half of LA to attend their all-night blow-out. After some mass-texting and old-fashioned word of mouth, they wind up with a carouse so epic—two DJs, a "Naked Girls Only" pool, a moonbounce, every harmful substance imaginable—that Kanye West is rumored to be in attendance.

And thus the evening bacchanalia descends into a hyper-violent mess that can only be described as a cross between 10-Cent Beer Night and your average party thrown by The Who.

Batsheva Dance Company

The Israeli contemporary dance company Batsheva has enthralled audiences internationally with its visceral choreography and raw style of movement. Its director, Ohad Naharin, is one of the most renowned choreographers today, his works regularly commissioned by the fanciest opera ballets in the world. 

But the company is facing a less-than-warm welcome in many of the stops on its current five-week North American tour on account of the fact that it's partially backed by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which funds a "Brand Israel" campaign to send artists overseas in order to "show Israel’s prettier face, so we are not thought of purely in the context of war." In response, protesters have been gearing up to picket outside theaters as the tour heads to the East Coast and Canada. Outside the show in San Francisco on Saturday night, a group of activists with signs and fliers waylaid fans heading inside. Contending that Batsheva was shilling for the Israeli government by whitewashing its cultural image, one protestor likened their campaign to the boycotting that ended apartheid in South Africa. Batsheva's communications department told me that "Batsheva's core is art and creation, and as such does not represent governmental policies."

I'm a big fan of Naharin. The first work I saw of his–Minus 16–blew my mind. His work careens between extremes, both physical and emotional, but he also plays with space and silence, both between bodies and within them. The movement vocabulary he created, called Gaga, is about "moving from sensation" rather than from received ideas of moves or shapes. His dancers, who collaborate actively in his choreography, improvise without mirrors, instead working from metaphors he suggests. This process creates a quality that is raw rather than showy:  

The hour-long piece they are touring, Max, is more understated than many of his other works, which walk the knife edge between violence and rapture, but it is unmistakably Naharin. Lacking any defined narrative, the piece segues from scenes of struggle to silliness to pure movement compositions. The dancers, clothed simply in tank tops and briefs, perform endless series of schizophrenic but seamless movements, whether in silent unison, to a heavy beat, or on top of an eerie baritone. Torsos seem to melt from the inside as arms float and palms are sucked inwards to freeze at the waist. Dancers cut arcs with their legs, then crumple to the floor.