In a recent article in The New Yorker, music critic Sasha Frere-Jones said that the term “indie rock” has become “an aesthetic description, and no longer has anything to do with (record) labels.” If that’s the case, then exactly what kind of aesthetic does indie rock describe?
A fair way to answer that would be to look at the band currently considered indie’s standard bearer. That’s The Shins, who have sold more than 500,000 copies of their third album, “Wincing the Night Away,” since it was released in January — making it the all-time best-selling record for the Pacific Northwest’s flagship indie label, Sub Pop.
The success of the album and its attendant financial rewards are hardly lost on The Shins’ leader, James Mercer, but he also understands what it means to his so-called indie credibility.
“The record has done well enough so that I feel a little more secure,” he says, talking on his cell phone from a cab on his way home to Portland, Oregon, from the airport. “I mean, it wasn’t always hand-to-mouth before this record, but the thing you live under is this specter of when your band stops being cool.”
Having formed The Shins in 1996 with drummer Jesse Sandoval (keyboardist Marty Crandall and bassist Dave Hernandez would eventually sign on), he’s had plenty of time to contemplate the vicissitudes of the indie-rock life.
“I’m vulnerable enough to think that way,” he admits, “because it’s all based on the fickle notions of teenagers, and that’s a weird thing to count on.”
If sensitivity is a hallmark of indie rock, then Mercer may be more than just its standard bearer. Over the course of three albums he has probably done more to realign the overall sensibility of indie than any other artist. Eschewing the harder, punk-derived sound that defined indie in the ’90s (Pavement, Sleater Kinney), The Shins are a pop band indebted to the great British groups of the ’80s, in particular The Smiths and Echo and the Bunnymen.
Though Mercer’s lyrics are often impenetrable, his songs play off his vulnerability, exposing a personality that is ill at ease in the world but bursting with expressiveness in the recording studio. Married to what may be the most delicate melodic sense of any songwriter currently working, these sentiments can sound transcendent, especially to formative young minds who find mainstream rock and rap too coarse or blunt.
That particular appeal was perfectly evoked in the 2004 American movie “Garden State,” the directing debut of Zach Braff. In it, an eccentric young woman played by Natalie Portman sits with Braff’s character as he waits to see his psychiatrist. She lends him her headphones and tells him that The Shins’ music “will change your life.”
“In Europe, they didn’t know what the big fuss was about,” Mercer says, “and that’s cool. The whole thing in America was perverted by the popularity of that movie — and in a good way. But, you know, we were cool before that.”
The Shins are especially cool on American college campuses, a phenomenon that was recently recognized with three Woodie Award nominations. “They’re given out by mtvU,” says Mercer, “a version of MTV that’s piped into college campuses — the indie-rock version of MTV.”
Mercer himself went to college but didn’t graduate. “My Dad suggested I become an engineer, and I quickly learned I didn’t have the aptitude or the passion that some kids have. So I floated around to other things — chemistry for a while. Eventually, I just partied my way out of college.”
He had been playing in bands off and on and decided to make a go of it, forming Flake in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 1992. That group was a collaborative effort, with all members contributing equally. Eventually, Mercer would start The Shins as a more personal project “in my own bedroom.”
After Sub Pop signed the band and released its debut album, “Oh Inverted World” in 2001 to excellent reviews, Mercer moved to Portland. By then, as the son of an air force officer, he’d already seen a lot of the world, and it was while he was at high school in England that he developed his taste for British pop and rock. So it was almost inevitable that he would leave Albuquerque.
“It’s basically a small town and doesn’t have much of a music scene. Portland does, but more importantly it’s aesthetically different. There were more people here who gave a shit about the same stuff that I gave a shit about.”
He still had things to learn. The band licensed one of its songs, “New Slang” (the same one that changed lives in “Garden State”), to McDonald’s and was given grief by indie purists. “We were just starting out, in that little van, you know what I mean?” he says. “But the McDonald’s deal was something that completely infuriated people. They’re not cool with the fact that I made money off that situation, but at the time I was politically underdeveloped and didn’t care about anything. All I can think is that a kid hired by the ad agency working for McDonald’s just liked the Shins.”
Though Mercer still seems insecure, the sonic progress evident on the records attests to increasing confidence. The frisky innocence of “Inverted World” gave way to the more calculated but no less beautiful “Chutes Too Narrow.” And “Wincing,” anchored by one of the loveliest singles of the year, “Phantom Limb,” is a triumph of taste and discipline, which may sound like a backhanded compliment for a rock album, but Mercer manages to make technical self-assurance sound sexy.
“That’s what’s great about computers,” he says enthusiastically. “You can really manipulate and edit a lot. I spend a lot of time alone. The first six months of the record-making process is just me, except for getting Jesse to lay down drum tracks. Then we start the real recording process, and then I go back to working alone with the results for a long time.”
But success means working with more people, and that may be the real specter hanging over Mercer’s indie-identified life. Major labels have been wining and dining him, “but we haven’t committed to anything.”
“In the next six months we’ll have to decide,” he says. “Sometime in that period we’ll stop touring, and then my manager and I will try and figure out what to do — continue working with Sub Pop or start our own label.”
The Shins play Nov. 12-13, 7 p.m., Shibuya Club Quattro, Tokyo (tel.  3444-6751); Nov. 14, 7 p.m., Nagoya Club Quattro ( 264-8211); Nov. 15, 7 p.m., Shinsaibashi Club Quattro, Osaka ( 6535-5569). All shows ¥5,800 in advance. Listen to The Shins at www.myspace.com/theshins