Wincing the Night Away
When you have gone from only being recognized by a handful of blogs and indie music elitists to having your debut album sell 500,000 and becoming the face of independent pop music in a matter of a couple years, where exactly do you go from there? Maintain the formula that broke you through or let the random artistic indulgences (concept album, anyone?) flow freely? There are some of the questions being posed to James Mercer and his group The Shins after their sudden ascent to stardom. 2003's Chutes Too Narrow showed the more upbeat and acoustic sound of the Albuquerque boys while placing Mercer straight on page one of any music magazine worth its weight in buzz. No longer did their instruments and vocals hide behind clouded production. The album wasn't a monumental commercial success, but it was a step forward, putting the group slightly out of their comfort zone. With Wincing the Night Away, The Shins take even more substantial steps to the left and the right while keeping their eyes forward.
The album's title itself leads the listener to assume that we're in for a less roseate affair than their previous effort and for the most part, those assumptions are just. "Sleeping Lessons" opens with Mercer sounding like he's underwater while until delightfully buoyant keyboards and acoustic guitars coax him to the boisterous surface for a shimmering close that recalls a more straightforward Animal Collective tune. "Pam Berry" adopts the same dynamic, lasting less than a minute but sounding light years removed from the band that gave us "New Slang." It seems entirely like filler, but it's branching out in every sense of the word. "Black Wave" is the closest to a number from Oh, Inverted World, recalling "The Past and Pending" filtered through a disquieting lattice of overcast sunlight seeping through the windows of an abandoned house, where lyrics of quiet, contemplative desolation match the haunting instrumentation. Mercer's confounding and circuitous lyrics may take a little away from the immediate experience but if you like metaphorical wordplay, there is much to be found on these decidedly darker tracks.
For the fans of their past singles and all of their catchy immediacy, there are certainly songs to satisfy those requirements on this album. "Australia" may be the most addicting song they have ever written. Mercer's vocals sync up with the blissful, jangly guitars and metronomic percussion to near perfection. Of course, in typical Shins fashion, the song isn't all peaches and cream as the story is about someone who can never quite get where they want to go. Lead single "Phantom Limb" is extremely wintry in its execution, arctic in its atmosphere, frostbitten tambourine and words that condense as soon as they leave the mouth. Apparently, it's about a lesbian couple, but the lyric sheet does not help at all here. Thanks a lot, Jimmy. Though when the seasons change into the next tunes, the song stays embedded.
Apart from the aforementioned forays into different areas of music, "Sea Legs" and "Red Rabbits" are experiments in the Shins dynamic. The former comes off as easily the most hip-hop infused song they have ever constructed. The off-kilter drum machine sounds, the tight bass line, the quirky delivery of this supposed love story: no, their videos won't be on BET any time soon, but it's certainly something new. Strange keyboards that resemble water dripping onto a xylophone underscore "Red Rabbits" while layers of strings and swooping guitars come in and out at random spots to make the tune sound like a mashup of Sea Change from Beck and Oh, Inverted World with slicker production. The style is a bit removed from what they are used to, but they make valiant efforts in its execution.
All that you have heard about The Shins maturing is true though with maturation comes a little awkwardness. The melodies are still nothing short of inventive, though Mercer consistently appears to be on metaphorical autopilot with a majority of these songs, constructing tales that college freshman should devote entire classes to deciphering. Furthermore, their efforts at taking musical strides are occasionally met with mixed results as there are moments in those songs that sound like the band is just trying to emulate another band for a stretch of time rather than take various instrumental elements and inject it into their time-tested style. It may not change the life of another Hollywood starlet, but this is an effort that is far above average and consistently better than most indie pop you will hear on the scene today. Wincing the Night Away may not be their best to date, but I believe it proves that their best is yet to come and that they still have more tricks up their sleeves.
Release date: January 23, 2007
Label: Sub Pop
Rating: 7.9 / 10
On the web: http://www.theshins.com
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