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The Shins - Wincing the Night Away Print E-mail
Thursday, 01 March 2007
format:    16-bit CD
performance:    7
sound:    7
release year:    2007
label:    Sub Pop
reviewed by:    Matt Fink

ImageAs much fun as it has been to watch OK Go’s rise to fame on the strength of their meticulously choreographed videos and giddy pop hooks, it’s worth noting that there are literally hundreds of similarly talented and comparatively tuneful bands that will never win a Grammy. That’s not to say that the upstart quartet doesn’t have genuine talent, but they’re ultimately the kind of band that without a gimmick or exceptional good luck will almost always be left to languish as their hometown’s best local band. Though the Shins are certainly a notch better than your average local power poppers, it would be hard to argue that before their appearance as Natalie Portman’s favorite musical crush in “Garden State,” they had little chance of becoming your little sister’s favorite indie pop band. That’s not to diminish what they’ve accomplished, and they certainly have deserved every bit of recognition they’ve received, but James Mercer is the type of songwriter whose ingenious hooks and somber lyrics were destined to be filed beside gifted but overlooked songwriters like Joe Pernice, Ron Sexsmith or Chris Stamey, not put him on the cover of magazines. And for a band that relies solely on timeless pop craftsmanship, maintaining momentum once the credits roll on your 15 minutes of fame is far more complicated than simply making another good album. With Wincing the Night Away, the Shins attempt to do just that.

Their third full-length release and first in over three years, the Portland quartet has obviously labored over making an album appropriate to capturing the imaginations of both bandwagon jumpers and traditional indie rock fans. To do that, they’ve introduced subtle electronic and experimental touches to their reliable guitar pop formula, maintaining their accessibility through the quality of Mercer’s melodies. As before, they’re not doing anything particularly revolutionary, but on Wincing the Night Away they do it with a little more emotional depth and a little less frenetic energy, ending up with a more thoughtful and slightly less appealing release.
As before, Mercer issues melody after ingenious melody. This time he just takes a little longer to develop them, whether building “Sleeping Lessons” through a few minutes of raindrop synths before the drums break in to push the song to its cathartic end, or draping synth strings and soulful bass lines and looped percussion samples over the surprisingly funky “Sea Legs.” Where simple electric guitar strums would have dominated the sallow lilt of “Red Rabbits,” here they’re replaced with crystalline electric piano and water- dripping percussion. The differences are admittedly subtle but undeniably effective, resulting in an album whose immediate charms are balanced by their more ambitious flourishes.

Otherwise, Mercer takes a half turn toward Phil Spectorish wall of sound dynamics with the dreamy vocals and reverb-drenched atmosphere of “Phantom Limb” and the stutter-stepping “Girl Sailor.” Add in the slight country lilt of “Red Rabbits” and you have a trio of songs that rank among his very best ethereal rockers. There are more adventurous moments, from the moody mélange of acoustic guitars and wind-tunnel atmosphere in “Black Wave” to the darkly-snaking “Spilt Needles,” with guitar lines licking at the corners of stuttering hi-hat beats and uneasy synth patches.

In the end, the most impressive trick pulled off by the Shins is that they’ve made an album that sounds like their third release, regardless of the fact that they have a bigger audience than any of the bands that sound more or less like them. Ultimately, Wincing the Night Away is an appropriately straightforward release for a band with admittedly humble ambitions, neither an awkward reach for the golden ring of mainstream pop success nor a desperate attempt to be gain back the fans who became uncomfortable with the band’s ubiquity. It’s not an album that is likely to build bridges to listeners who weren’t already residing in some region of the Shins kingdom, but it will certainly keep them one step ahead of the like-minded bands you’ll never hear.

Unlike previous albums, the production here is richer and deeper, addressing the main criticism that their previous releases suffered from a tinny, ProToolsy sound. With veteran pop producer Joe Chiccarelli manning the production boards, Mercer continues to favor copious amounts of reverb, but here his vocals are presented with more nuance and clarity, with the drums coming off as punchier and more authoritative. As before, the textures are chilly and ethereal, though certainly not polished. All in all, it’s a better and bolder-sounding record.

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