Wincing The Night Away

The Shins

Sub Pop, 2007

http://theshins.com

REVIEW BY: Melanie Love

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 10/20/2008

When it comes to weirdly catchy, sonically lush tracks that transcend the typical verse-chorus-verse pop formula, few do it better than The Shins. From lighting up the Garden State soundtrack to the Billboard charts (this album debuted at number two and gave their label, Sub Pop, its highest sales to date), the Portland-based indie darlings have followed up 2003’s deeply beautiful, complex Chutes Too Narrow with a more assured and experimental  -- if slightly patchy -- offering. James Mercer’s inimitable lyrics that are always the standout of any Shins release, though: textured and elegant, expansive yet never too freewheeling. They’re a perfect fit for the Shins’ blueprint, in which sing-along choruses are basically nonexistent and any hookiness is instead derived from pepped-up, jangly instrumentation and ever-evolving arrangements.

It’s tough to imagine any Shins song surpassing Oh, Inverted World’s “New Slang” or “Caring Is Creepy,” made nearly legendary by Garden State and which somehow no amount of overplaying can ever dull, but there’s a lot that comes close on Wincing The Night Away.

First, leadoff single “Phantom Limb” was what sold me on this album. There’s a coiled-tight catchiness to this track, said to be a story about young lesbian love forced to be concealed. Soaring lyrics (“And we’ll no longer memorize or rhyme / Too far along in our crime / Stepping over what now towers to the sky / With no connection”) mesh well with the tambourine backbeat, reverberating guitar riffs, and airy harmonies, making “Phantom Limb” a melodic, shimmering introduction to the latest slice of the Shins’ world.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

While “Phantom Limb” and the rollicking “Australia” -- hit out of the park by Mercer’s newly-assured vocals and the bouncy bass line, not to mention the endearing la-la refrain at the end -- seem to fit into the Chutes vein, much of this disc is a contrast to the lovely spaciousness of the group’s previous efforts.  Take opener “Sleeping Lessons,” which does away with rapid-fire tempo switches for a slow-burning buildup. Mercer’s hazy vocals slip past similarly dreamy, arpeggiated keyboards before the guitars begin to thunder, investing this song with a new, explosive energy -- and it works.

Similarly, though “Sea Legs” has gotten some bad press, I fell for the hypnotic, slick groove immediately. It’s less melodious and certainly heavier with its chunky guitar rhythms and Mercer’s deep vocals, but the refrain is pure abandon: “’Cause when that dead moon / Rises again / We've no time to stall or protocol / To hem us in.”

But some of these explorations fall a little flatter. “Black Wave” is missing that Shins-y spark and seems to stay rooted in a fogged-over haziness for too long; the lyrics, too, are sparser -- a shame, since Mercer crafts pretzeled, textured lines like no one else -- and this song just fades away. Next up, “Split Needles” feels overworked as well; the anxious-sounding blips and shivery guitars are a nice change of pace, but it’s far less memorable than it could have been.

Wincing The Night Away is a bit of a tough sell; for every truly resplendent moment, there are a few more stumbles. Still, the album regains its momentum just in time to close things out: “A Comet Appears” is stripped-down, melancholy affair, made achingly resonant by the lilting guitar line and slight touches of harmonies -- and, of course, Mercer’s lyrics (“Every post you can hitch your faith on / Is a pie in the sky / Chock full of lies / A tool we devise / To make sinking stones fly” is just one of many stunning lines).

Overall, Wincing The Night Away may be patchy, but it’s worth sifting through to find those real gems, and it’s nice to see the Shins exploring their obvious talents rather than resting on indie cred.

Rating: B-

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© 2008 Melanie Love and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Sub Pop, and is used for informational purposes only.