The Shins: Wincing the Night Away (Sub Pop)

the_shins.jpgThere's still plenty of pop hooks on the Shins' third full-length, Wincing the Night Away, but James Mercer continues to mature as a songwriter and expand his production palette (working with veteran Joe Chiccarelli this time out), so don't expect a sequel to Chutes Too Narrow. A lot has happened in the past three-plus years; not just Natalie Portman's touting of the band in Garden State but also the acquisition of better recording equipment that let Mercer make most of the album at home yet still sound clearer than on Oh, Inverted World. Yes, as usual, we're given an album of sad songs that sound janglingly happy, but there are more sounds, more sonic and stylistic variety (is that a banjo on "Australia"?), and more depth too. Of course, this is going to cost the Shins fans who are lo-fi production fetishizers and guitar supremicists, but more open-minded listeners will rejoice.

The variety surfaces right away with the burbling electronic intro to "Sleeping Lessons," but then in come the chiming guitars to reassure us that the Shins haven't changed too much. The imaginative adherence to pop formalism that makes the Shins great is clear on the first single, "Phantom Limb," which sounds like sunny Sixties, gleaming radio-ready Seventies, and historical/self-aware Eighties pop all at once, and yet quintessentially Shinsy. Similarly, "Turn on Me" has the classic syncopated baion beat of so many fondly remembered pre-Beatles pop songs, but a lyric and melody that could come from a Smiths song.

"Sea Legs" starts with an angular, bare hook and jerky rhythm that could almost be a Scottish early Eighties Postcards band, but then in come flutes and strings, and later some charmingly dated synthesizer and keyboard sounds, to fill out the sound. The limber bass line continues throughout, giving the song a strong, quirky spine even as the decorations give the song a sweetly sugary taste.

With the splashy timbres of its first verse, "Red Rabbits" is the track most dominated by an electronic sound, but then in comes acoustic strumming for the next verse, followed by a bridge with swooning strings and a swooping electric guitar line that suggests early ELO, the ripples of electronic sound continuing in the background.

The most wistful song is "Black Wave," a gentle oscillation of arpeggiating acoustic guitar and double-tracked/reverbed vocal (both recalling Jose Gonzalez) married to shimmering electronics heard as if from a distance, gradually fading out with repetitions of "looking on the brighter side." It's absolutely gorgeous, and probably anathema to anyone who doesn't want the Shins to change. Perhaps they'll be more open to "Spilt Needles," another great piece of songwriting, sporting a wide, searching melody and some gritty electronic guitar treatments plus urgent forcebeat drumming. Yes, Chutes Too Narrow is one of the great indie guitar-pop albums, but there are other ways to use guitars, and I for one find this musical growth welcome.

Beyond all else -- improved production, excellent songwriting, complex lyrics -- what makes this band work is Mercer's voice. It's not particularly strong, and he doesn't do anything flashy with it, but it's agile, has a variety of timbres, and there's a catch in his delivery that makes his yearning palpable. The beautiful album closer "A Comet Appears" displays this most obviously, but it's there throughout the album if you listen for it, and given the ambivalence, bitterness, and near-despair of some songs, it's the perfect voice for this music. Never mind screaming emo, this is where real emotion can be heard. - Steve Holtje

The Shins - Wincing the Night Away

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Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based poet and composer who doesn't think there's anything wrong with artists making their albums sound like they cost more than $1000 to record.

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