Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Album Review: Wincing the Night Away

Like many before and many since, the first time I heard The Shins I was taken in by their bittersweet vocal melodies, lush harmonies and their songs' old fashioned AM radio length. It immediately evoked The Beach Boys.

This popular analogy doesn't hold up if you listen to The Shins and The Beach Boys in proximity -- they sound nothing alike.

The perception that they do says something about the record companies' and the marketplace's (and possibly those who make music's) strange hostility towards well-written, melodic pop songs that aren't guitar or synth driven.

So while The Shins first two albums garnered critical acclaim and a relatively large following for a band not signed to a major label, they weren't able to achieve the widespread popularity their easily accessible, universally appealing sound deserved.

That began to change when the movie Garden State became a surprise hit in 2004. In the film, Natalie Portman's character recommends The Shins by name and declares that the song "New Slang" -- which was featured prominently in the movie -- will change your life.

It seemed an odd thing to say about The Shins, whose understated style suggests they might be the last band in the world who would want to change your life.

Regardless, that mention -- and the fact New Slang happens to be a terrific song -- raised The Shins' profile considerably.

Many speculate it was increased expectations that led to the four year gap between their second and third album. But increased expectations proved to be a sign of an increased fan base and last week Wincing The Night Away opened at number two on the Billboard album chart, moving 118,000 units -- an unusually large first week count for a band not signed to a major label. In fact it was the biggest opening week ever for a band on the venerable indie label Sub Pop.

If Wincing The Night Away had been the first Shins album I had ever heard, I would have never thought to compare them to the sun-stained Beach Boys. The album's title references insomnia and, off the bat, this is a darker and more searching effort than the previous two.

As the album progressed I also noticed increased reliance on synthesized beats -- not necessarily a good development, since they had been doing fine without it.

Still, this is unmistakably The Shins. Singer and songwriter James Mercer, whose vocal influences are firmly planted in the British bands -- such as The Smiths and Echo and The Bunnyman -- of the post-punk era, still defines his songs with his unique talent for stretching certain words and syllables to make his lyrics fit with the music.

And, despite being inspired by the frustration of endless days, the album is still sweeter and more whimsical than most music you come across. This is especially evident on songs like "Phantom Limb," Turn On Me" and "Girl Sailor."

The Shins' secret weapon is the quality of their lyrics, which often gets lost in the tightness of the overall package and the hypnotic nature of Mercer's well-measured delivery.

Mercer is at his lyrical best when he writes in simple words and explains simple ideas, often using of pieces of idioms or words that you've heard together before in new contexts. (As in their previous albums he seems to have a particular fascination with horses and sacks.)

Mercer -- who is pushing 40 -- has written a mature album. But luckily his youthful pop impulses can't be fully suppressed, making his maturity bearable at worst and interesting at best.

With their new found audience, maybe the next time an American band with a clean, melodic pop sound and preference for vocal harmonies over guitar solos emerges we will all think "this sounds like The Shins."

Even when it doesn't.

Wincing The Night Away B+

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