Saturday, February 10, 2007

Records In Review: The Shins--Wincing The Night Away

The Shins debuting at #2 on the Billboard charts--the world is unfolding very strangely these days. The Arctic Monkeys must be due to conquer North America any minute now.

The Shins are a very easy band to like, due largely to the songwriting and vocal melodic dexterity of mainman James Mercer. Their first two albums were strikingly different. Number one, Oh, Inverted World was a sparse-sounding blend of the Beach Boys and a kind of wry Americana of the type practiced by erstwhile touring mates Modest Mouse, while the follow up, Chutes Too Narrow was unabashedly pop, a swaggeringly confident head- and guitar-first plunge into a mop-top retro style--think The New Pornographers, only less muscular and swingier. Both albums clock in at under 35 minutes, but Inverted World feels 50% longer. Make of that what you will.

Album no. 3, a long long time a-comin', is a further move toward a mainstream pop sound, although in many ways it has more in common personality-wise with the debut disc than with Chutes; songs have a more measured pace, sounds are more spread out and the watery keyboards are back in a more prominent position. On this one even more than on its predecessors, songs are often built around very simple and relaxed traditional rock ("Turn On Me") or kitsch ("Red Rabbits") motifs, and often, as with said two, to great effect. Mercer's voice too sounds more relaxed, though his attractive slightly strangulated upper-register still gets a regular workout.

Regular listeners won't find much to beef about the songwriting here, even if one occasionally gets the feeling that the talented Mercer could write this stuff in his sleep. The arrangements are another matter. A number of the tracks, including some of the catchier ones like the aforementioned "Turn On Me" and the single "Phantom Limb" feature uncharacteristically pedestrian backing, with forgettable guitar and dull drum (machine) parts. The bottom-heavy and slightly muddy production doesn't help matters much either. You don't listen to The Shins for their instrumentalism, really, but the band interplay, particularly on Chutes, is usually seamless. This is the first time I'd describe the group as sounding stiff and studio-bound.

The songs themselves feature a few interesting new twists on the old formula. Opener "Sleeping Lessons" is a three-chord crescendo/instrumental add-on piece that's built up from an arpeggiated keyboard pattern; this is a good one, and structurally dissimilar to anything the band has done before. "Spilt Needles" features a chunky, off-kilter drum rhythm of the kind that you'd expect from someone like Bloc Party (slowed down), plus some abrupt orchestral samples--also very good. "Australia" and "Girl Sailor" are more traditional retro Shins fare; the former is considerably better. "A Comet Appears," too, is familiar, bearing a strong resemblance to the band's first indie-hit "New Slang." "Phantom Limb" and "Turn On Me," despite my misgiving about the presentation, are both excellent examples of Mercer's seemingly effortless melodic facility. As always, it's the melodies that see the songs through.

I'm grading this one a couple of notches below its predecessors, owing to the orchestration and production deficiencies, and also because I don't sense the band pushing themselves hard enough. Recommendation: more than enough good stuff to keep Shins listeners happy; for everyone else, not the first port of call.

mp3: The Shins--"Sleeping Lessons" (from Wincing The Night Away)
mp3: The Shins--"Turn On Me" (from Wincing The Night Away)

mp3: The Shins--"So Says I" (from Chutes Too Narrow)

mp3: The Shins--"One By One All Day" (from Oh, Inverted World)

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