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The Shins - Wincing the Night Away

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Artist: The Shins

Album: Wincing the Night Away

Label: Sub Pop

Review date: Jan. 24, 2007

To these ears, The Shins' much-hyped 2001 debut, Oh, Inverted World, was boring music played by bored-sounding people - a Beach Boys-like pop record without any of the obvious joy with which the Beach Boys played and sang. With the follow-up Chutes Too Narrow, though, The Shins brought frontman James Mercer's voice into focus, added some welcome twists to his rollercoaster melodies, and sharpened the details of their arrangements.

Chutes Too Narrow was just a step in the direction of Wincing the Night Away, which brings The Shins to a crossroads. On one hand, it's almost impossible to imagine how they could be better at what they're trying to do. The performances on Wincing the Night Away are extremely clear and precise - even when The Shins aim to confuse the listener (on, for example, the out-of-sync keyboard solo on the excellent "Spilt Needles"), the results appear to clearly match their intentions. The hooks here are catchy without being obvious - the weird loopiness of the vocal melodies actually strengthens their poppy accessibility.

For all that, though, Wincing the Night Away lacks a sense of urgency. The songs almost feel like they should be coming out of the speakers in a Volvo rather than the tower of a college radio station. Wincing the Night Away feels a little paunchy, a little resigned – this is music that not only is mature enough to know that it can’t change the world, but is content to not try. The songs are catchy but not nearly as bold as they could be; the mix downplays the most potentially confrontational elements of the music (like the fuzz bass that begins "Phantom Limb"); and the music doesn't rip out of the speakers.

At the end of the aforementioned solo on "Spilt Needles," two keyboards get stuck in a mess of droning noise. It's a beautiful moment, and as if to savor it, The Shins tack about four extra seconds of the noise onto the expected length of the phrase.

It's true a pop song can only be pushed so far before it isn't a pop song anymore, but still - why only four seconds? Why not fifteen, or thirty? By only using four seconds, The Shins created a moment that was subtle, perfectly formed, and tasteful, and that's precisely the problem. Their music, for all its idiosyncrasies, is relentlessly tasteful and professional. Having thirty seconds of noise in that spot rather than four might make the listener a little bit uncomfortable, and The Shins wouldn't want that.

Part of the reason why their music is so professional is because they're so good at what they're doing, and that shouldn't be overlooked - Wincing the Night Away features wonderful melodies and dark, articulate lyrics that still bounce around my head weeks after I first heard them. The Shins' frustrating professionalism would seem irrelevant if their songs weren't so strong to begin with.

Still, though, Wincing the Night Away doesn't contain much of a sense of uncertainty, exploration or danger - it's a really good record that features every possible "indie" signifier (thin, squiggling guitars, a pulsing eighth-note feel derived from punk rock, and so on), but it doesn't feel like a really good indie record. Interestingly, The Shins' lyrics simmer with bitterness - on "Turn On Me," Mercer sings, "It starts to leaking out / Like spittle from a cloud / Amassed resentment pelting ounce and pound." It'd be nice if that amassed resentment started leaking out of their music a little bit more.

By Charlie Wilmoth

Other Reviews of The Shins

Know Your Onion!

Chutes Too Narrow

Port of Morrow

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View all articles by Charlie Wilmoth

Find out more about Sub Pop

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