Wincing the Night Away
Record Review by Adam McKibbin
James Mercer and The Shins surely appreciate the role that Garden State played in helping them rocket pretty much right past the indie shadows and into the mainstream sunshine, but it can’t be too fun to be inextricably tagged as the band that was guaranteed to change your life. While fans have waited for the follow-up to broad crowd pleasers Oh! Inverted World and Chutes Too Narrow, the expectations have just kept rising. If things went according to plan, Wincing the Night Away would be the sort of album that steadied an iconic indie label (Sub Pop) during tumultuous times in the industry, and would allow them to take bigger chances on new bands down the road. Everybody was waiting.
Mercer delivered. Wincing the Night Away is both hugely unassuming and impressively ambitious. It’s a record with plenty of gems; they don’t add up to a masterpiece, but the first two Shins records really weren’t masterpieces, either. Instead, we get evidence that, even though they are already indie-pop’s most widely beloved band, their best is quite possibly yet to come. In the meantime, the setback with Wincing is that there are some scattered misfires, like the prettily arranged but ultimately rather milquetoast “Red Rabbits” and “A Comet Appears.” Lead single “Phantom Limb” doesn’t match the easy euphoria of their past singles, but provides a clean showcase for Mercer’s continued evolution toward becoming a top-tier pop vocalist. Mercer clearly wanted to avoid rehashing previous works, but even the songs that stick closer to the comfort zone do it so nimbly and likeably (“Australia”) that it’s hard to not be swept along.
“Sea Legs” drops some skittering electronic beats and a super-funky-for-The-Shins bass line, building toward an orchestral swell and graceful vocal harmonizing. Viva Voce’s Anita Robinson provides a pretty harmonic foil to Mercer on “Phantom Limb and “Turn On Me.” “Split Needles” has a darker, more brooding sound, and wouldn’t have been out of place on Nada Surf’s Let Go. Opener “Sleeping Lessons” starts, well, sleepily, sounding almost like it’s being transmitted from underwater, and then the atmosphere around Mercer begins to shift and become more complex until, by the 2/3 point, it’s developed into a full-on rock song. It’s a rousing way to kick off, and should be an energizing staple in the live set.
“Turn On Me” is a clear highlight because of an irresistible vocal melody that almost makes it sound like the sunniest love song around, until the listener realizes that lines like “You had to know I was fond of you / Fond of Y-O-U” are followed by lines like “Though I knew you masked your disdain.” Both effervescent and bittersweet, it’s a little piece of pop magic, and further proof that The Shins aren’t just interested in finding the easy road.
Belle & Sebastian / The Shins - Live - July 6, 2006
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