2007 / Music

Review: Shins’ Latest Uneven Successor To Past Masterworks

Acclaimed Indie-Rock Band Release Third Disc

For underground-rock heroes the Shins, the purpose of a song is to be a confessional love note.

Photo: Sub Pop Records

Photo: Sub Pop Records

If you distill the base emotion in all their recorded work so far, it overflows with a sense of pining. Whatever the startlingly clever lyrical imagery or how powerfully buoyant the melodies are, the Portland, Ore.-based quartet is full of sappy, poppy love songs populated by souls struggling with this most baffling and basic emotion.

“You’ve got too much to wear on your sleeves,” lead singer James Mercer warbles on the group’s last record, the power-pop magnum opus “Chutes Too Narrow.” But that line directed at his tormentor/lover also clearly points back at the accuser. The album, along with their beautiful and claustrophobic debut, “Oh, Inverted World,” solidified perceptions of the group as new masters of the pop song form, but ones with an emotional nakedness that appeals to the romantics in us all. The band’s new disc, “Wincing The Night Away,” however, sends a disturbingly different message.

While the band’s central ethos remains intact, their new songs are proving less reliable vehicles.

If “Oh, Inverted World” were the songs of someone whispering and alternately crying out pent-up feelings within the confines of his closet, the more confident “Chutes Too Narrow” contained songs destined to be played at full volume while driving past your sweetheart’s house with your heart in your throat. Melodramatic? Oh yes. But these are songs you can insert yourself into and there’s honesty to their rawness that resonates and slices through the embarrassing schmaltziness.

The songs on “Wincing The Night Away” are lyrically as vivid and arresting as anything in the Shins’ canon, but the new melodies aren’t as consistently exciting. The disc’s production hovers with uncertainty between the clear, pop punch of “Chutes” and the reverb-laden, keyboard-y sounds on “Oh, Inverted World.” Some of the new tracks could be B-sides off those two great albums, while others fall well short of the mark. Primarily, they can’t seem to take off melodically and thus are only anchored with heavy emotions.

This is a troubling development for Mercer, who as the group’s leader, has until now proven himself a pop songsmith of the first order. His personality, like his high tenor voice, towers above the music. His voice soars somewhere been the Cure’s Robert Smith and Bono and his lyrics are just as self-involved. But, given his past achievements, Mercer no longer enjoys the allowances given a songwriting boy wonder and must forever prove the worth of each new song. He can’t afford to create the ordinary.

The record’s first and last songs are demonstrative of this point. “Sleeping Lessons” slowly builds in intensity with a sage-like Mercer offering poetic encouragement to someone braving the evils of this world. As his laconic whispers echo around an ethereal haze created by a computerized synthesizer, organ and an acoustic guitar, it takes more than two minutes for the track to reach melodic bedrock and than rocket to its crescendo. This is achieved by the Shins’ suddenly rocking out with roaring guitars, pretending to be the Ramones for the song’s final bars, and Mercer spewing his lyrics with a dramatic flair and intensity that Joey Ramone could never match.

The album’s concluding track, “A Comet Appears,” has a completely different problem. It much too closely resembles the quieter, moodier songs — “New Slang” and “Pink Bullets” — that shone on their earlier releases. As with those cuts, two mellow guitars similarly dance around each other and Mercer’s dispirited singing of such image-rich verses. Even his phrasing is too close to the original for comfort. Worst is how the structure and pedal-steel sound of the guitar solo is a twin of the one on “New Slang.” The lyrics are just as evocative, but cheaply recycling this same musical motif reflects poorly on Mercer and the band.

However, this doesn’t close the book on “Wincing The Night Away” or the Shins. There are several songs on this album where the old magic is rekindled and vigorous melodies emerge. “Australia” is immediately uplifting and beams with the same ’60s folk-pop enthusiasm as the “Chutes” material. Propelled by a snappy 3/4-time drumbeat and a lopping bass figure, the song is danceable and mirrors the flamboyance of Mercer’s singing and lyrical flourishes. The loner who begged and pleaded on “Oh, Inverted World” now sings about having a gang behind him, but he’s still begging his dream girl to “grab my hand and jump out the window.” The appearance of a banjo before the song’s bridge is a new accent that lends some sonic variety.

“Split Needles” takes the band in a new, slightly darker direction. The song’s angular guitar playing, counterpoint bass and drummer Jesse Sandoval’s rhythm on his high-hat cymbal create a distinct sonic framework for Mercer to sing over. “It’s like I’m pressed on the handle bars/Of a blind man’s bike,” he croons with a certain aura of fatalism. This feeling is bolstered by a fractured, whirling keyboard solo that retraces the song’s core melody. While the darker attitude rife in “Split Needles” puts a damper on the group’s customary optimism, the band times it so the song rises and falls in energy as with most songs and goes out on a high note, literally.

“Sea Legs” is another surprising turn. The midtempo song certainly suggests the influence of Beck. The funky track sounds like a patchwork of clipped fragments of acoustic guitar chords, bass muttering and hip-hop-style drums combined with grand string accompaniment. Mercer seems to be cherry-picking musical elements from Beck’s greatest hits. Mercer, meanwhile, sounds seductive as he slowly enunciates key words, his reverb-glided voice gliding over the syllables. The Beck comparison is re-confirmed with a squawking, gangsta rap-style, Bernie Worrell keyboard solo.

What “Wincing The Night Away” says about the Shins is less immediately identifiable. For one, it shows that Mercer and company are as susceptible to moments of lost inspiration and objectivity as all artists. While Mercer’s lyrical power still appears sharp, his musical acumen has become spotty. As a depository of love notes, this record lays out a less convincing case than their old records. The problems with “Wincing The Night Away” are similar to what happens in so many romances and their accompanying love letters. They lose power over time and after repeated revisiting.

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2007 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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