Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The Shins-Wincing The Night Away

I’m one of those guys who agreed with the idea that the “Shins will change your life.” The band seemed to be at the right place in my life at that moment, and because of this, an immediate affection was developed.
While I failed to see what the hullabaloo was for Oh, Inverted World was, I could appreciate it as one of those retro-minded artifacts of 60’s pop that a lot of bands seemed to be shelling around the turn of the century, immediately after they discovered Pet Sounds for the first time.
It was one of those albums lost in my year-long haze of the real McCoys, the Nuggets box set, which seemed more real, believable, and a ton more rockin.’
Nothing, however, prepared me for Chutes Too Narrow, an album that resonated so true, it was like leader James Mercer was a fly on the wall in my life at the time. The difference was, of course, he could more eloquently translate my personal drama in under three minutes than I could in a forty-five minute counseling sessions. To that point, I think I may have mentioned Chutes Too Narrow to my counselor before giving up after he declared that he wanted a Creedence Clearwater Revival album for Christmas.
With lyrics like “just put the ring on the rails for the wheels to nullify” a virtual metaphor for my own failing marriage, The Shins became my band after they already were claimed by others. The thing of it is, they wrote such uniformly great, smart songs on Chutes that I didn’t mind how many people picked up on ‘em; I actually want them to be huge stars in some respects, because talent like this deserves to be heard.
The fear, and it’s one that I’ve had before with other bands, was that they’d follow up such a wonderful album with either one that totally sucked or didn’t manage to measure up to the great surprise that Chutes was.
The first sign of trouble: they took there own sweet time making Wincing The Night Away. For a band that only released a pair of albums, each one clocking in a hair over a half hour, this seemed like trouble in the works. In those three years, I got a chance to revisit Inverted World just to get a fix and, in the process, heard the things that I’d been missing originally and understood what prompted all the praise it received.
It also allowed me to prepare my ears for Wincing, simply because I noticed the progression between those two albums and understood that by moving forward, they were forcing me to move along with them.
The teaser came in November with “Phantom Limb,” the lead-off single which is (smartly) more of the same that we’ve come to expect. Seriously, when I first heard it, I could have sworn that there was something wrong with my download; somebody must have mislabeled this file because I was positive that I’d heard it before.
I fought the urge to download the leaked full-length because “Phantom Limb” scared me from it. I mean, what if the rest of the album was full of “Phantom Limb(s).” What a disappointment that would be!
The good news is that The Shins have used the past three years wisely; Wincing The Night Away is a clear progression from Chutes while managing to continue the formula that made it so great. Mercer is proving to be one of the greatest American songwriters of his generation and the rest of the band seem intent on providing him with arrangements that complement his talent while, at the same time, seem to challenge their own abilities.
You’ll immediately notice that the production quality itself has expanded vastly over the first two albums. This may be an issue for some who enjoyed The Shins’ exploration of 60’s jangle, but in the context of the band’s own musical development, why not allow the listener to hear how good they’ve gotten at mastering their instruments. And in Wincing, there’s a lot of instruments being used.
“Australia” sounds like the best Smiths song Morrissey/Marr never wrote, featuring the best “give me your hand and let’s jump out the window” ranking up there with “I dreaded sunny days, so I’ll meet you at the cemetery gates” in terms of complete contradiction of words and melody.
The album’s greatest departures from Shins-past also happen to be the album’s highlights: “Sealegs” and “Red Rabbits.”
“Sealegs” starts with a little bit of Love & Rockets-styled “No New Tale To Tell” acoustic guitar before the strings swell in. Underneath this is the funkiest bass line the Shins have ever committed to wax with the occasional flourish of 80’s synth to make things interesting.
“Red Rabbits” allows the band to continue with its recent discovery of keyboards, much in the same way other guitar-based bands have done. But just before you start to worry that they're heading down that road to pretention, the acoustic guitar returns while Mercer declares “we’ve pissed on far too many sprites.” Suddenly, everything is back to normal in the world of The Shins again.
The reaction from fans (and some critics) who have had leaked copies of Wincing to consider for a few months now is mixed. Ultimately, the discontent points to the fact that even with three years under their belts, The Shins have made a record that still managed to be ahead of the curve and too much of a progression for some of their base to contend with. The reality is that, like my own life since Chutes, the band have moved forward and found them in a better place. So maybe the expectation should be to consider them as a band that won’t change your life, but they might be a perfect soundtrack for the changes that your life is bound to take.

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