Wincing the Night Away
By Will Thompson
January 25, 2007
The Shins look completely average. There’s nothing spectacular about them, visually speaking. A recent promotional photo shows them shirtless and wearing life jackets. They’re pale and scrawny, chubby and unshaven, bearing bed head that resembles a 2nd grader with a working mother. Lead singer James Mercer is wiping his nose. They look bored, indifferent, like they’re ready to jump off the dock and go for a swim. Maybe. The picture doesn’t really let you know what to think, but fans of the band will easily recognize it as an in-joke. These guys aren’t that serious.
Critics compared The Shins’ first album Oh, Inverted World to the Beach Boys. Tight pop arrangements, keyboard flourishes, introspective lyrics, Mercer’s straining-but-pleasing vocals (Brian Wilson he’s not). A “lo-fi Beach Boys” title would be apropos, a perfect mix of something that the radio would shun but still accessible enough for the indie popsters. Mercer and crew put away the keyboards and lost the lo-fi for Chutes Too Narrow. Few keyboards were to be found. Mercer’s literate lyrics were still intact, musing on relationships and the state of man, relationships and reality. The album felt more straightforward and stripped down. The keyboards carried background melodies, while guitars had more weight.
It’s been three years since the last Shins album, the duration made more excruciating by the massive surge in the band’s popularity nearly a year after Chutes to Narrow’s release. The title Wincing the Night Away is oddly pertinent, as if it were speaking of what fans have been doing since Zach Braff name-dropped the band in Garden State, either out of anticipation or disgust. Internet pirates have had the album for a few months, though it has hardly dampened enthusiasm for the album. If anything, it’s heightened it. No sort of publicity could ruin this album. The Shins have kicked it up a notch in all the right places.
Bands that start small and end up big often receive backlash from the fans who have been there since the beginning, but if they reject The Shins on this album, they’ll be the ones who miss out. The band manages to find the middle ground between growth and what we love them for. It’s a mix of the keyboards and effects combined with the lack of low-fi found on Oh, Inverted World and the song writing maturity of Chutes Too Narrow. Some might say that it’s not “indie” or “experimental” enough. However, their sound is expanding, and they’re doing it at a rate that will please those who have been there since Flake Music and the recent Garden State converts.
Wincing is instantly accessible. It’s catchy, introspective, fun. The Shins deliver an impeccable combination, like eating Rolos and Fritos, McDonald’s French fries and a chocolate shake (like any good pop record should be). They even bring out straight-on rock ‘n roll. Just listen to the chugging rhythm guitar on opening track “Sleeping Lessons.” Indie kids might be jumping a little at upcoming shows. To the surprise of many a fan, a couple tracks are driven by programmed drum tracks alone (“Sea Legs” and “Red Rabbit”).
Critics rarely praise a band for doing what they are known for doing well (save Bob Dylan). Recent albums from both Beck and The Strokes were strong albums and a welcome addition to any collection, but they didn’t necessarily break any new ground, thus causing critics pan them. To condemn The Shins for not “taking enough risks” would be to miss out on a fantastic album. It’s true, this isn’t a groundbreaker, but it’s solid—a great album from start to finish. No songs to skip. It won’t change your life, but it will brighten your day.