Thursday, February 19, 2009

Primer: Part 3: Shins- Wincing The Night Away

In 2007, one of the biggest names in the indie rock world released an album to mixed reviews. A controversial album that divided fans, it suggested for some the beginning of the end or even was the end itself. Those who felt this way argued that the band were trying too hard to be something they were not, and how everything that used to make them great was mostly missing.

That album was Modest Mouse's We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank. However, James Mercer of the Shins appears on it, and his band released an album that same year which drew mixed reviews and divided fans, too.

That album was Wincing The Night Away. And it, dear readers, is what we music critics call a "growing pains" album. This is shorthand for any album in which a band spends most of the run time expanding their palette, their approach to music, or similarly experimenting. Typically this results in music that is interesting and different than what the band had done before but is nevertheless not a completely successful transition.

I have to wonder what it must've been like for all those people who bought this one based on their love of the Shins from Garden State and their first two albums. I say this because most of what originally attracted people to this band is absent or played down: their excellent indie pop sound, intractable hooks, and James Mercer's way with songwriting. In its place is an album full of experimentation, patience, and James Mercer's way with songwriting. Er, wait, not that third one.

In all seriousness, Mercer remarked during the PR blitz for the album that he had been suffering from terrible insomnia. This helps explain Wincing The Night Away's frequently delirious lyrics which take one step past the pleasant psychedelia of Oh, Inverted World into the realm of Brian Eno "if it sounds good, it is good" lyrics and Stephen Malkmus-ian "it doesn't have to make sense to be awesome and memorable." I don't know what "and the necessary balloon lies a corpse on the floor/we're p*ssed on far too many sprites/and they're all standing up for their rights" is supposed to mean but I sure like the sound of it.

But the prosecution's case against this album will come down to how un-catchy most of the music is. Coming off of the power pop masterpieces of Chutes Too Narrow, you will likely listen to this one a few times and wonder where all the great songs went off to. Yeah, it's the same band and their sound isn't radically different, but at the same time things aren't the same and the approach has changed. 'Spilt Needles' is the most guilty party, with its whip crack heavy drums and cavalcade of keyboard atmospherics/wails along with a heavily treated guitar. There's also the percussive drum loops of 'Sea Legs' to pick at, as well as the syrupy synthesizer backing of the percussion-less 'Red Rabbits.' And the ominous 'Black Wave', which picks up where 'Your Algebra' from Oh, Inverted World left off. The total effect is that of an indie pop band who made an album that puts a premium on experimenting and pushing themselves to do things differently, to not rely on easy choruses or hooks. If you're looking for a sequel to the first or second Shins album, you'd be best advised to move along.

However, I still find a lot to enjoy on this album. I like the idea that bands are on a continual journey to new and exciting places, so I silently cheer whenever I think about this album. Frankly I'm surprised the band had the guts to do something like this. Don't misjudge where I'm going with this. This album isn't a huge departure from what they had done before; at the same time, while it's good and has some interesting, satisfying music, it still is, as I mentioned earlier, a "growing pains" album. It's different from their first two albums and it's not as good but it promises a lot for the future. Things like the short interlude 'Pam Berry' (with its huge guitar sound), the way 'Turn On Me' slowly offers its delights over a few minutes instead of cramming it all in quick like they used to, and the surprising keyboard solo outro to 'Sea Legs' make me excited for their next release. I never thought I would be interested to see where the Shins go next. After Chutes Too Narrow they seemed destined to release an excellent pop/rock album that was about a half hour long once every 3 or 4 years. In this scenario, their albums would always be good but they would have a steady, unexciting consistency like The Sea & Cake albums have. After Wincing The Night Away, I'm going to get their next album day one instead of "meh, it's just more pop/rock, I'll get around to it someday..."

While Wincing The Night Away is inevitably always going to be known as the Shins's "growing pains" album, one that some fans will enjoy but most will find weak and too different, it's still worth a listen. It may be more enjoyable as a document of where they might go than it is for where they went, but that's not a bad thing. Anyway, if you just want more of the same no one is stopping you from listening to Chutes Too Narrow and Oh, Inverted World.

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