Monday, February 5, 2007

Wincing the night away

Sometimes a record will have mixed reviews to the extreme, so that half the reviews hail it as the band's, if not history's, finest; the rest slam it as an indulgence, not as good as (fill in name of band's previous album) or just plain terrible. Often this is caused by the record's being so awful that only its mother and fanbois can love it. It's fair to say that The Shins' Wincing the night away has had that kind of mixed reception. So (bearing in mind that I am a huge fan of The Shins) let's ask, is it winner or wincer?

I think it comes down to how many times you've listened to it. If you listened once, and did not give it another go, you might be put off by the production and the subtlety of James Mercer's songwriting, and perhaps by the darker edge that hides the Beach Boys influence that had been prominent on Chutes and Oh inverted world. The tunes are not in your face, and The Shins have discovered a mild experimentation (they have bought a reverb pedal and a keyboard). But listen to it a couple more times and what is revealed?

The truth is, it is an album easily the match of their first two. And that is saying something. It begins unpromisingly, with smothered, reverby mouthings, but Sleeping lessons, which had threatened to be plodding Shins, fires up into rocking Shins. Australia keeps it rocking, typical Shins straightahead rock. The intricate, clever melodies that made Chutes too narrow such a pleasure are there present and correct on the clever Turn on me, the brilliant Girl sailor and the single Phantom limb, which is up there with Saint Simon as their best work. That chorus just eats into you, until you feel you cannot breathe until you hear it again.

The couple of experimental songs in the middle that have drawn notice are simply Shins' songs with a fresh arrangement, particularly Sea legs, which sounds like Mercer ran into Beck. I think reviewers have been upset that The Shins did not simply make another Chutes, but it's not as though they made a whole album of Brazilian hiphop. There's nothing radically changed at all. Just a set of excellent songs -- probably all round a better set than either of the first two, which each had the odd duff moment (and Pam Berry on the new album is a song you'll be glad only goes a minute).

Yeah, I love it. Colour me a Shinstruck fan but I'd recommend it to anyone who enjoys well-crafted pop. In a couple of places, I might have wished that the producer had not treated Mercer's voice so heavily, but this is like complaining that you don't like the singer's shirt at a gig. For me, The Shins are as good as it gets right now, and Wincing gives more reasons to believe that.

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