January 25, 2007

Oh, Shinverted World

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The Shins’ Wincing the Night Away came out two days ago, and nobody cared. Well, maybe they did. All of James, Dave, Jesse, the oddest of their four oddballs Marty, and Eric.

Okay, already there are three questions that come to mind. The first of which is “why did nobody care?” The release date was by and large anticlimactic because loyal Shins fans passed around the complete album to their posses months ago when Wincing was leaked on the net. Sure, if they’re really loyal, they will likely go purchase the record now that its out, and the album’s probable commercial success should likely usher in a new resurgence of Subpop flavored indie rock not seen since the Seattle label introduced us to Nirvana back in the early 90s…blah blah blah. But really, most Shinsies have already heard the record, so they don’t care that it was finally bequeathed to the Garden State groupies. All the Shintellectuals really care about is that Wincing the Night Away is quite the masterpiece of music.

But back to the original trio of queries: “can I do math?” The answer is a resounding “no.” Partly because I only had two questions, and partly because I said the Shins have five members and four members at the same time.

Yeah, I went there. I just blew your mind.

So the eight-legged beast that once called itself “The-Only-Indie-Band-That-Soccer-Moms-in-Omaha-Know-About” now has two additional legs, and an additional guitar. Eric Johnson, formerly of one of Sub Pop’s other, lesser known children, the Fruit Bats, joined the band and has already begun to make appearances with the fanciful foursome. After a psychedelified appearance on Saturday Night Live—their intention appeared to be “performing on the set of H.R. Pufnstuf”—James Mercer told Pitchfork that the hippie at stage right has indeed become a genuine Shin. Mercer, the core songwriter, singer, and general wizard of the group elaborated, “I have a lot of hopes for the future– I want the Shins to be a growing thing. Eric joining the band is a big deal to me, and I’d like to work with a lot of different people. I’m picturing myself at the center of several people who are helping me to get these songs together, to get them out there. Something more fluid, maybe, than we’ve been in the past.” The new lead guitarist picked up the routine straight away, so much so that the focus wasn’t on the bearded stranger, but the slinky-type instrument chubby ole Marty swung around on “New Slang.”

The record starts off with the hypnotizing “Sleeping Lessons,” an appropriate title to launch the similarly named album. Both allude to the insomnia that troubles the Kevin Spacey-doppelganger frontman, who apparently penned most of this album in the wee hours of the morning. The opener creeps in, bubbling and textured, and Mercer’s vocals echo through the speakers. If you can do math better than I, envision an exponential curve, because this is the format of “Sleeping Lessons.” The song swells into a display of grandeur that the band has never before attempted, and just as Mercer’s vox fade with, “You’re not obliged to swallow anything you despise,” the descent down the rabbit-hole has begun.

“Sleeping Lessons” and the poppy daydream that is “Australia” are a perfect lead in from Chutes Too Narrow. The musical styling is reminiscent of previous Shin endeavors with lots of “la la la”’s and organ-like instrumentation, but, almost abruptly, the precarious “Pam Berry,” interlude segues to the new experimentalism of the Shins. Fuzz shrouds the single “Phantom Limb,” “Sea Legs” borrows hip hop beats, and “Red Rabbit” deceives with angelic and semi-gelatinous sound covering (like many seemingly sweet Shins melodies) much more sinister lyrics. Conversely, “Black Wave” layers vocal cooing, acoustic guitar, and the hint of a treacherous beast running for its life until the lyrics begin a minute in. Most of Wincing hardly soothes, especially not this song, even though its refrain repeats “looking on the brighter side” into the abyss of the song’s conclusion.

Though the band has mostly been known for their resurgence of Beach Boys-quality pop, Wincing the Night Away certainly blends a fair amount of New Wave influence to the recipe. “Spilt Needles,” oft known by the typoed misnomer “Split Needles,” starts off as some Cure songs do, acoustic guitar giving way to strong percussive cymbals, electric guitars and then violins. Though the overarching lyrical themes of their “lit rock/wit pop” are often inaccessible to a listener that hasn’t earned a postgraduate degree, Mercer still coins metaphors that the Everyman can visualize: from “Spilt Needles, “It’s like I’m perched on the handlebars/of a blind man’s bike.” And yet, he has never once in any of his catalogue employed a cliché, even mocking the idea on Chutes Too Narrow’s “Turn a Square.”

What the Shins have accomplished with their first post-hype effort is trifold. Clearly they have managed to put out a record that is both new to their sound and a new sound overall. But with Wincing the Night Away, they’ve legitimized themselves as an artistic mainstay, not an “It-Band du Jour.” Now the ragtag kids from Albuquerque, and their new pal Eric, can move past the Zach Braff Hall of Fame into the consciousness of the mainstream, opening the door for likeminded lit rockers, and that’s certainly something everyone can get excited about.