Yes, they've been beloved of major music publications since their debut album Oh, Inverted World, and they've since played performances on both SNL and “The Late Show with David Letterman,” but it was more than mere marketing and mainstream publicity that first landed the Shins on college and commercial radio stations across the country and on numerous soundtracks to hip and intelligent television shows and movies. Rather, the DJs, actors, and producers behind said projects tend to really and truly like the Shins' music. Case(s) in point: Zach Braff of “Scrubs” and Garden State fame and “Gilmore Girls” writer-producers Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino, all of whom have worked personally to include the Shins in their respective shows and movies.
Regardless of how much they've done right, I can't love the Shins, at least not with the same wide-eyed enthusiasm that they seem to engender in others. Notwithstanding their still-growing popularity, I've never been entirely certain if the Shins' distinction as indie rock darlings is a sincere rock-crit compliment or something far more sinister and hype-fueled. While it is true that Oh, Inverted World and Chutes Too Narrow came as breaths of fresh, sunshine-scented air in 2001 and 2003, the years since have shown that even standout songs like “Caring is Creepy,” “New Slang,” “So Says I,” and “Pink Bullets” were little more than the first waves of a seemingly never-ending deluge of acoustic-fueled and effects-augmented pop-rock ruminations. Don't get me wrong, those were good waves, and I'm not blaming the Shins for the lackluster state of the pop-rock nation. Oversaturation is inevitable when a new, novel, or (in this case) revisited sound makes it big. After all, the music industry is a business, and the business thrives on finding and appealing to marketing trends with thinly-veiled offerings of More of the Same™.
That being said, the onus was on the Shins to come up with something that would set themselves apart from the ever-growing crowd of hyper-jangly post-Pavement shoegazers, which in turn meant moving beyond the safe and familiar sonic tropes of lilting vocals, dense reverb, acoustic twang, and poppy rhythms. In that respect, Wincing the Night Away fails miserably—expecting a tsunami of innovation, what we got was a slow breaker at low tide.
In their defense, it's not a bad album. It's the Shins, and the Shins have always been great for chamber-pop purposes, especially if you want pleasant background music that you can groove to or ignore with equal ease. And that's the problem—Wincing the Night Away doesn't engage you, at least not with the same freshness as its predecessors. Instead, the album plays it safe by highlighting the band's already-established strengths: Mercer's mellowly impassioned vocals and six-string pop, Martin Crandall's psych- and prog-influenced keys, Dave Hernandez's staid yet fluid bass lines, and Jesse Sandoval's relaxed, skin-centric percussion. Aside from higher production values and a handful of subtle in-studio effects, there's little to set the Shins' newest offering apart from their earlier works, let alone the numerous other Pet Sounds-inspired artists and albums currently afloat in the musical æther.
Unsurprisingly, intro track “Sleeping Lessons” leads off with what the Shins do best: doubled vox, dreamy synth, muted strumming building to an electric guitar buzz, and a smattering of radio-friendly hooks. The lyrics are as intellectual and as mumbled as ever, with Mercer waxing poetic (and oft-incomprehensible) on insomnia before ending with the quotable and echo-emphasized line that “you're not obliged / to swallow anything that you despise.” It's a decent intro, but hardly vital or groundbreaking.
Moving on, the self-deprecation of “Australia” pulls out the Shins' tried-and-true muffled acoustic twang overtop upbeat rhythms that cry out for hand-claps, toe-taps, and head-bobs. It's the signature Shins sound of dance-friendly rhythms for shuffling show-goers—it’s pop, pure and simple, though mercifully not simplistic. Next up, the minute-long “Pam Berry” throws out a short distortion-heavy vignette of teenaged rebellion before bleeding into the shimmering guitars and perambulating rhythms of video/single-du juor, “Phantom Limb.”
Entertaining though they may be, not one of these tracks is terribly challenging or remarkably innovative. Added effects aside, it's just more of the same, and even the spaciest synth elements, brightest hooks, and jangliest chords are mere tasty morsels of disposable pop-rock—empty calories, devoid of nutritional value and sure to leave you hungry and listless when you're done with them. Then again, that virtually guarantees their future as surefire soundtrack fodder... too bad Fox is canceling “The O.C.”
For what it's worth, later tracks like “Sea Legs” and “Turn on Me” do provide some fun riffs and interesting production effects; it's amazing how many varieties of reverb the Shins can pack into an album, and the inclusion of vibraphone and strings on “Red Rabbits” is interesting though not essential. The album's one true gem, “Split Needles” lurches forward with gritty finger-picking and punctuated high-hat, irregular rhythms building towards a subdued chorus that manages to effectively summarize Wincing the Night Away: “It's like I'm perched on the handle bars / of a blind man's bike / no straws to grab, just the rushing wind / on the rolling mind.”
Simply put: the album is insubstantial, and it seems to be willfully directionless. Rather than a cohesive, coherent whole, Wincing the Night Away presents a collection of so-so singles duct-taped together by a sense of resignation and disjointed confusion, implicit feelings of insecurity and self-doubt made all the more palpable by the forlorn slide guitar and depressing tenor of “A Comet Appears.” Personally, I don't think that this was entirely intentional, as the same dispirited feeling of hopelessness that possesses Wincing the Night Away haunts the Shins' entire oeuvre. For Mercer &co. to use ennui as a theme to any one given album is fine, but making a hobbyhorse of maudlin self-pity is another thing entirely.
When the last track has played, it becomes painfully obvious that Wincing the Night Away is little more than a follow-up to Chutes Too Narrow, and a disappointingly hollow follow-up at that. It may be new, but it's a far cry from improved, which in turn means that it suffers all the more for having taken three years to be released. So says I, if Wincing the Night Away is the best they have to offer, then the Shins' past and pending new slang of indie rockerdom does little more than provide sleeping lessons for young pilgrims who have already grown tired of kissing the lipless ass of over-hyped thirty-somethings whose ability to truly innovate a stagnant genre seems to be gone, quite possibly for good. Get it if you like Beach Boys-bred pop, just don't expect to keep it on constant rotation a week or two from now.
Audio Reviews (January 23rd, 2007)
Tags: audio, review, the shins, wincing the night away, sub pop