Recording of February 2007: Wincing the Night Away

THE SHINS: Wincing the Night Away
Sub Pop SP 705 (CD). 2007. James Mercer, Joe Chiccarelli, prods.; Phil Ek, Sean Flora, Hiro Ninagawa, Brian Deck, Lars Fox, engs. AAD? TT: 41:52
Performance ****
Sonics ****

Being in a pop band is easy, right? You just strum up some lightweight melodies, layer in some delicate harmonies, add a touch of minimal drumming, and Poof! It's "(Listen to the) Flower People." Yet another foofy guitar band singing about Luddites and lollipops.

Guys in real bands—you know, rock'n'roll, punk, or just rock bands—think of pop-band dudes as dreamers: garagey marshmallows who've listened to Revolver or SMiLE too many times, pansies who'd rather weep in their rooms all day than take the stage, turn it up, and pave some half-filled club with sonic asphalt.

But that's all just testosterone talking. That magical secretion that has loosened lips, sunk ships, and started foolish wars, whose "mission" is all misguided fantasy, has no place in pop music. Or does it?

Listen to Wincing the Night Away, the third full-length album from Albuquerque-cum-Portland, Oregon pop quartet The Shins, and it's clear that part of the pop-song equation is knowing when to add muscle, and knowing when to pour on the purple haze—a problem infinitely more difficult than any rawk alchemy.

Take the first tune, "Sleeping Lessons," which opens with a burbling space-rock keyboard sequence and an earnest, aggressive processed voice in a barrel. Several verses later the tune opens up, the guitars start to pound, the drumming becomes insistent, and the voice, now overdubbed into several parts, reaches for its upper register. But almost as soon as the tune gets loud, it goes into a slow fade. Pop prettiness, seasoned with a chunk of heft, closed down before it rocks too much. All garnished, of course, with sprightly sprigs of My Bloody Valentine and the Jesus and Mary Chain. Call it The Shins' formula.

Along with knowing when and how to add muscle, singer/guitarist James Mercer and his mates, Marty Crandall (keys), Dave Hernandez (bass), and Jesse Sandoval (drums), also know how far to push their love of music of decades past, be it classic 1960s pop or MBV's Loveless. On Wincing's "Sea Legs," for example, guitars and multiple voices intertwine much like those on Morrissey records, but the song's funky, vaguely hip-hoppish backbeat firmly plants it in this century. And while "Girl Sailor," with its picked, quavery guitars and the memorable couplet "Sail her / Don't sink her," has overtones of the Kinks' fey English pop phase, its guitar effects place it in 21st century alt rock. And while you can hear the Zombies in many of Wincing's accents and gestures, in such tunes as the sassy, gorgeous "Red Rabbits" and the solemn "Black Wave" they're just that—nods, rather than lifts or respectful tributes.

Years ago, when this magazine was based in Santa Fe, yours truly, the music editor, spent much time bitching about not having any happening local music to see and get behind. Then, suddenly, not long before Stereophile moved to New York, I began hearing about this band of white-boy popsters in Albuquerque called The Shins. One trip south down La Bajada to see their act, recently morphed from a band called Flake, and I was impressed. Then came their 10 minutes of cinematic glory: In the film Garden State, Natalie Portman gave them the kind of advertising you can't buy when she said, "The Shins will change your life."

To their credit, the band viewed this kind of high-profile hype as a sweet slope to glide down rather than a scary precipice to fall off; as inspiration rather than intimidation. The crisp songwriting and detailed production of Wincing say that they want to keep pushing their quirky envelope of popsmithery. But toward what end? To outlast most other gossamer pop acts? To prove to be much more than some act namedropped by scriptwriters and strangled by critics as being too My Bloody Valentine? Or perhaps to be that most winsome and radiant of musical creations: the transcendent pop band?

While Wincing doesn't reach those heights, and isn't the opus that many fans suspect the band still has in them, it's another link up the pop-band food chain. The quartet's influences are now sinking further into the background as their original style presses forward. Much '60s modishness and '80s guitar wash remain in their bag. The album's single, "Phantom Limb"—with its banging tambourine, strummed chords, and soaring falsetto lines—is the kind of '80s guitar pop and '60s sunniness you know you've heard a million times before but can't pin down. In other words, it's a blend of sugary influences that's been made into a new whole. The old record-needle-falling/record-needle-lifting shtick that occurs at the song's beginning and end is another classic nod to some of the music that's obviously inspired them.

Producer Joe Chiccarelli (Beck, U2) and engineer Phil Ek (Modest Mouse) have brought a trippier, more spacious production style to The Shins' sound, which is agile, sufficiently bright, and impressively lifelike. Gone is their devotion to lo-fi.

Three albums on, it's impressive how much momentum this quartet has built, how much they still have to say musically, and in how many ingenious and enticing ways they've learned to speak.—Robert Baird