The Shins Wincing the Night Away Sub Pop

With apologies to Zach Braff (and to readers tired of Garden State references), the Shins didn't change my life. However, they did change my mind. The kings of white-bread indie rock are easy to write off for their deceptively simple ditties and painfully unassuming nature, and upon my initial listens to their first two albums, that's what I did. The songs simply didn't latch on to me. They seemed like pleasant, insubstantial pop-by-numbers that wouldn't be missed once they were discarded.

When I bought Oh, Inverted World in 2002 and was less than impressed, I filed it away for a few months. The next year, when spring hit early, I needed something that fit the weather, so I gave James Mercer and company another shot. Suddenly, "Caring is Creepy" and "Know Your Onion!" were as indispensable as the sunshine and the breeze. That fall, Chutes Too Narrow came out, and it seemed like a letdown, but within a few weeks, I grew to love its crisp, tightly wound sound. In the years since, as I discovered Athens and Columbus' local rock scenes and my heart warmed (or at least my eyes opened) to noise, punk and good old fashioned rock 'n' roll, I began to question these albums' vitality, but as I return to them now, they're as exceptional as ever.

Now, more than three years since Chutes Too Narrow, after an unpredictable rise to mainstream prominence, the Shins finally have a new album. Predictably, it was underwhelming at first. Alas, after three months of Wincing the Night Away, the lightbulb over my head has yet to appear, and while I wouldn't write off a change of heart, I don't think it's coming this time.

The Shins Wincing the Night Away Sub Pop

With apologies to Zach Braff (and to readers tired of Garden State references), the Shins didn’t change my life. However, they did change my mind. The kings of white-bread indie rock are easy to write off for their deceptively simple ditties and painfully unassuming nature, and upon my initial listens to their first two albums, that’s what I did. The songs simply didn’t latch on to me. They seemed like pleasant, insubstantial pop-by-numbers that wouldn’t be missed once they were discarded.

When I bought Oh, Inverted World in 2002 and was less than impressed, I filed it away for a few months. The next year, when spring hit early, I needed something that fit the weather, so I gave James Mercer and company another shot. Suddenly, “Caring is Creepy” and “Know Your Onion!” were as indispensable as the sunshine and the breeze. That fall, Chutes Too Narrow came out, and it seemed like a letdown, but within a few weeks, I grew to love its crisp, tightly wound sound. In the years since, as I discovered Athens and Columbus’ local rock scenes and my heart warmed (or at least my eyes opened) to noise, punk and good old fashioned rock ’n’ roll, I began to question these albums’ vitality, but as I return to them now, they’re as exceptional as ever.

Now, more than three years since Chutes Too Narrow, after an unpredictable rise to mainstream prominence, the Shins finally have a new album. Predictably, it was underwhelming at first. Alas, after three months of Wincing the Night Away, the lightbulb over my head has yet to appear, and while I wouldn’t write off a change of heart, I don’t think it’s coming this time.

The Shins were never exactly a “fun” band, but whatever joy was bubbling behind Mercer’s shy façade has dissipated completely. His songs no longer seem like a labor of love, but simply a labor. It’s as if, while trying desperately to live up to ever-increasing expectations for the new album, Mercer choked. Wincing is not bad by any means, but it’s nowhere near magical—the kind of album that, more than three years in the making, inspires the question, “We waited for this?”

However, let’s give credit where it’s due. For one thing, this band still knows how to write a killer opening track. “Sleeping Lessons” begins with an appropriately dreamy keyboard arpeggio, and other than Mercer’s unmistakable vocal, that’s all we hear for nearly a minute. Then his singing intensifies, and the bass kicks in. Slowly, muted strumming, pensive organ chords and guitar swells sneak in little by little, until a confident acoustic guitar turns the arpeggio into a launching pad for the song’s electric second act.

The shuffling “Australia” is a solid second song, and lead single “Phantom Limb” is a mature extension of the Inverted sound, if a little blasé. Unfortunately, things get much more blasé than “Phantom Limb.” The next song, “Sea Legs,” lasts far too long, and from then on, the album is engulfed in a fog of sorts, with little trace of the naïve grace that made listening to the Shins such a pleasure before. It’s the music fan’s worst nightmare, the dreaded “mature” album that finds the band settling into middle age and beginning to let the life sap out of them. Individually, the anti-vigorous songs get better with every listen, but none of them measure up to the band’s best, and taken together, they amount to one dull party.

Despite the sleepy feeling, Wincing succeeds in stretching the definition of what constitutes a Shins song. “Sea Legs,” with its hip-hop beat and extended instrumental outro, is the most obvious experiment. “Sleeping Lessons” twists the quiet-loud formula of “Kissing the Lipless” into a new animal, and “Split Needles” begins with ominous minor chords before gliding into more familiar territory. Production-wise, Mercer does well to add little instrumental flourishes in every song, which the mixer hides skillfully in the walls, floors and ceiling of the mix. And the lyrics are as geeky and enjoyable as ever.

Come to think of it, there are a lot of good things to say about Wincing the Night Away. It’s just hard to get excited about this, and hard to believe Mercer couldn’t come up with 10 transcendent songs in three years. Experimentation is great, but is it wrong to hope that over this much time experiments can be reigned in, pared down and molded into a masterpiece? Is it asking too much for something more than a slight regression? The Shins have certainly grown since we last encountered them. Unfortunately, they grew out without growing up.

Grade: B- Download: “Sleeping Lessons” Web: theshins.com