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A blog by Scott E. Shepherd · A continuing look at popular music, past, present and future.
Monday, August 20, 2007

An Amazing Album
CD Review: The Shins – "Wincing the Night Away"

Filed under: Album Reviews, Recent Releases

I really don't know how to begin my review of the Shins' Wincing the Night Away, other than to say that it has easily become one of my favorite albums of all time, and is probably one of the best of this decade, in my humble opinion. And when I speak of it as an album , I do mean album; the Shins have strung eleven incredible songs that should be heard as a collective.
Had Wincing been released during the heyday of the late 60's, it would most likely be regarded in the same company as The Oddessey and the Oracle, Pet Sounds, and even Sgt. Pepper. Not that it is in anyway "retro," but it is simply one of the finest collections of pop/rock to come out in years. Leader James Mercer has created beautiful songs with catchy jangling guitar and lyrics that are both pleasant and thought-provoking; the meaning may be difficult to figure out; but the emotion is always clear.
Indeed, Mercer packs quite a few emotions in much of the Shins' music; it is both happy and ambivalent, bitter and upbeat, sometimes even within the same song. Mercer's lyrics are somewhat vague for those of us not in the know; yet he creates some beautiful imagery.
Take the opening song, "Sleeping Lessons," for instance, "Go without/till the need seeps in/you low animal/collect your novel petals for the stem and glow." The song starts off quietly, and slowly grows in to a crescendo with the chorus, "If the old guard still offend/ they've got nothing left in which you depend/so enlist every ounce of your bright blood/and it's off with they're heads/jump from the hook/ you not obliged to swallow anything you despise."
Wincing then moves to the upbeat "Australia," which seems to have nothing to do with the continent-nation, yet has such a catchy beat, you're sure you can make the connection if you just listen harder.
"Pam Berry," a little 30-second song seems to segue into "Phantom Limb" which I did find out (through the help of the internet) is about something specific, lesbians growing up in a small-minded town.
While this would seem a strange subject for a pop tune, the Shins nevertheless make it a shining, shimmering song and actually released it as the album's first single. "So when they tap our Monday heads/two zombies walk in our stead/this town seems hardly worth the time/and we'll no longer memorize or rhyme/too far along in our climb/stepping over what now towers to the sky/with no connection."
Yet it is the next song "Sea Legs" which seems to be the gem of the album, "Girl, if you're a seascape/I'm a listing boat for the thing carries every hope/I invest in a single life/the choice is yours."
It's a powerful song with intriguing lyrics, "of all the intersecting lines in the sand/I routed a labyrinth to your lap/and never needed a map."
Several of Wincing's titles invoke nautical themes ("Sea Legs", "Black Wave", and "Girl Sailor"), yet there is not necessarily a conceptual idea uniting the album. However, all the songs work well together, and I can honestly say there's not a single song that seems throwaway or out of place.
After "Black Wave" and "Split Needles," two of the darker songs of the album, Wincing rebounds with the more poppy sounding "Girl Sailor" and closes with the winsome "A Comet Appears."
Some of the long time fans of the Shins feel this album is their worst so far; indeed it is somewhat of a departure of their earlier work, which is more in line with the traditional Alternative (Modest Mouse, Death Cab for Cutie, etc.). However, I have a feeling that when people look back, Wincing the Night Away will be one of the highlights of early 21st century pop music, and perhaps a turning point for the Shins and their music.
Hardcore fans may be upset, but for the rest of us unfamiliar with their work, sit back and enjoy a true modern classic.

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