Drowned in Sound: The Shins: Wincing the Night Away

Drowned in Sound
The Shins: Wincing the Night Away
by Kodi McKinney, DJ at U92
kodimckinney@gmail.com

After Natalie Portman claimed they would "change your life" in the movie Garden State, the Shins had a massive spike in record sales as hipsters chased after new underground heroes. And who can blame those people? It's natural to look for positive life-changing moments, and music is a convenient place to start. The Shins' new album, Wincing the Night Away, is quite sensible for our search even when it doesn't live up to such lofty expectations.
As might be guessed from its title, Wincing the Night Away features a decent bit of lyrical wordplay. Many indie artists get trapped by concentrating so hard on the lyrics that everything else suffers. The Shins typically don't do this, and there's also nothing overtly radio-unfriendly here such as poor vocals or length problems. So why is such a hyped band not a radio darling? The answer lies partially in their Beach Boys-meet-the Cure sound and partially in their quirky song structures.
Honestly, "quirky" would be a good way to describe everything here. But that quality isn't always a crutch to the Shins; when these songs work, they can suggest ideas bigger than their original intent. A pointed example comes right at the beginning with "Sleeping Lessons," which starts in an ethereal manner before the band turns it up a notch near the end. It's as if the Shins want to induce sleep so the real party can start in your dreams. And odd elements get introduced throughout the album as in any dream, leaving you to figure out your surroundings. A few of these elements are all too fleeting; the momentary tension of "Pam Berry" might have been incredible if it were a full song instead of a glorified interlude.
That small failing is indicative of deeper flaws. "Australia" is fluffy and disposable, which could apply to most of Wincing the Night Away. Though the Shins are clearly trying to write good songs (filler is non-existent), cuts like "Turn on Me" and "Girl Sailor" do little to establish themselves. It's a side effect of taking an experimental approach to light pop the way the Shins do. Fortunately the chaff is counterbalanced by better material, like the sparkling "Phantom Limb" and "Black Wave," a song with an incredibly memorable acoustic guitar riff under it.
But the moment of truth comes with the bass-and-tambourine hook of "Sea Legs," a tune that burns itself into the consciousness with a brilliant vocal melody and synthesized outro. If every track was another "Sea Legs," I would suggest buying three copies of Wincing the Night Away: one to listen to, one to display, and one in case something happens to the others. This song is really that good. It might even change your life. The rest of this album won't, but you can't knock the Shins for trying. They still have the potential to deliver a full-length's worth of greatness; for now, we'll keep searching.
Rating: 3 out of 5