The Shins Wince. Do We Blink?

Head Shin James Mercer is one of those artists like James Taylor who arrived whole and utterly original, though you can occasionally hear Morrissey channeling through his high-pitched vocals and more significantly, his melodic constructs.

Despite hailing from Albuquerque, NM (later relocating with the rest of the band to Portland, Oregon), Mercer’s tight-lipped pronunciation sounds more European than Western.

For The Shins’ third outing he places himself in new musical and sonic surroundings but they hardly camouflage the distinctive, effervescent, otherworldly pop essence that appeared on the group’s 2001 debut Oh! Inverted World (Sub Pop SP 550 LP/CD).

The new album’s dense poetry is more reminiscent of that first album, than of the more poppy and musically spare follow-up Chutes Too Narrow (Sub Pop SP 625), though it too highlights Mercer’s nimble word play, and is filled with memorable lines populating a series of songs about breaking up, making up and insecurity.

The title of that second album, drawn from a line in “Young Pilgrims” concerns the ease with which Mercer finds himself drawn into self-doubt and worse. When Mercer sings “..I know I’ve got this side of me that wants to grab the yoke from the pilot and fly the whole mess into the sea,” you know what he’s singing about. The new album’s lyrical intentions are somewhat gauzier, often to the point of obscurity.

For instance, reading the lyrics to the fourth track, the tuneful single “Phantom Limb,” one could not possibly know that the song is supposedly about a lesbian couple growing up in the suburbs. Not that the “about” matters, because the imagery and physical flow of Mercer’s poetry are reward enough.

“Phantom Limb,” with its lilting melodic lines, jangly guitars and insistent “Rag Doll”-ish pop rhythm gets to the essence of The Shins’ esthetic and when the three chord round closer kicks in, you’ll know you’re in pop heaven. Add exquisite production and a masterful mix that tucks every piece of the 3D sonic jigsaw puzzle into its perfect place in space, and you have a song bound for endless repeat, unless you’ve bought the LP of course.

The album opens with “Sleeping Lessons,” a tune filled with advice about not “wincing the night away.” “Go without, till the need seeps in,” Mercer’s first line counsels. The tune ends with the memorable and graphic (whether meant literally or figuratively) “you’re not obliged to swallow anything you despise.” Good to know.

The opener’s production signals a leap in complexity and sophistication, building seductively from a soft bubbly familiarly chorded backdrop to exuberant but muted guitar attacks. Shins fans will be in familiar space, newcomer will be charmed.

“Australia” follows and it, more than any other song on the album, points towards Mercer’s Morrissey influence. The tune feels like a Smiths outing and is a placeholder, as is the short “Pam Berry,” which segues into the exquisite “Phantom Limb.”

“Sea Legs,” which begins with a “needle drop” has a choppy Beck feel, complete with a familiar synth line. Not surprising given that producer Chiccarelli worked with Beck, while “Red Rabbits,” which is archetypal Shins, bathed in underwater reverb, could have been extracted from a Chutes Too Narrow outtake.

At this point in the set, while admiring Mercer and company’s immediately identifiable originality you begin to wonder if he and they have anything more to offer, or if they’re boxed in by what was so charming and original the first few go-rounds.

“Turn On Me,” built upon a “Then He Kissed Me” Phil Spector-ish rhythmic backdrop covers more familiar Shins pop-musical melodic ground, as does “Black Wave,” “Spilt Needles,” “Girl Sailor” and the final track “A Comet Appears.”

In other words, this is a Shins record fans will embrace fully as it gives them a new dose of the tuneful,lyrically introspective, phosphorescent innocence that attracted them in the first place. I count myself among them and I really enjoy listening to this album both for the music and the imaginative “ear candy” the production provides. Like a great painting that yields up new detail with every viewing, you'll discover new, rewarding sonic intricacies with every listen.

Speaking of which, the recording and editing were done using Pro-Tools and then mixed to one inch analog tape according to Chiccarelli (we go back to an advertising/public relations/management company in Boston around 1970! The company set up a recording studio that Chiccarelli ran).

I seriously doubt John Golden cut the lacquer from one-inch analog. My sources tell me he’ll cut from a CD these days. If Lazar and Register transferred the analog master to 96/24 bit for final processing before withering it to “redbook” for CD production, perhaps the lacquer was cut using a high resolution file downloaded by Golden on the Internet via FTP. But more likely he cut either from a CD reference or from a downloaded “redbook” file.

Before you wince from that news, keep in mind that if his D/A is better than the converter in your CD player, the LP could end up sounding better than the CD. For whatever reason or reasons it does in some ways, as LPs usually do. Even if that’s true because of additive character, does it really matter? It’s all about signal processing anyway, whether you’re recording multi-track or you’re trying to stuff a symphony orchestra into the membranes of a pair of condenser mikes.

The LP version of this album is a very attractive play but the bottom end is anemic compared to the CD. There’s no reason for this except that John Golden must have shelved it to make the cut easier. Otherwise I prefer listening to the LP, whatever the source, for its airier, three-dimensionality and harmonic richness, whether these are artifacts added by the analog process or not. I prefer the LP packaging as well, though the CD is a nicely produced Digipak with a booklet insert.

Wincing The Night Away is the ideal title for an album that lyrically and musically sounds as if it was conceived during the semi-conscious state between dreaming and waking. The attractively soft-edged, lava lamp production is sympathetic to that notion.

While this album will please fans, it’s not likely to attract many new ones. If someone were to ask me for a good introduction to The Shins’ charms, I’d recommend the more accessible Chutes Too Narrow.

Good as this album is musically, and especially lyrically, there’s less exploration and more recycling than I’d hoped for. The next Shins album will tell us whether or not Mercer and company can take their act to new emotional places or whether it’s all been said and done.

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