The Shins have been the darlings of indie-pop ever since actor Zach Braff used a few of their songs in his movie “Garden State.” “New Slang,” by far The Shins’ most popular song, catapulted them to the mainstream, and 2003’s Chutes Too Narrow cemented them as one of the most melodic and entertaining bands around. Their latest release, Wincing the Night Away, shows the Shins trying to broaden their horizons, using hip-hop beats, synthesizers, and string arrangements. The album, although adventurous, proves that the Shins should stick with what they know.
Lead singer James Mercer and company start things off quietly on the opening track “Sleeping Lessons,” which, much like Chutes opener “Kissing the Lipless,” builds up to a monumental crescendo. The three songs that follow are some of the best Wincing the Night Away has to offer; “Australia” is the Shins’ most infectious pop song to date, while first single “Phantom Limb” manages to provide both a catchy tune and incisive lyrics.
Sadly, the latter part of the album shows the Shins at their worst. “Sea Legs,” despite a terrific chorus, suffers from bland verses and downright annoying instrumentation that never fully reaches its potential. “Black Wave” is a failed attempt at minimalism, featuring soft finger-picked guitar and inane lyrics, while “Split Needles” proves to be the worst offender of all, complete with an overused hi-hat drum and psychedelic break-downs.
The Shins are trying to expand their sound, and they certainly have the right idea. There are some beautiful melodies to be found within many of Wincing’s “bad” songs; the Shins simply need to learn how to accentuate these melodies instead of bogging it down with wacky instrumentation. In fact, the Shins get it right once on “Red Rabbits.” The upbeat synthesizer, light acoustic strumming, and Mercer’s tuneful voice all come together nicely to create one of the album’s standout tracks.
“Turn on Me” and “Girl Sailor” are more of a return to form for the Shins, sounding like they easily could have made it onto Chutes Too Narrow, while album-closer “A Comet Appears” ends things on a soft, somber note. Mercer croons, “And still to come, the worst part and you know it. There is a numbness in your heart and it’s growing.”
The Shins should be applauded for their efforts to expand their sound; it’s hard for any band to abandon their tried-and-true formula. But, sadly, their latest album’s best moments are when they’re least experimental. So, although Wincing the Night Away has the right idea, a few missteps here and there ultimately bring the album down.