CD Review of Wincing the Night Away by The Shins

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Wincing the Night Away
starstarstarhalf starno star Label: Sub Pop
Released: 2007
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If you’re a Shins fan, buy this. Even if you’ve heard a couple of Shins songs you’ve liked, but have never owned one of their albums, pick up or borrow Wincing the Night Away (and if it happens to find its way onto your iPod, so be it.) I sat down ready to give the Shins’ new disc a lukewarm review, claiming it was “often brilliant, but often boring.” I started organizing some thoughts, mapping out what exactly I wanted to say, and in the process listened to the album several more times…and now, many hours after I first sat down to write it, most of what I said in the initial review is inaccurate. Seems these songs (well, most of them anyway) have grown on me. So I’m going to start again. Cool?

Patience is a virtue when listening to this album, starting with the very first track, “Sleeping Lessons.” A dreamy, hypnotic soundscape drones behind James Mercer’s digitized voice for two minutes before the song shifts into the kind of hooky, infectious jam that people have come to expect from the Shins. “Girl Sailor” and “Red Rabbits” are both similarly split in two distinct halves, making the second half something like an award for sticking through the first. That’s not to say the first halves aren’t any good; they just seem to serve more as a means to get to the big payoff, the drawn-out journey to an enjoyable destination. Even two of the disc’s highlights, “Split Needles” and the first single, “Phantom Limb,” open rather innocuously before giving way to more impressive finales.

This dichotomy gives the album a sense of disjointedness, like it doesn’t know which pace it wants to maintain, and instead hiccups down the road like someone trying to drive a stick shift for the first time – and that’s a shame, because there’s a lot of genuinely good music here, even if it doesn’t initially translate into a lot of genuinely good songs. Despite their obvious good qualities, “Sleeping Lessons,” “Split Needles” and “Phantom Limb” take a while to warm up to, the dark and moody “Sea Legs” opens like a Moby song and overstays its welcome by a good 45 seconds, and the dull “Black Wave” sounds cluttered and unfocused.

Fortunately, not every track suffers from the same split personality. “Turn on Me” and “Australia” are the kind of songs people buy a Shins album for, loaded with Mercer’s distinctive vocals and sharp lyrics, and the type of pop hooks that made Chutes Too Narrow so compelling. “Australia” in particular works very well, playing off the momentum built during the back half of “Sleeping Lessons,” but then the wholly unnecessary “Pam Berry” kills the flow with its buzzing surf guitar and tedious vocals. In fact, more so than any other song, the 56-second “Pam Berry” contributes to the album’s awkward pace, and if the Shins had decided to cut it from the track listing, first impressions of Wincing might have been very different.

But first impressions are just that, and as is often the case with complex and/or diverse albums, the listener’s first impression fades once the songs have been allowed to breathe a bit and flaunt their intricacies. Maybe it’s just a matter of knowing what’s around the bend, but after a while, those front halves of “Sleeping Lessons,” “Split Needles,” and “Phantom Limb” don’t take as much of the luster off the back halves, and soon all of that genuinely good music begins to translate into genuinely good songs. So if you’re interested, buy Wincing the Night Away, but do yourself a favor and give it time to get its hooks into you before passing judgment. You can go ahead and skip “Pam Berry," though.

~Jamey Codding