The Shins – Wincing The Night Away
Released January 23rd, 2007 on Sub Pop Records
One of the biggest problems with indie rock fans and critics is that they get bored far too easily. Everything has too be cutting-edge, post-modern, and hip for it’s own good. If you try to work on what you’re good at, try to write good songs in the vein you’re mining, people invariably move on to newer and shinier things. Such was the fate of Wincing The Night Away when it was first released ten years ago. The Shins had scored two huge albums on Seattle’s venerable Sub Pop label, 2001’s Oh, Inverted World and 2003’s Chutes Too Narrow. They were also immortalized in the Zach Braff vehicle Garden State, where Natalie Portman’s Manic Pixie Girl character told Braff to listen to The Shins because “they’ll change your life.” When the album was released, it debuted at #2 on Billboard, the highest chart position of any Sub Pop album ever.
So where does the backlash come in? I think it is a combination of all of the above factors. They were an indie band on their way to mainstream, and if there’s any one thing that defines hipsterdom as a whole, it’s that coolness and popularity are inversely related. Once a bunch of middle class kids latched onto the band through a movie, the writing was on the wall. “Oh my god,” you can almost hear the scarf-wearing poets with their PBRs saying “can you believe how popular this band is? They play them on the radio now, how plebeian is that? Oh well, let the peasants have their charming pop songs, I’m much more into drone music now. And Robyn, but only ironically, of course.” So critics start to dig for things to dislike about Wincing The Night Away in order to fit the prejudices of their readership and suddenly it’s not cool to like The Shins anymore. When their follow-up, Port Of Morrow, was released five years later, I remarked to a friend that it was nice to hear The Shins putting out new music again; said friend decided to inform me that “no one listens to The Shins anymore,” despite the album getting a solid 8.4 on the Hipster Bible itself.
It’s a shame because I consider Wincing The Night Away to be their best album, narrowly eking out Oh, Inverted World for that title. “Sleeping Lessons” is a stellar way to start an album, with a riff nicked directly and deliberately from “Mr. Sandman” and a galloping second half that barely stays in control of itself. “Australia” could really be the quintessential Shins song, in that it combines pretty much everything that makes James Mercer’s songwriting great – bouyant riff, curvy melody, and an energy that doesn’t require you to be drenched in sweat to have a good time. “Phantom Limb” follows in that same vein, adding in one of those wordless choruses Mercer is so good at; the two together are proof that you don’t need to reinvent the wheel every time you sit down, you just need to write well and be true to yourself. “Sea Legs” adds an interesting stutter-step beat to the Shins sound, and “Black Wave” adds a haunting acoustic air to it. “Red Rabbits”, “Turn On Me”, and “Split Needles” are great examples of Mercer’s way with melody (and are also reminiscent of his later work with Danger Mouse as Broken Bells). “Girl Sailor” manages to stretch Mercer’s range and “A Comet Appears” strips down and presents the bare reality of the band and it’s raison d’etre.
Cutting-edge is fun and all, but it’s nice to hear a band stake out their sound and pound away at it until they’ve perfected it. Wincing The Night Away was the sound of The Shins perfecting their sound, regardless of how many clueless Brooklynites got bored and wandered off in search of the next specialty coffee shop. They may not change your life, but they’ll inform it, and that’s arguably a better role to fill anyway.