Embrace the fanciful
Whenever I listen to The Shins I can’t help thinking of summertime. Even when they’re singing about darker subjects, the resonating electric guitars superimposed over the buoyant acoustic guitars and James Mercer’s high pitched but soothing half screams always leave me with a sense of the fantastic, the absurd and the sunny. The formula works for them, and works really well on Wincing the Night Away, even if it’s starting to wear thin.
They open up with the muted keyboards and distorted vocals of “Sleeping Lessons,” where that acoustic guitar teases and builds in the background until the climax of the last verse. What a release. It’s familiar and fun and reminds us who we’re listening to. They continue like they always have for a couple songs, and then decide to get a little more experimental on us after lulling us into the comfort of their personal brand of awkrock (you like that term? I just coined it. Feel free to spread it around, because if we need anything else on the music scene right now it’s definitely more exclusive genres).
“Sea Legs” starts with a stop-go drum track and a grooving bass that leads to a breakdown of strings, electronics and funk. The metaphors are just as beautiful and bizarre as ever (Of all the intersecting lines in the sand/ I routed a labyrinth to your lap), but this time in a different package. Well done. “Red Rabbits” is just as bizarre with the same amount of experiment, only accompanied by a great combination of strings, keyboards, and what I can only describe as rhythmic bubble-bursts. And really, what is modern music without playing with the fun settings of synthesizers?
From here, the album gets a bit more sinister. First with “Black Wave,” which plays with repetitive rhyme and whispering echoes of vocals, and then with “Split Needles.” The harmonies are more melancholy, the instruments more cacophonous, and the lyrics ironically optimistic (We'll set you up with some odd convictions / Because you're finally golden, boy). It’s vaguely creepy without being overly dark, and of course we’re valiantly saved from falling too far into the gloomy abyss by the quirky and quaint “Girl Sailor.”
The Shins have accomplished a hard task: making a well balanced album. It’s not so dark to bring your mood down, nor is it distractingly upbeat. It’s an any-mood album in that there’s something for whatever you’re feeling. Dark, silly, relaxed, optimistic and subtle. They’ve realized they can play with the tambourine-plus-acoustic-guitar-equals-charming formula, and though it’s a small step, it’s a step in a great direction.