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The Shins
Wincing The Night Away
Sub Pop Records

With an adoring fanbase eagerly awaiting The Shins' third full-length album, last year's Wincing The Night Away, the much-celebrated indie superstars found themselves at a crossroads. Their debut, Oh, Inverted World, was a spectacularly innovative record, evidence that true originality still exists in a rock world rife with clichés. The band's follow-up, Chutes Too Narrow, remains their masterpiece. Bandleader James Mercer wrote a concise, ten-song opus brimming with complex melodies and ingenious lyrics, held together by his effortless, emotive tenor and tour de force performances by his bandmates.

When it came time to record a third album, then, the already-legendary band had a choice: attempt to shock the world for a third time - which history has proven nearly impossible - or make a record that builds on the legacy of its previous work. With Wincing The Night Away the band wisely takes the latter path. And, while it may be tempting to write it off as a less-inspired reworking of Oh, Inverted World and Chutes Too Narrow, it would be a shame to dismiss what is the band's third consecutive triumph. Wincing The Night Away, song-for-song, trumps the debut and falls just short of matching the near-perfect Chutes Too Narrow. While the homespun warmth of those two records has been replaced with a more meticulous, polished product, the band has added new dimensions to its sound with the use of unusual instruments, precise arrangements, and sonic details that reveal themselves on repeated plays.

As always, The Shins' music revolves around Mercer. His crystal-clear, ethereal voice can be sorrowful, defiant, or carefree, and he manages to guide his songs in different emotional directions without any obvious change in his approach. As a songwriter, his melodies seem to veer in haphazard directions, but always resolve themselves perfectly - his songs combine the effortless, winding melodies of They Might Be Giants' John Linnell with the emotional immediacy and unconventional structure of The Smiths' records. Mercer also sets himself apart with superb lyrics that are even more engaging on the page than on record. He blends his words so seamlessly with their melodies that the depth and complexity of his poetry are easy to overlook. On "Red Rabbits," he offers some of his best: "The trees in the moonshine are a dark lattice / so you catalogue every angle you notice. / In a vacuum, you are charged to record this / so you won't make it easy on me."

It's not only Mercer that impresses on Wincing The Night Away, though. His band delivers subtle, precise performances that transform a collection of inspired songs into something truly remarkable. When The Shins are at the height of their powers, it's truly a spectacle. Lead single "Phantom Limb," with a pulsing drumbeat and warm arrangement backing one of Mercer's all-time great melodies, approaches the beauty of the best song in the band's catalog, the breathtaking "New Slang" from Oh, Inverted World. The opening track, "Sleeping Lessons," begins with dreamlike synthesizers and builds to a triumphant climax, and also boasts some of Mercer's most skillful lyrics. "Australia" is a textbook Shins song, anchored by another first-rate melody and a propulsive performance from the band. The tongue-in-cheek "Turn On Me" is one of Mercer's best pop songs. The band also shines on the jittery "Sea Legs" and the otherworldly "A Comet Appears."

When it comes down to it, the music world needs The Shins, and to hear them respond so masterfully to the praise lavished on their first two records is a good indication that the band will be making records as impressive as Wincing The Night Away for a long time. Listeners should still pick up the band's first two records before moving to this one, but it remains an early contender for album of the year.

-Dan Warren

Track Listing:
1. Sleeping Lessons
2. Australia
3. Pam Berry
4. Phantom Limb
5. Sea Legs
6. Red Rabbits
7. Turn On Me
8. Black Wave
9. Spilt Needles
10. Girl Sailor
11. A Comet Appears

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