Shins keep getting better

You don’t have to be an expert in independent music to know and appreciate the name “The Shins.” After the release of their 2003 sophomore album, Chutes Too Narrow, The Shins made their way to the front and center of the indie scene. Their follow-up effort, Wincing the Night Away, is a collection of eleven pop-rock tunes, each carrying that oh-so-loved Shins sound. However, when you buy your own copy of the new release (which you should), don’t expect a repeat of Oh, Inverted World or Chutes Too Narrow. James Mercer’s unique voice and the distinct percussion parts that define Shins songs are joined with a broader use of instrumentation and greater variety in tempo and mood throughout the album. From the sound of things, these guys took a few good leaps forward in musicianship and maturity, making Wincing an interesting and enjoyable hour of music. “Sleeping Lessons” is a great album opener, beginning as a calm but computerized melody that gradually gains momentum and turns into an energized transition into the rest of the tracks. The following songs are a fair mix of heavy guitar, electronic backgrounds, and bouncy bells and tambourine accompaniment. The song “Sea Legs” is a step away from the usual pop of The Shins, featuring over a minute and a half of pure instrumentals. It’s a nice break from the regular structure of their previous songs, which usually spare only a few seconds at the beginning and the end to show off the band without vocals. Both “Black Wave” and “Split Needles,” which has a completely awesome melody, are not only great songs; they completely vary from anything heard from this band before. “Black Wave”, especially, is perhaps the saddest Shins song ever. The biggest surprise on Wincing, however, is the final track, “A Comet Appears.” Though sufficiently electronic, the song still has an acoustic feel to it, which creates a frank, thoughtful mood that is rarely present in the Shins’ work. It is the kind of song that can’t be swallowed in a single listening; I pressed the repeat button three times before finally letting it go, happily surprised with the beautiful end to a versatile and satisfying album. Although the Shins usually end their albums on a high note (“The Past and the Pending” from Oh, Inverted World springs to mind), they really outdid themselves this time. Wincing the Night Away is exactly the kind of album necessary to follow a success such as Chutes Too Narrow. The Shins do an excellent job of bringing new elements into their music without sacrificing what made them so well known in the music world. And as usual, they get a high grade in lyricism: “With burnt sage and a forest of bygones/I click my heels/Get the devils in line/A list of things I could lay the blame on/Might give me a way out” is a beautiful verse from the final track. The only thing that could ruin this album would be a music video for “Split Needles” or “A Comet Appears” airing on MTV. But as some say, that is a whole different story.