Hoping to be known as something other than “That Band From ‘Garden State,'” the Shins return to the music scene this year with their latest release, Wincing the Night Away. On this album, the New Mexican quintet – which now includes the Fruit Bats’ Eric Johnson – makes a marked departure from the relationship-themed songs found on Chutes Too Narrow. The band chooses to instead focus on the uncertainties of life while still maintaining an element of hope beneath that wistful eye.
Saturated in various sonic experiments, Wincing the Night Away unfolds as a musical game of Battleship. Fortunately, unlike the Milton Bradley game, the players make more hits than misses. The Shin’s primary single, “Phantom Limb,” is one of the band’s finest pop gems to date, and it accentuates James Mercer’s lyrical knack through the narrative of a young girl who seeks to escape her hometown. For the Shins, the ability to develop charming characters and storylines has always been a strong asset.
If “Garden State” was the zero generation’s “The Graduate,” then the Shins are certainly the modern-day Simon & Garfunkel, creating songs that maintain an almost cinematic quality, albeit with a dash of 60s-style Brit-pop. Songs like “A Comet Appears” and “Red Rabbits” are alluring with their warm and clever approach to musical space. “Rabbits” is inviting with its electronic softness, serving as a more serene version of the Shins favorite, “Your Algebra,” while “Comet” is the perfect accompaniment to a night on the grass beneath a canopy of stars. Likewise, “Turn on Me,” utilizes the band’s southwestern swagger, providing the ideal score for a drunken evening of line-dancing at Old Town Tavern.
However, when Mercer and his mates stray too far from their harmonic jurisdiction, the tunes become beleaguered battleships. Songs like “Sleeping Lessons” and “Split Needles” appear strained and compromised by deliberate instrumental variations. In particular, “Needles” suffers from Mercer’s forced attempt to experiment. The alternate version of the song released online was actually superior despite Mercer’s claim that it was too fast and simple.
Overall, the Shins are still in good shape. Grab a copy of “Garden State” and fast-forward to the montage in which Large’s (Zach Braff) millionaire buddy floats along Gatsby-like in his mansion pool. Put the film on mute and hit play on “Black Wave.” Wincing the Night Away may not be the band’s best album, but the Shins still have much promise.