There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
In his instructional video A Work in Progress, Rush drummer Neil Peart takes a moment to make his case against the old maxim that less is more. “Less is never more,” Peart says. “More is always more, and if you’re going to play less, it had better be good.” To his credit, if a band is going to carry around a full set of Rototoms, a gong, and tubular bells, it might as well get its money’s worth out of them. But Rush is a prog-rock band, and for all of their adept mathematical riffing, few people have ever made out to “YYZ.” The Shins, on the other hand, are the make-out band of our time, and on Wincing the Night Away, their success stems entirely from keeping everything simple but the sentimentality.
After 2003, when the Shins released their wistful sophomore album, Chutes Too Narrow, everything in the indie-pop band’s world got a lot bigger: bigger shows, bigger audiences, and, soon enough, big Garden State soundtrack royalty checks. Four years later, the Shins have responded by releasing a bigger album. But rather than using Beck producer Joe Chiccarelli to help them hone epic, prog-rock song cycles—like the kind written by fellow über-literate Northwesterners the Decemberists—the Shins use him to enhance the dreamy power pop they already had. The hand-holding, diary-scribbling potential inherent in each shy ballad that singer James Mercer wrote for Wincing the Night Away seems to have been scientifically identified, isolated, and then blown up to arena-size proportions. As usual, drums boom, chords chime, and synths burble, but this time they do so with a focus and economy that the group’s previous records lacked.
Of course, economy has always been a large part of the Shins’ allure—the band’s instrumentation is uncomplicated, but its songs are often surprisingly flexible. The band’s 2001, debut, Oh, Inverted World, was remarkable for what it lacked the most: definition. Awash in a haze of reverb, the record was largely edgeless. The instruments seemed lost and the songs dreamily blurred into one another in a manner not too far removed from R.E.M.’s Murmur. A longtime fan of My Bloody Valentine, Mercer paid tribute to his favorite group’s trippy sonics by layering his vocals and obscuring them at the bottom of the mix. On Chutes Too Narrow, he toned down the ambience—no layered guitars, no orchestral interludes—but the tight performances of Mercer’s melancholy, Kinks-like pop songs seemed slightly hurried and unconsidered.
A look at Wincing the Night Away’s liner notes hardly suggests an understated album: The band employs more backup vocals, banjos, bouzoukis, strings, and electronic treatments here than on previous records. Still, the overall mood is spare, which is mainly due to the skillful arrangements. The opener, “Sleeping Lessons,” begins with delicate synth bleeps that recall the gurglings of Raymond Scott’s Soothing Sounds for Baby series. For the first minute, that’s about all that happens. “Off with their heads/Jump from the hook/You’re not obliged to swallow anything you despise,” sings Mercer, his voice now free from the empty-cistern reverb chamber. The song builds toward its climax in calculated increments. First bass, then tambourine, then guitar, and when the band finally kicks in at around the two-and-a-half-minute mark, it’s a satisfyingly warm rush of sound. Stirring up emotions with a simple crescendo isn’t a complicated task, but it is an effective one.
Some people seem to be born with an innate ability to sing sad songs, and James Mercer is one of them. More than anything else, his sweetly crackling voice and lyrical wit have helped the Shins stand out among the highly nasal lamentations of their contemporaries. Borrowing the Jesus and Mary Chain’s minimalist stomp, “Phantom Limb” gives Mercer room to stand in the spotlight: He does all of the work, intoning an elegant and carefully constructed melody harmonized by only single shimmering guitar chords. Although Mercer has said it’s about two lesbians growing up in the suburbs, the lyrics don’t do a whole lot to clarify the subject matter: “They are the fabled lambs/Of Sunday ham/The EHS norm,” typifies his inscrutable lyrics. But no matter. As confusing as the words are, Mercer’s diffuse imagery has the benefit of freshness, and he delivers his lines in such an intimate, Morrissey-esque croon that what he lacks in rationality he makes up in emotion.
On the atmospheric “Black Wave,” even more of the instrumentation drops out, leaving a contemplative ballad that manages to mesh Simon & Garfunkel with My Bloody Valentine. Fingerpicked acoustic guitars anchor Mercer as he sings softly amid buzzing samples. The heavy electronics suit the song; behind a wall of reverb, the subtle background distortion gives the tune a compact dramatic center. Without it, the song becomes a meandering sleeper.
Attempting to enhance power pop and turn it into arena-twee has its drawbacks, though. With its bouncing keyboards and overwrought poetry, “Red Rabbits” is so sugary that it practically demands you get an insulin shot, lumping together all of the Shins’ lamest, most precious habits into a lilting indie-pop Jolly Rancher. “Out of the gunnysack fall red rabbits/Into the crucible to be rendered and emulsion,” sings Mercer, sliding in at least two nickel-worthy vocab builders to form a forced-sounding lyric, while cradle-bound keyboards plink away behind him.
The Shins also run into stormy waters on “Sealegs.” An attempt to break from their staple ’60s pop, the song lumbers along to a skeletal wannabe hip-hop rhythm, but only Mercer’s voice has any buoyancy. It’s a brave move, but it sounds out of place amid the rest of the album, and by the time the string section arrives, the song feels awkwardly reminiscent of U2’s bombastic epic “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me.” They have more success breaking with convention on “Split Needles.” A pop song written from a postpunk perspective rather than a paisley one, it ambles to stuttered synths and bass lines that recall Wire’s best moments on A Bell Is a Cup Until It Is Struck. Mercer builds a subtle emotional arc that starts with slanted drums and downer sentiments but shifts into acoustic guitars and a major-key melody. It’s the band’s largest step forward on the album, proof that they can write powerful songs that don’t just sound like the Zombies.
The Shins’ bookish fan base would no doubt hate to be called simple. But there isn’t a whole lot of science to the Shins’ music. On Oh, Inverted World and Chutes Too Narrow, they played solid, moving pop songs with few distractions. That’s not a small thing: Similar bands haven’t been privileged with the same discipline. With The Crane Wife, the Decemberists turned in a lumbering, quasi-ironic prog record, and Death Cab for Cutie made its major-label debut a tangled and overproduced muddle. But with Mercer’s voice and songwriting in tighter focus, the songs on Wincing the Night Away don’t need a whole lot of window dressing to be moving. It’s less, but it’s a bigger less. Not to mention a better less. CP