I've never been as smitten with The Shins as my music-listening peers, including Zack Braff and the hosts of most dinner parties I attend. The band's debut, Oh, Inverted World, was a jangly indie-rock pleasantry but often mellow to the point of boredom, while Chutes Too Narrow was catchier and twangy but not particularly deep.
I had high hopes when I heard the first track off the Shins's new album, Wincing the Night Away, which hits stores today. About one minute in to the slow-burning "Sleeping Lessons," vocalist James Mercer sings "Eviscerate your fragile frame / and spill it out on the ragged floor" with a sudden and chilling falsetto that later explodes into a wall of Strokesian guitars. The totally expected progression made me think this album would be different — catchy and complex in a way that earlier Shins albums just hinted at. But as with the Shins' other CDs, the standout tracks on Wincing the Night Away just make me long for more surprises, so
Most people had the same reaction as I did to the album's first single, "Phantom Limb." The tambourine-littered ditty was nice enough, but it would have fit comfortably and inoffensively on Oh, Inverted World or Chutes. That could be said for most of the tracks on this album, including the listless "Black Rabbits," which feels too much like filler.
What's frustrating is that the Shins so often hint at much more brilliant potential. "Australia," for instance, is an almost fiendishly excellent pop-song, with an addictive vocal melody set against perky banjo lines. Then, there's the utterly unexpected "Sea Legs," where a loping bass line and traipsing flute lead us into a funky prog-rock coda. But in the end, Wincing the Night Away, like other Shins' albums, has a handful of highly satisfying songs surrounded by others that are merely pleasant, making me wish the rest of the album were more remarkable.