Wincing the Night Away Sub Pop
Music •••½ Sound ••••
The Shins graduated quickly to ultra-hip status after Natalie Portman's character in the film Garden State declared that this little Albuquerque to Portland, Oregon band could "change your life." Now they confront their newfound expectations with a third album that's the most ambitious of their short career.

Up to this point, singer/writer James Mercer found contentment writing bright little pop songs that came from the darker corners of his bedroom - often recorded there to his computer. Wincing the Night Away aims for a grander stage. The soundscape is detailed, with even the percussion getting a full stereo mix. Unlike so many bands that are mastered at the top edge of their range, the Shins employ subtle dynamics. Per usual these days, the bass can be overwhelming, but the guitars and keyboards are expertly layered throughout.

None of which would mean a thing if Mercer didn't write the songs that make the whole endeavor worthwhile. "Phantom Limb," the album's first single, is a crisp piece of Morrissey-meets-Microdisney Anglo pop. "Girl Sailor" shuffles like a Belle & Sebastian track, with a stellar clean guitar solo and little keyboard flourishes that leave enough air for Mercer's gorgeous lead vocal. "Split Needles" is the type of moody synth pop that once kept the Cure in business.

Mercer occasionally gets ahead of himself. "Australia" lacks gravity, never making the big impression its intro suggests. "Pam Berry" is the sort of brief noodling you might expect from a double album. But when he gets his voice around a melody worth keeping - his batting average here is impressive overall - you understand why a young, impressionable kid might believe this band could change your life. For the rest of us, the Shins are capable of at least improving our day.

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