By Mark Guarino
Sit down, strap in: This is the year of The Shins.
We had since 2004 to prepare. That was the year Modest Mouse unexpectedly went from 11-year indie veterans to experience overnight Top 40 success thanks to “Float On,” an instant summer emblem destined to make that year’s graduating class teary with nostalgia come reunion time.
The surprise elevation signaled that finally, the blog nation had enough of a presence to steer the masses away from Beyonce, if only for a moment. Now that MP3 players are on their way to replacing radio as the go-to source for music fans, the mainstream is becoming more irrelevant than ever. Bands that gave up trying to get airplay alongside Nickelback are finding a fanbase via word-of-mouth chatter that is dismantling the mainstream. Bands no longer need to be as pretty as Pete Wentz to sell records, they can connect to fans the old school way: through music. The one-to-one interface is not just a practical way to do business, it creates excitement, something that music has been lacking ever since Fred Durst put on his red hat.
The Shins are poised to have their Modest Mouse moment. Just in stores, “Wincing the Night Away” (Sub Pop) is an album finding at home at every outlet — Starbucks, NPR, “Saturday Night Live” — except commercial radio. The Portland band is a phenomenon of left field marketing. Once actress Natalie Portman endorsed them as a band that would change your life in the 2004 film “Garden State,” their trajectory climbed. “New Slang,” one of two songs featured in the film, helped sell their 2001 debut (placement in a McDonald’s commercial helped too) and also built momentum for “Chutes Too Narrow” (Sub Pop), the album just released. Now, starting the new year with a gorgeous and unpredictable third album, The Shins have the luxury of stepping onstage to a readymade fanbase, one that found itself organically. If the Top 40 comes calling, even better.
“Wincing” is a transition album. The guitars that were so strong and upfront in “Chutes Too Narrow” are drawn back and blurred into an array of effects that form a much richer sound. “Sea Legs” is the starkest shift here. A bed of electro-beats enters first, complimented by an acoustic guitar, a wash of keyboard fuzz and then, before you know it, strings dramatically swoop down. The song’s most direct reference is Beck’s “Sea Change” album where downbeat moods are filtered through both a coffeehouse aesthetic and a cinematic importance.
Despite how much studio enhancement there is, at its core, the songwriting on “Wincing” is confident and unfussy. There is almost a tinge of country music flavor, Bakersfield-style. On “Split Needles,” a shuffle, the guitars and strings dance a psychedelic swirl together while on “Red Rabbits,” a pedal steel guitar answers to bending strings and the effect they create is a twinkling night sky.
But while a new song like “Black Wave” would have never fit on their previous two albums — a dark song prodded along by a finger-picked guitar and ominous background noise — a song like “Girl Sailor” could. Economic guitar pop with a solo that flies atop the surf, the song is pure glee. The pop styles of “Wincing” are never easily categorized, but always set to charm.
What made The Shins so appealing from the start is how James Mercer sings. His vocals strangle high notes but that doesn’t stop him from trying. Like Michael Stipe during R.E.M.’s IRS days, Mercer’s cryptic lyrics are written more for their cadence than clarity, although occasionally a dark stinger — “been alone since you’ve been 21/you haven’t laughed since January” — jumps out as either a tease or sympathetic condolence. Not that either matters — the nervous tick in Mercer’s voice gives his oblique words enough meaning you want to keep hearing him sing. He introduces inflections of Morrissey, bending notes in his most winsome moments.
Even if the meticulous and maximized production makes The Shins sound like a more extreme version of what they once were, they are well suited for it. The challenge they pose is only for others in their wake.