Wincing the Days Away
The Shins are here! The fucking Shins have arrived! Children! Toss your books into the street and rejoice naked in the glistening sun! When Alexander Graham Bell asked "What hath God wrought" over that wire in 1844, surely there was a rumbling groan from God himself "Keep your shirt on, Bell! I'm still working on The Shins! This one is going to take me a while, unlike the mountains and panoply of beasts." Finally after 153 of foot-tapping years, the Lord's bounty of The Shins was delivered on a gold, no, platinum chariot pulled by flaming winged unicorns, and the thud of their landing sent a shudder into jocks and jerks everywhere, and a million nerds pushed their Buddy Holly glasses up the bridge of their nose to gaze upon the New Dawn!
OK, I know I am understating the importance of The Shins on Western culture, but as a critic I am tasked to sort the soil from the gold in the mines of hype. Under that microscope, The Shins turn out to be just a band from Albuquerque who in two albums dredged up enough well-crafted retro-pop to even force Zach Braff's eyelids open for long enough for him to fart out a couple movies. I never really got the fervor behind this band. It is pleasing music, in the active sense. One gets the idea that the Shins are striving to please. I'm not calling them kiss-ass sell-outs or anything; there is enough substance to their material to belie any thoughts of them being a mere hit machine. It's just there is not enough there to make them quite the revolutionary voice of the bored twenty-something.
On their third album Wincing the Day Away, you get the feeling that they've succumbed to ironic Burger King crown placed upon their heads. And I think someone got a Stereolab compilation for Christmas. "Sleeping Lessons" tip-toes into the room on vibe-like synths, as if to not wake you up, gently falling on your ears like the first snow, only to jump into their distinct brand of peppy guitar pop. This mix of Internationale class and Target-Ad-Ready pop permeates the record. It's quite good in its way. I am sitting in a caf?© right now as I write this, and were the dulcet sunshine of this record to come wafting at a low-volume, I'd be really happy. I'd order another espresso. I won't front, in my daily practice, I am the privileged yuppie scum records like these seek to speak to. Unfortunately the rock-n-roll Hulk waiting to burst through my pale shell underneath ain't havin' it.
There are some really great moments on this record. "Black Wave" is a sweet, foggy dreamscape of synths over twinkling acoustic arpeggios. "Red Rabbits" is a cool, wistful burbling cocktail of clever lyrics and percolating ambiance. In fact, I like the opening to every song on this record. Each one gets me excited that something different is coming up. "Split Needles" comes on like a lost Arab Strap moaner, "Pam Berry" sounds like a Dick Dale romp, but they either dissipate quickly or dissolve into the smug self-conscious half-smile rock that pushes me over the edge. I am all for depression in art. Drag me into the cave of your psyche and make me watch you trash the place, but don't sit me next to you on the couch as you absently complain about your job and your girlfriend, OK?
And that is exactly the vibe I get off this music. Look to Luna's golden years - Dave Wareham could turn these happy-sad moments into something positively glorious. Look at the universally-declared-"pussy" band Belle and Sebastian. Their last record The Life Pursuit is erudite, tender and still manages to be awesome. Look at the title of the record. I know you can't judge a book by its cover, but who wants to hang around someone wincing? The final track "A Comet Appears" is a nice touch, a reward for not yawning ones way through this party with its chirping birds and warm tremolo. The acoustic strums come in like cicadas, the guitar line blurred like the orb of streetlights in the haze of closing time. This is a great song, a beautiful pop song that envelopes the grand moments of ennui and sends them first-class to your soul. If this record was a single of the first and last songs I'd rave about it, but you can't really support a sandwich if all you like is the bread. Buck up, Shins, it's going to be OK. I know you have it in you. You are a really talented and interesting band, OK? I'm just going to go mingle over there now, but I'll be back.
(Alex V. Cook's book of rocknroll observations, 'Darkness, Racket and Twang' is available now from the SideCartel)
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com