Oh, Inverted World (Sub Pop ’01) Rating: B+
Having already spent several years in various bands together honing their sound, this Albuquerque, New Mexico band delivered this fully-formed if somewhat short (33 minutes) debut album, which appeared on many a year-end critic list. And though the album has its problems, the hype is largely justified, as the band's retro ("I don't like to pretend I'm in the '60s" replied my wife when I incredulously asked her if she really didn't like this album), Beach Boys indebted sound is simple and straightforward yet multi-colored (and multi-tracked), with an echoed, Elephant Six-ish psychedelic tint and airy harmonies along with an often-gorgeous guitar jangle, Zombies-esque keyboards, low-key but subtly propulsive and extremely creative rhythms, and occasional string/horn embellishments. The album peaks immediately with side one standouts such as "Caring Is Creepy," which has a magical quality about it (love the keyboards, drums, and vocals on this one), "Know Your Onion!" and "Girl Inform Me," both of which are very Beach Boys-influenced, and especially "New Slang," the wonderfully melodic and moody first single that Natalie Portman later declared "will change your life" in the movie Garden State. "One By One All Day" is another unassuming winner with oddly tuneful burbling keyboards and an overall emphasis on rhythm, but the quality slides considerably on side two. Don't get me wrong, "The Celibate Life" hits on an agreeable groove, and I really like the ambitiously arranged closer "The Past And Pending," a melancholic mood piece that seems like an absolute epic (5:24) when preceded by so many more modest entries. Alas, pleasant though they all generally are, none of the other songs not already mentioned are especially memorable. On the whole, Oh, Inverted World is a little too laid back for its own good, often floating by without really latching on, and though the band by and large does their influences proud, they've yet to establish a strong identity of their own. Still, I suppose that's what second albums are for, and as with the similarly derivative Beulah I can't help but be impressed by the band's diligent craftsmanship, and I concur with the many critics and fans who feel that this album's overall warmth and melodicism makes for a fine summer soundtrack.
Chutes Too Narrow (Sub Pop ’03) Rating: A-
Leaving The Beach Boys behind, The Shins came fully into their own on Chutes Too Narrow, a more varied and consistent collection, even if none of its songs are as great as “Caring is Creepy” or “New Slang.” They can probably still be called a "light retro pop band", but this is a much more modern sounding album (I suppose my wife would like this one better), in part due to a clearer, more precise, and powerful production. More importantly, James Mercer's songs are better overall, beginning with "Kissing The Lipless," a rocking album opener that shows off an increased energy. The song even breaks out a guitar solo or two, as does "So Says I," and both songs also have memorable vocal moments that further reveal what an accomplished singer Mercer is (I probably should’ve mentioned that his falsetto voice is arguably the single most distinctive characteristic of the band). Other highlights more in line with the typical Shins sound include "Mine's Not A High Horse," which rides a smooth groove and is both breezy and beautiful, the sing songy "Saint Simon," a dramatic, lovely song with a "la da dum" vocal section that really sticks, and the moody, keyboard-heavy ballad "Pink Bullets," which is also enhanced by mournful harmonica. Elsewhere, Mercer and company again wear their influences on their sleeves, but at least they're different influences this time. For example, the loping country rock of "Gone For Good" brings Neil Young or perhaps Gram Parsons to mind, while the sparse closer "Those To Come" is obviously modeled after Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne" and is similarly hauntingly pretty. In addition to the consistently appealing music, Mercer is an intriguing lyricist ("I found a fatal flaw in the logic of love") as well, and the album's only real flaws are its short length (though in this era of bloated running times some might see that as a strength; still, it makes the album seem somewhat slight) and several songs ("Young Pilgrim," "Fighting In A Sack," "Turn A Square") that are merely good but not great. Still, Chutes Too Narrow accomplished everything that a second album is supposed to do, since it expands upon the debut's strengths while further consolidating their identity, thereby ensuring that The Shins' current run as critics' darlings will last for another album at least.
Wincing The Night Away (Sub Pop ’07) Rating: B
This album was so named due to Mercer’s many sleepless nights living with the expectations garnered by Garden State and an ever-increasing fan base. It’s amazing how quickly a band can go from underrated indie darlings to overrated (sorry, but fine though they are, even The Shins’ best music is so unassuming that I’d never call it life changing), over-hyped mainstream band whose album debuted #2 on Billboard, but let’s forget about grandiose expectations and concentrate on this album’s music, shall we?
Simply put, Wincing The Night Away attempts to branch out with a more densely layered and experimental sound, but aside from a couple of exceptions its songs don’t stand out as previously, even after multiple listens. Clearly this was an attempt at a more mature, diverse album statement, but by branching out they’ve branched away from their strengths as a simple pop band. Previously, the band obviously knew what they wanted even if they didn’t always get there or they got there but were a bit boring anyway, but here I’m not entirely sure that the band knew what they were after, though Mercer is such a strong songwriter and his band is so solid that the album is enjoyable for the most part anyway. As for highlights, “Sleeping Lessons” starts the album by woozily building for two minutes before exploding unexpectedly and convincingly rocking out (not usually a band strength) for the last minute and a half, and the hooky “Phantom Limb,” apparently about two young lesbians, is the song most reminiscent of their first two albums and is therefore the obvious choice for the first single; you just have to love those “ooh wooh ooh” vocals, no? Several other good songs reveal themselves over time as well, but aside from "Australia" none strike me as first-rate Shins songs, and the album’s darker, more atmospheric overall tone, most apparent on tracks such as “Black Wave” and “Spilt Needles,” isn’t as easy to embrace as the hook-filled, summery sounds previously established. This album took almost four long years to make, and it just seems like these songs didn’t come to Mercer quite as easily this time around, though Wincing is definitely a grower that's worth the time of already existing fans. Just don't expect it to change your life or anything.