One of the more notable phenomena emerging in the current musical climate is a resurgence of a kind of retro primitive rock outfit, a nostalgic tribute to groups of a bygone era. This curious renaissance of old fashioned garage rock has produced a plethora of faceless, interchangeable acts, with only a select few, like The White Stripes, amounting to anything more than fad chasers embracing a fleeting craze, jumping on a temporarily hip bandwagon leading to an arena wherein their pedestrian fare won't be exposed as the derivative, generic, superficial rock that it is.
This rampant mediocrity isn't the only fashion in which rock and roll nostalgia has manifested itself in this alien epoch, however, and there are certainly methods in which this longing for the glory days of music can be translated into something far more worthy than transplanting inferior emulations of early Alice Cooper into a more modern environment.
Thus there are groups that assimilate sixties influences into their work who don't elect to choose retro garage rock as their predominant inspiration. Bands like The Coral attempt to revive everything from sixties pop to acidic psychedelia, abstaining from the usual garage rock clichés in favor of other aspects of this retro zeitgeist.
It's this path that The Shins choose to form their identity, a blending of sixties music values and a more modern brand of indie rock. While they derive much of their style from their sixties idols they're sure to put their own unique stamp on all of their music, making them one of the more entertaining and intriguing groups of the new millennium.
While at times the album feels like a compendium of sixties styles, Oh, Inverted World is bereft of any lapses into garage rock, rather embracing aspects of the era that somehow slipped below the radar of the endless armada of me-too guitar rockers. Featuring everything from dreamy pop to catchy rockers to haunting ballads to quintessential sixties anthems with psychedelic flourishes, Oh, Inverted World covers a side of the classic rock era that's all too often neglected thanks to insipid trends and instrumental inadequacies (with the latter breeding a legion of garage rockers bashing away at the same few chords for hours on end).
While largely an homage to sixties rockers there's far more to Oh, Inverted World than adroit mimicry and a comprehensive knowledge of the ins and outs of the style. The Shins arose from the ashes of Flake (subsequently renamed Flake Music), a rock outfit that by all accounts, while quite impressive, performed in a somewhat looser style thanks to their inherently collaborative nature. The Shins, on the other hand, are a far more focused enterprise than their predecessors as frontman James Mercer shoulders the entire creative responsibility of the band.
Mercer's songwriting is uniformly brilliant, and while his material owes a great deal to his influences the melodies are always purely his own. Highlights abound, from the stellar opener Caring Is Creepy to the hyper catchy pop rock of Know Your Onion! to the tenebrous New Slang to the irresistible Pressed In A Book. Nearly every track has something to offer, though I'll concede that the compact menace of Your Algebra never amounts to anything of considerable value.
Mercer's also deserves credit for his terrific vocals; it may take time to acclimate to his idiosyncratic vocal stylings, but once one manages that feat they'll find that his singing complements his work perfectly.
Thus Oh, Inverted World is an excellent debut and one of the finer offering from the indie pop scene in quite some time. Mercer's merger of sixties rock and indie pop is deftly orchestrated and quite inspired, while his songwriting ensures that there are plentiful hooks and unforgettable melodies at every turn. It's refreshing that someone is acknowledging that there's more to the early rock scene than Nuggets rejects; this style may be harder to handle, but it's far more rewarding in the long run.
Despite taking a disproportionately long sabbatical between their efforts (though nothing compared to the four year hiatus that would follow), when the Shins reemerged with their sophomore outing they delivered a product that was in no way radically removed from their prior album.
Everything that defined their previous outing, from the pronounced sixties influences to the indie pop sensibility to the eccentric lyrics, remain firmly in place. While the melodies are all new, from a stylistic perspective the music is rather conspicuously reminiscent of their past fare, with little new to differentiate the band's recent output from what came before.
Fortunately this is by no means a bad thing. The Shins had already fashioned an idiosyncratic identity for themselves, a unique persona expressed through their music, and given that the group are still in the early stages of their careers circumstances hardly necessitate a stylistic reinvention for the band.
Ergo what really matters is not the adherence to their preexisting style but rather how deftly the style is implemented, and fortunately Mercer and company handle this task just as adroitly as they had on their debut.
Mercer is in top form as a songwriter, penning myriad indie classics that often even surpass his triumphs on his previous endeavor. The opener, Kissing The Lipless, fluidly shifts from low-keyed acoustic strumming in a singer-songwriter mold to a rock oriented electric workout and back, never betraying even the slightest hint of awkwardness or contrivance.
Mine's Not A High Horse is so unmistakably the work of the Shins that one's compelled to wonder how the band was able to establish such a distinctive sound quite so early in their lifespan, while So Says I is a sneering rocker with Mercer assuming a particularly bitter, disillusioned vocal style that perfectly complements the cynical yet catchy tone of the track.
Elsewhere Young Pilgrims is a moody, atmospheric masterpiece, Saint Simon boasts a stellar vocal melody, Fighting In A Sack takes a turn for the more aggressive, Pink Bullets is haunting in its eloquent pathos, with a despairing tone to both the music and lyrics, Turn A Square is an energetic, driving rocker, Gone For Good is quite emotive and Those To Come almost sounds like a tenebrous lullaby, both menacing and somehow soothing, rendering it the ideal album closer.
The album is devoid of anything that could be considered filler, as each song is memorable and rewarding, indie pop of the highest order. As demonstrated on Oh, Inverted World the band are adept at alternating between vastly different tones, though on this outing even the comparatively lighter tracks exhibit subtle traces of darkness.
While unquestionably a sequel to the band's debut, Chutes Too Narrow proves that even while adhering to the same formula one can achieve remarkably different results; the album closely resembles Oh, Inverted World, but it carves its own identity through the amazing caliber of the songwriting. Shins' debut also featured comparable songwriting, but despite the similarities from both a stylistic and qualitative vantage point Chutes Too Narrow's set feels unique and fresh, evoking no thoughts of self-plagiarism or inheriting the tainted title of knockoff. The fact that no such stigmas haunt the album is a testament to the considerable talents of the band and, especially, Mercer himself, who cements himself as one of the top composers on the indie scene.
Thus Chutes Too Narrow is a terrific album, a marriage of sixties rock and indie pop that manages to feel timeless as opposed to muddled or dated. Filled with myriad striking moments, both artistically and emotionally, Chutes Too Narrow is an impressive feat for anyone, let alone a band on their sophomore outing. From simple axiomatic entertainment like Turn A Square to edgier fare like So Says I to moments of genuine catharsis like Pink Bullets the album offers a wide spectrum of musical experiences, each of which is well worth the listening time devoted to it.
It's amazing how an errant remark, a throwaway, innocuous comment, can profoundly affect someone's life, often to the point of irrevocably altering one's world; such was the case for The Shins when Natalie Portman, in the film Garden State, stated that, "The Shins will change your life."
This sentence alone was sufficient to transfigure a mildly successful indie rock outfit into a band poised to become an overnight mainstream sensation. Thus The Shins' commercial breakthrough came through no device of their own, a testament to the synergistic properties of contemporary pop culture.
Fortunately the prospect of a lucrative future didn't have much of an effect on the band; aside from the inevitable glossier production sheen imposed by a studio that finally had a reason to care about The Shins, the group has retained all of their offbeat and quirky charm, still deeply entrenched in the realm of indie pop and as indebted to their sixties idols as ever.
This isn't to say that the group is wholly unchanged, merely that their development can be attributed to natural artistic progression as opposed to any latent avarice on the part of the band.
The slicker production actually has its advantages; the innate beauty of the opening passages of Sleeping Lessons couldn't have been fully realized without at least a modicum of studio wizardry, while the pristine sound quality adds extra dimensions to the likes of the poppy Australia.
There are indeed instances of attempted artistic expansion, albeit generally on a small scale; thus the phenomenal pop rocker Sealegs is centered around a funk rock riff, incorporating an intriguing dynamic into a song that otherwise betrays little in the way of deviations from The Shins' norm (which isn't a fault, as the song may very well be the best on the album).
Invariably it's the songwriting that determines the caliber of an album, and fortunately Mercer's skills in this department haven't been diminished by a Portman-induced ego trip. Spectacular melodies abound; Phantom Limb was a wise choice for the album's first single, a hyper catchy pop rocker filled with stellar vocal melodies brimming with hooks.
Sleeping Lessons is an ideal opener, washing over the listener with soothing beauty until it explodes into a furious rocker, while Australia proves itself worthy of sharing its name with the minor classic Kinks' ironic tribute to life down under. The previously mentioned Sealegs is a psychedelic masterpiece, Black Wave is enthralling, Spilt Needles is a great rocker and A Comet Appears is a suitably anthemic, emotional closer.
While it may not "change your life," as idiotically espoused by Portman, Wincing The Night Away is still an immensely enjoyable listen, much like the albums that precede it. Mercer is quite simply a highly gifted individual and one of the most promising talents to emerge on the indie scene in recent years. Inevitably some will brand it as a sellout, if only due to its slicker production and its Hollywood connections, but there's little merit to that accusation; The Shins appear uninfluenced by their newfound fame, simply continuing along the same course that they've been following since the dawn of the new millennium.