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The Shins, ‘Wincing the Night Away’ (Sub Pop)

You know, the Shins never seemed like the kind of guys who could actually change your life. Even now, when you watch Natalie Portman hand her oversize headphones to Zach Braff and attest to the band’s transformative powers (in that infamous scene from Garden State), it feels like a mistake. You almost expect someone to enter the shot and say, “Umm, sweetie, you were supposed to say Coldplay.” The Shins have always seemed too unassuming for such a responsibility. These are modest indie guys who grew up in humdrum New Mexico, after all. Whose life could they possibly change?

And yet, it turned out that Queen Amidala was right. With the help of Garden State, the Shins sold more than a million records worldwide, a rather stunning feat. And without their unlikely crossover (as well as the success of similarly reared artists like Death Cab for Cutie and Modest Mouse), it’s hard to say what the world would hold for scrappy fringe bands. Would it really be possible for a song by some accordion-toting freak-folk act to be used in an episode of Grey’s Anatomy? Would a bunch of dudes from Brooklyn really be rocking out on Letterman after being praised on a blog?

Probably not. And during the past two years, while the members of the Shins have been at work on this understated third album, you gotta think that’s weighed heavily on their minds. Though lead songwriter James Mercer is savvy enough to avoid any hugely ambitious left turns, he seems hesitant to write any more of the helium-voiced power-pop anthems that charged through 2001’s Oh, Inverted World. Instead, he toys with a series of backward guitar solos, homemade samples, and, on “Black Wave,” murky art-folk sketches. For Mercer, who was no doubt aware of the insane expectations that fans had for him, crafting a record as small and wistful as Wincing the Night Away must have been a joy.

He also seems to be having relative fun on first single “Phantom Limb,” a shimmering alt-pop moper that recalls R.E.M. when Michael Stipe still had hair. But what often get lost in Mercer’s casting about are the AM radio hooks and early-evening ballads that endeared his band to well-read, romantically challenged twentysomethings everywhere. While the warmhearted rocker “Turn on Me” and exuberant opener “Sleeping Lessons” vaguely recall the Shins of old, in the end, Wincing is a purposefully low-impact affair. On the gorgeous finale, “A Comet Appears,” Mercer picks at a nimble guitar line like it’s 3 A.M. and he’s got guests in the other room. Though it’s just another of the album’s sad and gentle comedowns, he appears to be playing it with a wry smile.

Now Hear This: The Shins – “Phantom Limb” DOWNLOAD MP3

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