2007’s First Great Album
The Shins Return With a Near-Perfect Record

Well, that was fast. Ladies and gentlemen, the first great album of 2007: Wincing the Night Away, by the Shins.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this album. The Shins’ 2001 debut, Oh, Inverted World, cast them as an indie band in love with the melodies of Brian Wilson, and while some songs felt incomplete, several of them were brilliant. The whole thing gave off a warm air of charming cheapness, like if the teenage Beach Boys made a record for $50. And World includes “Girl Inform Me,” which I honestly consider one of the finest pop songs of the last 20 years.

But when it came time to follow it up, the Shins nose-dived. 2003’s Chutes Too Narrow improved the sound and production quality somewhat, but tanked when it came to memorable songs. Only a few, like “So Says I” and “Saint Simon,” really took off, and the reliance on acoustic guitars only added to the feeling that Chutes was a rushed, homespun knockoff. Listening back to it this week, I was struck anew by just how average it all is.

But maybe that’s only in comparison, since Wincing the Night Away is by no means average. The band took nearly three and a half years to craft this thing, and it shows – the sound is massive and layered and expensive-sounding. Many have already taken that as a cue to write the Shins off as sell-outs, and that’s a shame, because this album sports the best, most consistent set of songs James Mercer has ever written. It’s true that Natalie Portman’s character from Garden State probably wouldn’t find this one life-changing, but that’s her loss.

Wincing opens quietly, with shimmering keyboards and Mercer’s quivering vocal, but before long “Sleeping Lessons” explodes into quick-time guitar rock, and we’re off. The album is a series of interlocking moods, and takes you through half a dozen different atmospheres in 40 minutes. But don’t worry – about half these tracks sound like the Shins, and the band is smart enough to alternate their more experimental moments with the pure melodic pop they do best. When Mercer is on, he writes some fine vocal melodies, pinching Brian Wilson’s tendency to take the vocal line places you wouldn’t expect.

Take “Australia,” for example. It’s the first out-of-the-park smash on the album, based around a delightfully loping bass line and a jangly guitar part. But it’s that vocal melody, that cascading, looping, rising tune that takes you by the hand and leads you, moment by moment, through the whole song. Other elements become little tourist attractions – look left, kids, there’s a banjo in the pre-chorus! – as Mercer’s voice guides you. It’s the kind of thing more bands could stand to learn, and what really sets Mercer apart.

Check out “Phantom Limb,” the first single, for another killer melody line, this one so very Brian Wilson. (Hey, if you’re going to wear your influences on your sleeve, you may as well be influenced by the best.) The song itself is surprisingly simple, but the soaring vocal line captures your attention, and the extended “whoa-oh” coda is terrific. Wincing the Night Away contains the longest songs Mercer has written, but none wear out their welcome – they’re too focused on blindingly great melodies for that.

But just as you’re getting ready for another seven sweet pop songs, the Shins pull the rug out. “Sealegs” sounds like a lot of bands, but none of them are the Shins – it’s based on an almost Beck-like beat, slinky bass figure and acoustic staccato, over which Mercer unveils yet another restless melody line. This song’s almost mechanical sound and shivering strings take a few moments to get used to, but the song works. “Red Rabbits,” which follows right after, sets an ambient mood with chiming, plonking keyboards, then adds sweeping strings and some reverbed electric guitar, and the overall effect is like swimming underwater. But it, too, works amazingly well.

And so it goes through the second half – “Turn On Me” is classic Shins, all ringing guitars and hummable melody, while its immediate successor, “Black Wave,” is a dazzling experiment in mood and texture. Through it all, Mercer only stumbles once, on the Shins-by-numbers “Girl Sailor,” and even that is not half bad. The album closes with one of the prettiest songs to spring from Mercer’s pen, “A Comet Appears.” With a circular guitar figure setting the scene, Mercer pours his little heart out: “The lonely are such delicate things,” he sings, while the music strives for that same delicateness. It leaves you with a feeling like warm summer nights, watching the sun slowly fade.

What else can be said? The Shins not only brought it all together for this record, they launched themselves into some new directions, and refused to settle for emulating those new influences without fully assimilating them. Wincing the Night Away is a beautiful, nearly completely successful record, and while some will whine about the loss of indie sparkle that comes with the more polished sheen, the songs win the day. It may have taken Mercer and company more than three years to put this album together, but from the available evidence, it seems they didn’t waste a day.

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When I made the trek to the record store to buy Wincing the Night Away, I knew I was going to also pick up The Brothers Martin. While the rest of the world has been anticipating the Shins album, I’ve been quietly waiting for this collaboration between two of my favorite little-known songwriters.

Long-time readers probably know who the Martins are. Jason is the voice and guitar of Starflyer 59, and he’s been turning out one spunky, jagged rock record after another for 13 years. Brother Ronnie is the mastermind behind Joy Electric, and he’s been painstakingly crafting his blipping, beautiful synth-pop for nearly as long. Between the two of them, they’ve made more than 30 records, with more on the way and no plans to stop.

But what you may not know is that Ronnie and Jason were in a band called Dance House Children together, long before SF59 and Joy E (and even their longtime label, Tooth and Nail). DHC sounded like early Joy E, all programmed synthesizers and fluttery vocals, with the added treat of Jason’s guitar, deep and reverbed and thick as a mountain even then. The pair split in 1992, but they’ve been promising to reunite for some kind of project ever since.

And here it is – The Brothers Martin is 34 minutes of angular pop music, performed in an interesting and near-equal mix of Ronnie’s and Jason’s styles. The brothers split songwriting and singing duties right down the middle, and though Jason plays guitar and bass while Ronnie does everything else on his analog synths, the sound is much more representative of both. This isn’t Dance House Children, but it’s not Starflyer 59 with disco beats either.

Admittedly, some tunes, like Ronnie’s “Fears to Remember,” are more Joy E, with their ‘80s new-wave synth bass lines. And some, like Jason’s “The Plot That Weaves,” are more SF59, with real drums by Alex Albert and a strong electric guitar focus. But the best of these songs form a whole new amalgam. Take “Opportunities,” for example – a very Jason Martin song, but weaving in and out of the Cure-like guitar figures is Ronnie, providing the bass bed and swooping up with his synth leads. Opener “Communication” does the same thing, but gives Ronnie a chance to sing a pounding rocker, something he rarely gets to do.

Oddly enough, though, my favorite of these tracks is a genuine experiment. “The Missionary” is a Jason Martin song, one that sounds as though it was written for his trademark thunderous guitar. But instead, Ronnie has sculpted this song into a synth-rock masterpiece, one that revels in its own cheesiness. You can just see the goofy grin on Ronnie’s face as he plays the power-chord guitar line on his keys, making his own kind of rock music. It’s just great.

Overall, fans of either Martin brother will find much to love here, but fans of both will be in heaven. The Brothers Martin contains 10 solid, strong songs, and a fully collaborative spirit between Jason and Ronnie. It was worth the wait, and it stands as the best project they’ve done together. For Ronnie Martin fans, the year’s just beginning – he releases both The Otherly Opus and its companion EP, Icicle Streusel, in March. Nothing’s been announced from Jason’s camp, but I’d be surprised if SF59 didn’t have something new by the end of the year.

Until then, though, The Brothers Martin will more than tide you over. Despite their prolific natures and their track records, the Martins remain obscure, and a listen through this collaborative platter will have you wondering why.

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What I didn’t know when I trundled out to the music store was that I’d also come home with Carey Ott’s Lucid Dream. Hell, I didn’t even know it existed.

About five years ago, I saw Chicago-area band Torben Floor open up for Phantom Planet. They quite simply owned the room from moment one, and the stars of the show were the songs of lead singer Carey Ott. I bought their full-length debut, Matinee, that same year, and have included songs like “Midwest Distress” on mix CDs ever since. But the band disappeared – I heard hide nor hair of them since 2002.

But lo and behold, here is Ott’s debut solo album, self-released last year but finally receiving national distribution on Dualtone this month. Ott has a great voice and a way with a melody, and though Lucid Dream doesn’t rock as hard as Torben Floor did, it does collect 11 swell new songs (as well as a new version of his old band’s semi-hit “Sunbathing”). In general, think Rufus Wainwright singing for Travis, and you’re on the right track.

Lucid Dream is a lot more acoustic and intimate than Matinee was, and the shift takes a few listens to get used to. But once you’re in, Ott’s low-key charm will work its magic. “Hard to Change” has hints of Neil Finn, and “Mother Madam” is almost a Paul McCartney impression, but overall, Ott delivers a set of fine, pleasing pop-rock, with some memorable melodies.

Nothing here is as stunningly excellent as “Sleep Too Much,” the hidden gem on Matinee, but even so, it’s nice to see such a talented, classically-informed songwriter still turning out the goods. Plus, apparently the first track here, “Am I Just One,” got featured on Grey’s Anatomy a couple of times, earning Ott some well-deserved publicity. Ott’s work is thoughtful and shimmering and often sad, and his album will appeal to anyone who likes British pop, or really anyone who likes good songwriting. Hearing his album was like reuniting with an old friend. Far from disappearing, Ott’s been hard at work, and it shows on Lucid Dream.

Check him out here

Next week, Scarsick, and maybe a couple of other things I picked up this week. Still working on Zappa…

See you in line Tuesday morning.