Converted from paper version of the Broad Ripple Gazette (v04n03)
Rick On The Records - by Rick Zeigler
posted: Feb. 09, 2007
THE SHINS-Wincing The Night Away
"This band will change your life," exclaimed Natalie Portman in Garden State. More appropriately, she should have said, "This scene will change this band's life," for that is what happened to The Shins. Working in relative obscurity in Albuquerque, New Mexico, The Shins put out two wonderful albums of classic pop that barely registered on the national scene (they also put out one prior album under the moniker "Flake Music"). After Garden State, they became indie-rock darlings and their sales skyrocketed. They subsequently moved to Portland and began to fashion their third album. After three years,
Wincing The Night Away is the result. Rather than attempting some big departure to show how they've "grown/matured," lead Shin James Mercer sticks to what he and his band do best-playing finely crafted, winsome and melancholy pop-rock that sticks in your head. While there is more emphasis on production and atmosphere than on their previous discs (surely due to a bigger budget to work with), don't go looking for any artsy or prog-rock moments, psychedelic experimentation or hip-hop inserts. Instead, you'll find eleven songs that emphasize the sweet sounds of the two B's (Beatles, Beach Boys), with just enough contemporary touches (e.g., shimmery vibes on "Sleeping Lessons," lap steel on "Red Rabbit") to keep the band firmly within the indie-rock fold. The most modern parts of The Shin's music, however, are Mercer's lyrics. He strings together tangentially related lines that rely more on wordplay and associations than on narrative storylines (e.g., "if the old guard still offend/they've got nothing left on which you depend/so enlist every ounce of your bright blood/and off with their heads/jump from the hook you're not obliged to swallow"). Indeed, the only way you might know that first single "Phantom Limb" is about a lesbian high school couple is by reading about it in interviews with the band. But such obscurantism is not off-putting simply because Mercer sings each line with such conviction and feeling that you feel he believes whatever it is he might be saying. The genius of The Shins is that their whole approach relies on understatement and subtlety of craft, but their result is completely convincing music that simply feels right. They may not change your life, but they'll surely make it more enjoyable as you go about living it.
MEMOMENA-Friend and Foe
Menomena takes a more willfully idiosyncratic approach to their pop-rock songs ("art-pop," anyone?) than the above-mentioned Shins, but that does not lessen the beauty of their work. The opener "muscle 'n flo" encompasses the elements that make their music both unique and gorgeous. A stuttery drum beat and elastic bass-line give way to spoken-sung lyrics that make you think you've got the band pegged as another variant on the Talking Heads/Neutral Milk Hotel school of modern indie-rock. But then a beautiful, Brit-influenced melody comes to the fore and a church-like organ crashes in, lifting the song to a soaring, emotional crescendo. Then things go back to the stuttering drum and bass. Such juxtapositions are found throughout Friend And Foe. Stately piano is combined with angular guitar lines, dissonant guitar chords are placed underneath beautiful melodies, and stomping percussion is followed by sing-along whistling. The band builds their songs from improvised loops arranged with custom-built software. But the key is how well the band uses this starting point to create tunes that wed old-fashioned melodic pop to willful experimentation in a way that generates emotional responses in the listener, and it is this emotional element that sets the band apart. While their first album, I Am the Fun Blame Monster focused on feelings of (appropriately enough) unmitigated fun, Friend and Foe adds moments which delve into more minor-key, contemplative, and melancholy territory. Simply put: adventuresome, quirky, even schizophrenic approaches to melodic rock have become commonplace over the years, but Menomena seems to know that, at the end of each musical journey, an emotional payoff is the best reward.
Rick Zeigler, along with his wife, Jeanne, owns Indy CD and Vinyl at 806 Broad Ripple Avenue. Back in his musician days, his band opened for the likes of U2, XTC, Gang Of Four, The Pretenders, Los Lobos, and, um, Flock Of Seagulls, among others. You can read all of Rick's reviews at www.indycdandvinyl.com. Email your music questions and comments to rick@BroadRippleGazette.com