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Barking at the Shins

Sub Pop darlings run critical gauntlet

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The Shins' Wincing the Night Away -- deal, or no deal?

Even before it was out, the latest from Sub Pop's crown jewel was getting whacked around like a shuttlecock between warring factions of über-fans and their bullish expectations, lock-step traditionalists insisting on rock's 1960s and '70s zenith, and hipsters who wrote the Shins off the moment Zach Braff and the Garden State crowd got scent of them.

But that's music punditry these days -- opine first, listen later.

So what about the record? Wincing may lack the surprise or front-to-back cohesion of the Shins' debut, Oh, Inverted World, but it's far more focused than their follow-up, Chutes Too Narrow. Chief songwriter James Mercer again dips deep into rock's gene pool for inspiration, often emerging with gem-like hybrids that beg inclusion in the pop-rock canon.

Obvious singles candidates "Phantom Limb" and "Turn On Me" -- as well as the slow-build opener, "Sleeping Lessons" -- are near-perfect confections. Like the best songs in the band's catalogue, these blend wistful, sun-drenched Beach Boys harmonies; irrepressible XTC hooks and sing-along Kinks choruses; Roger McGuinn-meets-Johnny Marr guitar; and image-rich narratives Stephin Merritt could admire. The influences are broad, and so is the appeal. These songs would sound sublime cruising the California coast or waiting for the Tube in Leicester Square.

Despite all the touchstones, Wincing is no museum piece. The mix of '60s psych-pop, new wave heroes, classic shoegaze and turn-of-the-century new rock is sleight-of-ear that sounds both fresh and familiar. That's the formula that made the Shins' debut a winner, and it's still the band's strength. That's especially apparent in contrast with the less-than-inspiring songs on Wincing: the experimental Beck-beats misstep, "Sea Legs," and the play-it-straight yawner ballad, "A Comet Appears."

Convincing the American Idol masses that rock is as vibrant as ever was never the Shins' mandate, and a fool's errand to boot; the Beatles and James Brown couldn't do it if they debuted today. The bar's been lowered, but that doesn't mean we have to play along -- the Shins certainly don't.

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