Wincing the blogs away

Indie rockers try selling out for a change
By CHRISTOPHER GRAY  |  January 17, 2007

In the first quarter of 2007, more than a dozen bands who made very big names for themselves via the Internet hype machine — Arcade Fire, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Bright Eyes, Bloc Party, Modest Mouse — face a compelling and dangerous question: what does it take to maintain your cred and succeed commercially in such a dynamic environment?

The bloggers are growing up: becoming more influential and organized, older and harder to please. The bands are growing up, too: putting more money into recording and promotion, fleshing out their sounds, determining how to succeed in a crowded (and narrow) marketplace. The first four major-buzz releases of the season all hit the streets on January 23 — more than a month after they leaked onto the Web — and their reception ought to set the tone for a busy few months. With knives in one hand and a congratulatory beer in the other, an over-eager bloggerati is ready to pounce. Here are the prospects for 2007’s first wave.

Wincing the Night Away (Sub Pop) arrives cursed with heightened expectations. With seven minutes of soundtrack time and Natalie Portman’s rambling squeal of approval, 2004’s Garden State catapulted THE SHINS into an unexpected realm: mainstream popularity. The band’s two previous albums — 2001’s Oh, Inverted World and 2003’s masterful Chutes Too Narrow — have now sold over a million copies combined, effectively dubbing them the group Most Likely To Succeed among Internet tastemakers. Wincing the Night Away takes a few stabs at branching out their quintessential sound to invite more skeptics in, but the album is at its best when the focus is on melody rather than sonic enhancement.

The band take most of their risks in its expansive first half. Opener “Sleeping Lessons” begins in an echo chamber of synth pulses that evokes the lo-fi lullabies of Oh, Inverted World, but a gradual swell of banjo strumming and the uncharacteristically stark imagery of James Mercer’s lyrics (“See those unrepenting buzzards want your hide/But they’ve got no right/As sure as you have eyes”) point us to new destinations: a mountain of reverb and an emphatic restatement of the track’s bridge, “You’re not obliged to swallow anything you despise.” The message — yes, we will change your life — would be overbearing if it weren’t pulled off so heroically, Mercer’s vocals exerting great command over his surroundings.

“Australia” and “Phantom Limb” follow as the album’s twin highlights, doing what the band does best: expressing this week’s angst with a whimsical, literary eye. Mercer opens up his grab bag of unerringly specific metaphors (“Faced with a dodo’s conundrum/I felt like I could just fly”) and effortlessly universalizes them with a lilting “la la la” or, in the fuzzed-out surf-rock ballad “Phantom Limb”’s case, a wordless chorus that elevates two lesbian lovers — “Foals in winter coats/White girls of the north” — into a stratosphere above and beyond disapproving eyes.

The willful genre hopping of the album’s first half comes to an uncomfortable head with “Sea Legs,” its “hip-hop” beat really just a grating, repetitive bass line that breaks into a chorus of heavy-handed strings that feels, like nothing else the band has ever done, calculated. The song tries to coast to an end with an equally awkward prog-rock climax, but it’s a voyage even the most submissive fan will find foreign.

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